Internet access on the rise in Latin America

After providing every student in elementary school with a laptop computer since 2007, the Uruguayan government started distributing laptops to high school students, including those shown here who attend a school in Casabo, a poor neighborhood on the outskirts of Montevideo. (Andres Stapff /Reuters)

After providing every student in elementary school with a laptop computer since 2007, the Uruguayan government started distributing laptops to high school students, including those shown here who attend a school in Casabo, a poor neighborhood on the outskirts of Montevideo. (Andres Stapff /Reuters)

By Patricia Knebel for Infosurhoy.com—10/02/2011

PORTO ALEGRE, Brazil – Latin America represents about 8% of global Internet traffic – for now.

The number of those at least 15 years old who accessed the Internet at least once on personal computers or while at work increased 16% in November 2010 compared with the same period in 2009, according to a study by the consulting firm comScore.

The average worldwide growth from 2009 to 2010 was 9%.

Colombia emerged as a frontrunner, recording an increase of 28% in the number of people connected, and attaining a peak of 12.12 million Internet users in November 2010, according to the comScore survey.

Brazil registered the largest volume of new Internet users, 6.5 million more than it had in November 2009.

Latin American countries have much in common when it comes to Internet access, says José Calazans, an analyst with Brazil’s Institute of Public Opinion and Statistics (IBOPE).

Prior to 2007, most nations experienced growth in the number of connections made at Internet cafés. Since then, however, growth has been driven by increases in residential access.

“The worldwide trend is for people to surf the web from their homes,” Calazans says. “In Latin America, only Ecuador still has experienced an increase in the growth of Internet access via cybercafés. This is because each month Internet users in Brazil, Argentina and Chile register an increase in connectivity in their homes.”

Of the nations cited by Calazans, Chile always has been the Latin American nation with the largest percentage of residential Internet usage.

In Chile’s capital city Santiago, 35% of the population used the Internet in their homes in 2009, versus 25% in the prior year, according to a Target Group Index survey performed by IBOPE’s media business management unit, IBOPE Mídia.

One company betting on the expansion of Internet access in Latin America is Brazil’s online auction giant Mercado Livre.

In 2009, more than nine million users bought items via mercadolivre.com.br, with another three million using the website to sell something.

The site operates in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Mexico, Panama, Peru, Portugal, Dominican Republic, Uruguay and Venezuela and boasts more than 30 million items, with US$ 2.7 billion changing hands between buyers and sellers annually.

Brazil, Argentina and Mexico are the countries best prepared to offer Internet solutions in the region, according to Helisson Lemos, general director of Mercado Livre.

“We are working in other markets, like Uruguay, which has excellent growth potential,” Lemos says. “But many countries still lack the infrastructure, investment and individual habits that make web access on a mass scale possible.”

Despite the expansion of Internet access throughout Latin America, there still are considerable differences between developed and developing nations in this regard, according to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the information technology and communication organization of the United Nations.

While 71% of the population of developed nations is online, that figure drops to only 21% in developing nations, according to the ITU.

International financial crisis slowed Internet access growth

In Brazil’s case, the 2008 international financial crisis caused only a slight decline in the growth of connectivity figures, says Calazans, who predicts recovery will begin this year.

The impact of the global crisis in Brazil may also explain the nation’s drop in its Internet access ranking by the World Economic Forum, headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland.

In its ranking of 133 countries, Brazil fell two spots, to No. 61. The United States had a similar drop, winding up fifth. Sweden placed first.

Four countries in Latin America and the Caribbean were among the top 50: Barbados (35), Chile (40), Puerto Rico (45) and Costa Rica (49).

But the most improved in the region was Uruguay, which jumped from 65th to 57th place. This superb performance shows that improving the access of quality of Internet connectivity is a priority of the government.

The Uruguayan government’s goal is to offer broadband access to 60% of its residences by 2012, says Gustavo Gómez, national telecommunications director of the Ministry of Industry and Energy (MIEM).

So to achieve this objective, state-owned telephone company ANTEL prioritized investments in the expansion of broadband access, the installation of a 4G mobile communication network and fiber optic connections for 240,000 households.

Uruguay’s Ceibal Plan, first implemented in 2007, is another key initiative aimed at increasing Internet access nationwide.

Under the Ceibal Plan, all students in public primary schools receive their own laptop computer. The initiative was expanded last year to include students in their first few years of high school.

Mobile Internet access is offered in most of elementary and high schools, public plazas and in poorer neighborhoods.

Uruguay’s Ministry of Education and Culture (MEC) has established the Digital Literacy Project in an effort to leverage the Internet as means of bettering the lives of all Uruguayans.

In 103 MEC centers set up since 2007, 20,000 have benefited from free access to computers and the Internet.

Gemina Moreira, a 68-year-old retiree living in Colonia Lavalleja, a town of about 3,000 inhabitants in the department of Salto, spends at least two hours on the Internet daily.

With the MEC program, Moreira, who understood only the basics of operating a computer, was given access to cyberspace in 2009.

“Since then, the Internet has changed my life,” she says. “I use it to connect with family and friends in neighboring departments and around the world. It’s really something to see pictures of my family on the same day they’re taken.”

The number of Internet users worldwide doubled between 2005 and 2010, reaching more than two billion people, with 1.2 billion living in developing countries, according to the ITU.

China is the world’s largest market, with 420 million online. In Estonia, Finland and Spain, Internet access is a legal right.

Editor’s note: Antonio Larronda contributed to this story from Montevideo, Uruguay.

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