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Colombia's Internet Advantage

Changing the digital landscape to create jobs and reduce poverty.
Click here, sir: Minister Diego Molano Vega gives tablets to children. Photo: Ministerio TIC Colombia

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Colombia will be the most connected country in Latin America by 2016.
Internet penetration for Colombian SMEs increased from 7% to over 60% in 4 years.

We are at the center of a revolution.

The social, cultural and political changes triggered by the development of information and communications technologies (ICTs) that were unforeseeable just a couple of decades ago are now an undeniable reality. As our children and grandchildren are keen to remind us, once-transformative technologies such as fax machines and land lines have become out-of-date tools used by nostalgic adults.

Despite the serious challenges that Colombia still faces, ICTs have brought our country closer together than ever before. The level of interconnectivity available today—once beyond our wildest imagination—has spurred one of the most ambitious public ICT policy programs in Latin America.

President Juan Manuel Santos’ strategy for expanding use and access to the Internet and ICTs, Vive Digital (Live Digital), launched in 2010. Vive Digital has three central goals: create jobs, improve economic growth and development, and—most importantly—reduce poverty.

Within the past four years, Vive Digital has changed the digital landscape in Colombia. The largest impact has been on our poorest citizens. Colombia has gone from 3.1 million Internet broadband connections in 2010 to 9.9 million in mid-2014; and Internet penetration for small and medium enterprises (SMEs) increased from 7 percent in 2010 to more than 60 percent in 2014.

Convinced that the smart use of technology can promote social inclusion, we have developed several initiatives.

The National Broadband Policy of the Ministerio de Tecnologías de la Información y las Comunicaciones (Ministry of Information Technology and Communications) has increased the percentage of Colombian municipalities connected to the Internet from 17 percent in 2010 to 96 percent today.

The ministry, which I head, has made a significant investment in the process of connecting the remaining municipalities with microwave technology—particularly in hard-to-access areas like the jungle.

Our connectivity strategy will make Colombia the most connected country in the region in 2016, with 100 percent of municipalities connected to high-speed Internet.

Here’s what we have accomplished so far

Puntos and Kioscos for Digital Literacy

It’s not enough to establish a backbone for technology infrastructure—we need to reach the user at the base of the economic pyramid, particularly in rural areas.
We addressed this issue by creating Community Internet Centers, which include 899 Puntos Vive Digital and 7,621 Kioscos Vive Digital (Internet access centers and kiosks, respectively, in rural communities of more than 100 inhabitants).

In those centers, we provide training, Internet and telephone connections, entertainment, and other tech services. Through the Puntos Vive Digital, 100,771 people have received digital literacy training and gained specific competencies in partnership with entities such as the Servicio Nacional de Aprendizaje (National Learning Service—SENA) and universities, as well as with community leaders and mayors.

Internet Subsidies

Another initiative of our ministry is to subsidize Internet services for lower-income populations. Subsidies may be awarded to cover part of the monthly value of an Internet plan or to cover part of the purchase value of a computer.

To date, more than 2 million households have been beneficiaries of such subsidies.

ICTs and Disability Assistance

The Vive Digital plan includes other initiatives—such as a program focused on ICTs and disability. The objective of this project, called ConVertic, is to promote the access, use and adoption of ICT by people with visual impairments through the free acquisition, installation, support, and distribution of a licensed software screen reader and magnifier until 2017.

Currently, more than 77,000 licenses of the screen reader software have been downloaded, making Colombia the first country in the world to provide this service for free. The massive adoption of this tool may benefit more than 1.2 million people by providing access to better opportunities for employment and educational and cultural inclusion. This will improve the quality of life of people with visual disabilities and reduce the digital divide in Colombia.

Relay Centers for the Hearing-Impaired

The ministry has also established online relay centers to connect those with hearing impairments to information and communications. Through this service, an interpreter helps a hearing person communicate with a deaf person through text chat or video on the website. In 2014, more than 115,000 calls were relayed this way.

Cinema For All

Cinema For All is another project to reduce the digital divide in Colombia. It aims to provide free entertainment for people with visual or hearing disabilities through subtitling and audio description technology. To date, we have over 10,000 beneficiaries.

Leveling the Playing Field

All these initiatives demonstrate the important steps Colombia has taken to minimize the digital divide and ensure that ICT policy is designed with the intention of reducing poverty.

Imagine what that represents: access to infinite educational resources; access to endless possibilities for personal and professional growth; career and job opportunities; and the possibility to establish social networks in small communities that spur social awareness and entrepreneurship on the local level.

To put it simply, we are building a level playing field in which socioeconomic background doesn’t determine one’s success.

Promoting E-Government

Addressing local needs is fundamental to the success of our public policy goals. With that in mind, we have made a special effort to develop locally tailored digital applications and content to increase productivity and development opportunities. It cannot be overemphasized that ICTs are a very powerful tool to strengthen democratic institutions throughout the country.

Our e-government program, Gobierno en Línea (Online Government) has advanced citizens’ relationship with government entities to a degree once thought impossible. The government is no longer an abstract entity for hundreds of thousands of rural Colombians. For a democracy, this matters.

According to the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs’ 2014 E-Government Survey, Colombia is ranked third in Latin America and the Caribbean in the use of e-government. Colombia is also ranked 11th in the world for electronic participation (engaging citizens through ICTs in policy and decision-making), and 17th for online service delivery.

A level playing field is advantageous for us. We can overcome huge differences between countries and provide our citizens with top-notch accessible technology.

Next Steps

Although there are some issues to address, Colombia has taken a leap forward in terms of infrastructure and services in the past four years. The next challenge will be to fill out this network to construct a peaceful, more equitable, and better-educated country. In doing so, we will continue to be not only at the forefront of technology infrastructure and broadband, but will also lead in the development of content and applications with social impact.

This is why the new Plan Vive Digital 2014–2018 aims to strengthen the demand side of the digital ecosystem. It has the following goals.

1. Turn Colombia into a world leader in the development of social applications targeted to the base of the socioeconomic pyramid. We plan to use ICT as a tool to reduce poverty and to create new job sources in the country. With this plan, we will become international leaders in the export of social applications to the billions of people who live below the poverty line worldwide.

The development of these applications will be focused on sectors likely to have a high impact on poverty reduction, such as agriculture, education and health. Thus, we will leverage ICT for micro-, small- and medium-sized enterprises.

2. Expand government transparency and efficiency. Colombia will partner with the private sector to use ICT to empower citizens and provide better services. Likewise, we will optimize the use of ICT in the public sector. Our government will have world-class information systems and public spending due to its efficiency, security and transparency.

To reach these two objectives, the government will continue cultivating digital talent so that more professionals will pursue careers in the ICT sector, building a world-class IT industry to create solutions to current world problems.

Vive Digital represents the combined efforts of the private sector and government—both key players in the development of a national “digital ecosystem” that allows for a virtuous circle of innovation and growth.

Over time, we have witnessed how investment in infrastructure and content has not only improved the digital ecosystem in our country, but has changed the lives of our citizens.

But another very important player is necessary to achieve the plan’s goals: politicians. If they understand the real potential of technology to reduce poverty and to foster social inclusion, it will be easier to overcome the significant challenges that lie ahead. 

Any opinions expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect those of Americas Quarterly or its publishers.
Tags: Internet, job creation