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Bolivia has one of the lowest rates of penetration of information and communications technologies (ICTs) in general in Latin America. A mere 4% of Bolivians have access to the internet, and among this privileged group, only 51% are connected through broadband ADSL service. The rest continue to depend on dial-up internet service, which is slow, costly (they must pay for both the internet service itself and the minutes of fixed-telephone use needed for the connection) and technologically outdated (it is impossible to watch videos or listen to audio material, and the exchange of information is extremely limited).

This situation is largely a result of shortcomings in the country’s telecommunications infrastructure. Telephone exchanges and local loops (the physical connections between exchanges and customers) have been in use for over twenty years and do not have sufficient capacity for the transmission of broadband internet data. The private sector has undertaken isolated initiatives involving satellite-based wireless connectivity, but the state has yet to establish regulations for access to radio spectrum and frequencies or to define technical aspects (requirements and specifications) that could pave the way for the large-scale roll-out of broadband service.

These technical problems hit especially hard in rural areas. The lack of terrestrial or satellite links to reach remote areas makes it difficult to connect cities with rural settlements. The Bolivian population is scattered and incomes are low, which makes it impossible to aggregate the demand needed to attract investment from the private sector.

Telecommunications legislation in Bolivia was revolutionised by the adoption of a new constitution in January 2009. Among other things, the constitution establishes that the electromagnetic spectrum is a strategic natural resource of public interest for the development of the country, and as a result, the state must assume the control and management of its use, ensuring that the financial profits earned from it are reinvested in the country. The new constitution also establishes the right to universal and equitable access to basic services, and in addition to drinking water, sewage systems, electricity, natural gas and postal service, these basic services also include telecommunications. Although the official enshrinement of these guiding principles is noteworthy, there is no specific indication of how they will be put into practice.

Both before and since the adoption of the new constitution, the government has placed emphasis on community access facilities, namely telecentres, as the solution to the problem of connectivity for disadvantaged sectors of the population. Still lacking, however, are the necessary incentives for investment by the state-owned telecommunications company and private operators.

While the official government discourse has come to incorporate concepts such as “digital inclusion” and “universal access”, the promotion of broadband connectivity remains notably absent as a goal in itself. What is needed is for all stakeholders, and especially policy makers, to begin to see broadband internet as a necessary prerequisite for the inclusion of marginalised sectors in the information society. Without investment in infrastructure, it is impossible to expand broadband access; and without broadband access, it is impossible to develop the country’s telecommunications market.

This article is based on a report by Orlando Arratia as a part of the CILAC initiative, a project by APC’s Policy Programme for Latin America. This report is part of a series of five on ICT reform and access to broadband in Latin America.

Photo: “Velaia via Flickr”: