OECD Ministerial Wrap: Latin America Needs to Move Faster on Internet Access

Millions of Latin Americans aged 15 and above still have no internet connectivity, representing one issue that the OECD's third Ministerial Meeting on the Digital Economy hoped to address.

Cancun, Mexico, this week hosted some of the world’s most influential technology leaders, as the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) held its third Ministerial Meeting on the Digital Economy. Suffice to say, the message from minister after minister was: provide more broadband for more people, and thus unleash the potency of digital economies.

The main goal of the event was to move the global digital agenda forward in four key policy areas:  internet openness, digital trust, global connectivity, and jobs and skills. With the signing of the “Cancun Declaration” occurring on the final day, the goal of agenda progression may well be achieved in the years that follow; however, one disconcerting fact kept cropping up: approximately 250 million people in Latin America aged 15 and older are not regular internet users.

Non-connectivity Trends

While adequate infrastructure in rural Latin America is still a problem, the vast majority of nonusers in the region simply find internet access too expensive. In Mexico, for example, 60% of non-connected citizens say they cannot afford the services, according to Mónica Aspe Bernal, the country’s Undersecretary of Communications.

Another region-specific trend in Latin America is that local, family-run stores will often question why they need internet in the first place, instead relying on tried-and-tested physical-world solutions to achieve the same results. Furthermore, there is the issue of digital incompetency—many people simply don’t know how to use computers or smartphones.

Surprisingly, between five and nine percent of men (depending on the country) are more likely to be online than women, according to data from the Global Commission on Internet Governance. Additionally, individuals whose first language is not Spanish are between eight percent and 31 percent less likely to be online.

Necessary Proactive Policymaking

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OECD Secretary-General, Angel Gurría (left): “Countries need to narrow the gap between digital ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots'”

“National legislation and policies in everything from education to investment were not keeping up with the rapid pace of digital innovation,” said OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurría. “Countries should address a slowdown in investment in internet and communication technology, extend high-speed Internet infrastructure and improve digital skills in order to narrow the gap between digital “haves” and “have-nots”. Too many countries are taking a 20th century approach to a 21st century technology that is moving faster than any other the world has seen. The internet is profoundly transforming the way we live and work, but we could be getting a lot more out of it. The longer we dither on the digital economy, the less benefit we will get out of it as societies.”

The path to further connectivity in the region relies heavily on OECD key policy areas, a challenge that was highlighted by Penny Pritzker, Secretary of Commerce for the United States, in her opening remarks about internet openness. “Digital protectionism stifles free expression and innovation, while content controls limit access to information,” she said. “Furthermore, standards designed to prevent foreign competitors from accessing new markets undermine our vision of a free and truly open internet.”

Building Digital Trust

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Penny Pritzker, Secretary of Commerce for the United States: “We must ensure that the internet remains accountable to the people, consumers, institutions and companies that depend on it.”

On the topic of digital trust, Pritzker gave a more personable example. “When hackers disrupt services, people lose confidence in them, so that trust must be rebuilt with unrestrictive security measures,” she said. “Sceptics believe the internet belongs in the hands of government, but we couldn’t disagree more. The internet is the greatest platform for free expression and innovation ever known. We must ensure that it remains accountable to the people, consumers, institutions and companies that depend on it.”

Throughout the event, many strategies and visions that bubbled to the surface also rely heavily on an open internet. For example, Young Sohn, President of Samsung Electronics, told us that by 2020, all new Samsung products will be connected to internet. “When around 50 billion devices might be connected, this will disrupt all industries we know,” he said, maintaining that “Digitization is all about making it easy to share information between devices”—something that will again rely on greater connectivity.

Connecting more Enterprises

As well as individual users, too few businesses are adopting advanced digital technologies, such as supply chain management tools that are designed specifically to boost efficiency and innovation. For example, less than 30% of SMEs in OECD countries use cloud computing. “Cloud is the technology that will change the future because it means that infrastructure and software becomes affordable for everyone,” said Blanca Treviño, Chief Executive Officer at Softtek. “All industries face same challenges to stay competitive, which is why software is the important element; tomorrow’s digital economy is not just about infra, but also innovative applications.”

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Participants at the event widely agree that internet access is essential for human development in this century. Without connectivity, Latin American individuals and businesses will find modern society increasingly more challenging to navigate. Therefore, governments must act faster to help Latin America make greater use of the internet and remove regulatory barriers to digital innovation, or they could risk missing out on the potentially huge economic and social benefits of the digital economy.

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