SUCRE, Bolivia — Despite being the poorest country in South America, Bolivia has launched a communication satellite to expand Internet access to rural areas. Only 7.4 percent of inhabitants of Bolivia have access to the Internet at home, which is the smallest percentage in South America.
Rural areas bring special challenges for Internet expansion. The farther the area is away from a major city, the higher the cost is for the equipment and training, according to Fransisco Proenza, an ICT scholar and visiting professor of Political Science at Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona.
While the use of mobile phones in South America has increased dramatically, the Internet has lagged in development. In rural Peru, for instance, 62 percent of rural households own a mobile phone while just seven percent of those living in rural areas have access to the Internet.
After revising their constitution in 2009, Bolivia’s government-guaranteed access to basic services including water, electricity and telecommunications. In addition to the Bolivian satellite, the government has opened over 300 rural telecenters and offered incentives to telecommunications companies willing to build infrastructure in rural zones.
However, despite the heavy marketing from Bolivia’s Ministry of Communications, skeptics of the Bolivian satellite argue that the country’s priorities are misplaced, especially with other routes available.
Many countries, like Peru, have extended access to rural areas by subsidizing the use of existing satellites. Google and Facebook are each considering a fleet of low-flying drones that would provide worldwide Internet connectivity. Until now, Bolivia has spent 10 million dollars a year to lease satellite capacity from foreign providers.
“Our priority is improving the conditions of nutrition, water and the environment,” said Isidro Paz Nina, the national coordination secretary of the Movimiento Sin Miedo, a party looking to unseat the current Bolivian president. “The satellite isn’t bad, but we want people to not have to worry about suffering for lack of food.”
Others are frustrated with the delays and miscommunication that have occurred throughout the experience.
“The government said that with the Tupac Katari satellite antenna, cell phones, television, the channels and all that would improve. Up until now, it hasn’t been seen,” said Victor Canabina Quispe, one of the residents of the rural areas of Bolivia. “I hope the government doesn’t deceive us.”
The public opening of the telecenter in El Palomar has been postponed due to delays in training a community member to run the center and disputes over who will pay for the inauguration ceremony.
According to the Bolivian Space Agency chief, if the satellite project succeeds, it could have a big impact on life in rural Bolivia. The Bolivian satellite would be a “window to the world” for children living in the rural areas.
– Monica Newell