As the World Economic Forum has noted, the COVID-19 “pandemic has exposed a deep digital divide” across the world. An Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) study from 2020 indicated that the digital gap in Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC) equated to “three in 10 people” who do not have access to the internet. The pandemic highlights the importance of the internet and digital technology in keeping businesses and people connected by allowing for continuous contactless services and transactions. The LAC region has made great strides in improving internet access and has developed creative ways to ensure that marginalized and low-income communities can access the internet.
Factors Influencing the Digital Gap in Latin America and the Caribbean
Many factors influence digital accessibility, including income levels and location. The internet gap between low and high-income households equates to roughly 40%. About 67% of urban households have internet connections in comparison to 23% of rural households. Evidently, the digital divide is deep, but the LAC region has committed to closing this digital gap.
4 Ways the LAC Region is Closing the Digital Gap
- Caribbean Digital Transformation Project. In June 2020, the World Bank approved a $94 million project to implement “an inclusive digital economy” in four Eastern Caribbean nations. The project’s goal is to “increase access to digital services, technologies and skills by governments, businesses and individuals.”
- Increasing Free Internet Access. Peru, Argentina, Chile and Colombia have introduced laws to increase free internet access. This includes providing “tablets to teachers and students” and developing more “free WiFi hotspots in public spaces.” These Latin American countries are also expanding “zero-rated services,” meaning that “certain government, health and education sites” do not count as data usage for users. In the past, the world typically viewed internet access and smart devices as luxuries, but this mindset is starting to change as more countries realize that digital inclusion is vital for social and economic development.
- Internet as an Essential Public Service. In July 2021, Colombia passed a law defining “the internet [as] an essential public service.” Colombian President Iván Duque explained that the importance of the internet for the nation is “comparable to that of water, electricity and gas.” With this law in place, telecommunication companies must “guarantee customers internet service and provide minimum browsing and free text packages during health and other emergencies.” Chile and Argentina passed similar decrees during the COVID-19 pandemic. These laws are a start in closing the digital gap in Latin America and the Caribbean and could be bolstered by lowering the cost of the internet in low-income countries.
- Public Service Kiosks. The digital divide between rural and urban households in the LAC region is especially wide. The Colombian government has set up Vive Digital, “a collection of kiosks” situated in rural communities across the country. The kiosks give people a connection to the internet and increase the accessibility of “e-learning and e-training services” in addition to “online public services.”
Societal Benefits of Addressing the Digital Gap in the LAC Region
Closing the digital divide in Latin America and the Caribbean is critical to improving educational, health and economic opportunities in the region. The World Bank has played an instrumental role in ensuring connectivity in countries such as Haiti and Colombia. In Haiti, the World Bank is assisting with the broadband connectivity needs of roughly “1,300 public institutions.” In Colombia, the World Bank is assisting the Colombian government with advancing policy and regulations in order to “expand broadband access.”
- Health Benefits: The digital gap in Latin America and the Caribbean has serious implications for health, particularly given the increased reliance on telehealth during the COVID-19 pandemic, which drew attention to this issue. The adoption of digital health initiatives better serves rural residents without easy access to a health care facility. In Colombia, approved telecare health services rose by 192% between January 2020 and September 2020.
- Economic Benefits: Digital inclusion will allow rural and underserved regions to take advantage of economic growth opportunities. The Digital Economy in Latin America and the Caribbean project found that the prevalence of “business websites increased by 800% in Colombia and Mexico” between April and May 2020. During the pandemic, the region has seen an increase in the number of people and businesses using digital technology for teleworking, shopping and e-commerce.
- Education Benefits: As a result of the pandemic, countless children in Latin America have missed out on education opportunities due to school closures and a lack of internet connectivity. Existing initiatives, such as the Inter-American Development Bank’s (IDB) partnership with Sesame Workshop, seek to ensure a continuation of early education through educational content broadcasts via television.
The Future of Digital Technology
Many LAC nations are experiencing a boom in internet adoption and access as organizations and governments take the necessary steps to close the digital divide in the region. The COVID-19 pandemic not only reveals the educational and health gaps that exist in the LAC region but also presents an opportunity to transform health care and education systems and build infrastructure in order to dissolve barriers to growth and development.
– Jennifer Hendricks