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Ecuador has one of the lowest broadband internet penetration rates in the region, a mere 2.7%. Despite the creation of an institution to guarantee universal access and plans to promote connectivity, internet access is still concentrated in the two main cities with high population densities.

The emergence of wireless technologies, especially Wi-Fi, offers an alternative way to access the internet in areas that are unprofitable by market standards and lack infrastructure, namely rural areas. The new Ecuadorian constitution and other reforms being undertaken by the government in light of a new approach to access aimed at putting rights into practice through strong state involvement in the provision of services and infrastructure, is expected to create favourable conditions for achieving universal access.

Wireless networks of social interest – what for?

Community wireless networks emerged as a realistic option for Ecuador’s rural areas. Take the CAMARI network for example – it is an information system for producers working with an equitable marketing model. It uses a wireless network to connect ten organisations of small farmers and craftspeople with sources of information on products and services through internet access centres (community infocentres). By accessing information on local, national and international markets, producers can avoid middlemen and make more profits Not only does this work in theory, it also works on the ground: in its first two years of implementation, the number of goods exchanges went up, and at a bigger profit for the producers.

Another successful wireless network covers the provinces of Cotopaxi, Tungurahua and Chimborazo. It takes advantage of technological convergence connect the internet and radio as means of communication. Internet service was incorporated as a value-added service by a community radio station, with the goal of enhancing and diversifying the work carried out by Radio Latacunga for ten years. Through this network, information flows through live audio broadcasting between “community communication centres” equipped with an intranet system. As a result, indigenous and agrarian communities not only have access to the internet, but can also remain connected to external stakeholders, or people who have emigrated from their communities.

So what’s happening with the law?

After the privatisation process in many Latin American countries, universal coverage funds were created. This way, telecommunicaiton companies would to cover part of the service costs to not-so-profitable areas in their bills. In Ecuador, these funds were named FODETEL.

The new government promoted a new law, in which, above and beyond securing funds in the most efficient way (cellular phone companies, for example, started to contributing a percentage of their earnings to the fund after years of stalling and delays) it also granted a certain legitimacy to the community wireless networks. Until this moment, the same conditions were being applied to them as to lucrative entities, these were high costs that the networks could not afford.

The regulations were formulated with the aim of encompassing the widest range of social actors possible, on condition that they are duly represented, which requires a basic degree of organisation. The fact that wireless networks were permitted to share internet access despite the opposition of internet service providers is a major achievement. It is unfortunate, however, that telecommunications are limited to the network itself (telephony services, for example, are excluded).

Looking ahead

The year 2008 marked a change of direction in the telecommunications reforms. The new constitution, which came into force on 20 October, establishes telecommunications as a strategic sector. The country is getting ready to discuss modernisation models, which are being approached by two different legal entities: Communication, and telecommunications. It is important that this process take place in an articulated, coordinated and complementary fashion, in order for a harmonious relationship form between the judicial system and public policies in these areas. The community wireless networks are an opportunity that must be taken advantage of.

This article is based on a report by María Eugenia Hidalgo 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 reports on ICT reform and access to broadband in Latin America".