LINKING UP LATIN AMERICA: DESPITE DAUNTING ECONOMIC AND TECHNOLOGICAL OBSTACLES, NONPROFIT AND COMMERCIAL GROUPS IN CENTRAL AND SOUTH AMERICA ARE JUMPING ONTO THE INFOHIGHWAY.Published: Monday, August 19, 1996
Julio Ojeda-Zapata, Staff Writer
Workers at El Tiempo weren’t sure what to expect when they launched
their free “Linea T” (T Line) audiotext service – the first in a series of
projects designed to put Colombia’s largest newspaper on technology’s
The Bogota-based paper had spent much of 1993 aggressively promoting
its telephone-based service, which offered everything from music clips
and horoscopes to “the joke of the day,” and detailed instructions on
how to fill out government forms.
But would the populace know how to access this wealth of information?
After all, El Tiempo was the first paper in Colombia (and, apparently, the
first in Latin America) to use audiotext in this way. Unlike their brethren
to the north, most Colombians had no reason to become wizards with
That is, until Linea T began operating with 24 phone lines – and was
deluged with an estimated 250,000 calls on the first day. Only 7,000
actually got through to the service.
El Tiempo is among hundreds of Latin American businesses, government
agencies and nonprofit organizations that are changing how they collect,
manipulate and disseminate information. The newspaper’s information
offerings now include a computer bulletin-board service and a popular
World Wide Web site (http://www.eltiempo.com)
On the heels of a digital revolution in North America and Western
Europe, Central and South American nations have begun their own
high-tech push – assembling high-speed Internet hookups, creating
intricate Web pages, laying miles of fiber-optic phone and data lines, and
forming cooperative ventures among themselves and with U.S. and global
Hundreds of Spanish speakers are discovering what their English-speaking
counterparts already know: Getting on the information superhighway or
superautopista de informacion is cool.
Introducing new information services is not always smooth, however, as
El Tiempo’s jammed phone lines demonstrated. When Linea T
overloaded, staffers at the Bogota newspaper frantically reduced the
number of information requests customers could make per call – from five
to three, and later, two – and installed 24 additional lines, but bogotanos
continued to swamp the service. Months later, calls are coming in at a
rate of 30,000 per day, and accessing Linea T at certain times of the day
is next to impossible.
“This was totally unexpected,” says Miguel Marcial Castro, El Tiempo’s
director of information services, .
“But it became clear that people loved interacting with their newspaper,”
Castro says. “They could leave messages (by phone or e-mail) and see
them printed days later. They could hold up the paper and say, `Look,
here I am.’ It gave them a feeling of ownership.
“For the first time, Colombians could adapt information to their
schedules, not the other way around.”
Other Colombian information providers are also discovering the appeal of
Vladimir Florez, or “Vladdo,” a cartoonist for the Bogota-based Semana
magazine, puts his caricatures of local politicians on his “Vladdomania”
Web page (http://www.vladdo.com). He even augments the site with
computerized animations, one of which
(http://www.vladdo.com/vladimir/hola.htm) he gleefully assembled during
a recent Internet seminar sponsored by the United States Information
“The Internet isn’t a panacea,” Vladdo says. “But I have found it useful.
It gives me many ideas I can use on the printed page and allows people
around the world to contact me.”
The Internet gives Colombia much-needed visibility, says Clara Elena
Londono, vice chancellor for institutional services at Sabana University,
which hosted the USIA seminar for Colombian journalists on its rural
campus just north of Bogota.
“It allows us to project an accurate image of our homeland,” Londono
says. “Negative images of Colombia abound. People think of us only in
terms of drug trafficking, violence and corruption.”
Barriers to access
But people such as Vladdo and students at Sabana University, which is
just now getting “wired,” remain the fortunate few. The digital revolution
has not touched most Latin Americans, who hear about cyberspace on
TV but never log on. The reason: simple economics.
Access to the Internet has become increasingly affordable in the past year
as a growing number of commercial providers vie for Latin American
customers. But a $30 monthly fee for a Net account is more than most
can afford on salaries of $150 a month or less. In Peru, only four of
every 100 people even have phone lines. Barely 250,000 in the nation of
more than 18 million own computers.
Access to information has always been difficult in countries such as
Colombia. Books in downtown Bogota stores are sold at prices
comparable to those in U.S. bookstores – but that prices them beyond the
reach of millions. Now, however, the rapid expansion of online resources
has triggered a crisis in Latin America, further separating the
information-rich from the information-poor.
“Latin America has excelled in creating regional content on the Internet,”
says Howard Frederick, a professor of mass communication at Boston’s
Emerson College. “But because of economic disparities, it isn’t seeing the
online explosion that has occurred in places like Hungary. There has been
an initial burst of euphoria as businesses go online but little diffusion to
the general population.”
The brutal economics associated with getting online also have affected
organizations such as the Peruvian Scientific Network
(http://apu.rcp.net.pe), a nonprofit, self-sufficient cooperative composed
of 43 organizations, including universities, hospitals and nongovernmental
The network is one of the few organizations in Latin America that have
pledged to give the public low-cost Internet access. At the group’s Lima
headquarters, several dozen workstations are available for $15 to $19 a
month. The network plans to open another 300 online-access centers
The network performs other services, such as translating software into
Spanish. Latin American users of the Netscape Navigator Web browser
and the Eudora e-mail program have the Scientific Network to thank.
But such projects come at a horrific price. Compared with the United
States, “Peru pays twice as much money for 30 times less bandwidth,
and it’s even worse in Argentina,” says Jose Soriano, the network’s
founder and director. “Equipment costs us 40 percent more. And
because we don’t have adequate technical support, we have to buy two of
everything to keep our systems running.”
The Scientific Network faces other difficulties, including an ongoing feud
with Peru’s telephone company. Soriano claims that Telefonica del Peru,
which also provides Internet access, has systematically hindered his
organization by delaying the installation of sorely needed phone lines and
neglecting one of the group’s main links to the global Net.
Though Telefonica has refuted Soriano’s charges, there is no denying its
power in Peru. It is part of Telefonica de Espana, the Spanish
conglomerate that has telecommunications holdings in Chile, Argentina,
Venezuela, Puerto Rico and Mexico. Recent attempts to move into the
Brazilian market, if successful, would consolidate its position as the
leading phone operator in Latin America.
Soriano, who dreams of a Peruvian Internet “backbone” owned and
administered entirely by its participants, fears that a Telefonica
stranglehold would compromise his country’s cultural integrity.
“Information is presently the main material for development,” he says.
“If we want information that will enrich us, if we want a developed
country, we must create a national Net that reflects our society and
culture, and that seeks to solve our national problems and foster
There have been numerous attempts to transplant Latin American culture
These efforts began in the 1980s, when nonprofit groups in countries
such as Brazil and Nicaragua created modest networks that relied on
rudimentary “batch” e-mail transfers. The services, including the
Jesuit-sponsored Nicarao (http://nicarao.apc.org), are now part of the
worldwide, loosely knit Association for Progressive Communications
A second wave of Latin American network building was largely led by
universities and research institutions. Costa Rica’s National Investigative
Network (http://www.cr), begun by Costa Rica University in the early
1990s, is now one of the premiere national Net backbones in Latin
America. A CRNet link with Panama was the first cross-border
connection in the region.
The Organization of American States has been instrumental in getting
many fledgling networks off the ground
Now a profit-driven third wave is sweeping the region. The Internet’s
popularity in North America and Western Europe has triggered a frenzied
rush to provide commercial services, such as Internet access and
Countries such as Colombia, which had a handful of Internet providers
each only two years ago, now have dozens. Prices have plunged – Net
accounts that cost $80 a month for 40 hours of online access last year
now cost about $30 for unlimited access. Ads for “Internet-ready”
computers are now common in Bogota newspapers.
This commercial boom has delighted Latin American business owners,
but it caused ripples of apprehension at a recent summit of nonprofit
networking experts in Lima, Peru.
“There was widespread concern with the rapid growth of commercial
networks,” says Larry Press, a U.S. computer information systems expert
who was present. “Attendees represented networks that began as
academic experiments. They now see commercial networks growing very
rapidly, and fear unfair competition from large international companies
and national telephone companies.
“This is reminiscent of the reaction of some Internet service providers in
the U.S. who are facing competition from AT&T and other carriers,”
Because commercial Internet development has been largely separate from
the network building of educational and nonprofit organizations, the
telecommunications infrastructures of many Latin American countries are
now woefully fragmented.
In Colombia, for instance, the nonprofit Colombian Network for Science,
Education and Technology has no direct online links to Internet Telecom,
the network administered by Colombia’s national telephone company,
Telecom. E-mail and other online traffic has to be routed through servers
in the United States.
“Even Internet-access providers in Colombia can’t communicate directly
with each other, which translates into higher costs and lower connection
speeds for users,” says Enrique Ortiz Aguilar, head of JaverRed
(http://www.javeriana.edu.co/), the online network at Javeriana
University in Bogota.
As a result, “Colombians who use the Internet are close to each other in
the geographic sense but far apart electronically,” says Julian
Casasbuenas, head of the nonprofit Colnodo
(http://www.colnodo.org.co), an association of nongovernmental groups
that are active online. “We are overly dependent on the United States
because we lack our own cohesive infrastructure. There is too much
Internet providers and companies such as El Tiempo in Bogota won’t stop
using cutting-edge North American facilities, of course, until they can find
comparable facilities in South America.
“We use a server in Miami (for El Tiempo’s online edition) because local
providers can’t give us enough lines, optimal connections and good
prices,” says Miguel Marcial Castro. “The local infrastructure isn’t up to
par. Some central phone equipment dates back to World War II.”
Frederick of Emerson College, who has made frequent trips to train Latin
Americans in the use of the Internet, recounts his worst experiences with
“Once in Colima, Mexico, I was teaching an Internet course for
librarians. The first morning the connection to the University of
Guadalajara crashed … so we all went to the beach. At Sabana University
last year, we were using a line to (Bogota’s) University of the Andes.
When it rained that afternoon, the line went dead.”
Bogota has been trying to modernize. The national Telecom provider,
Bogota’s local phone provider and other companies are installing
additional phone lines and laying fiber-optic cable suitable for high-speed
Even El Tiempo is getting in on the act. The newspaper is part of a
consortium that is competing with other groups, including Telefonica de
Espana and two U.S.-based long-distance companies, to provide
long-distance service in Colombia. Bidding is set for August 1997.
But providing high-quality, hear-the-pin-drop phone service to all
Colombians is a monumental undertaking. In Bogota, few can manage
dial-up Internet connections higher than 14.4 kilobits per second. Calls
from one neighborhood to another often trigger endless busy signals or
fail to produce a dial tone for half a minute or longer.
Frederick refers to the “last kilometer problem.” A high-capacity
backbone means little, he notes, if the many thousands of wires
connecting homes to the backbone aren’t up to date.
“Often, phone lines are hard-wired into the wall, and the quality of the
copper is so poor it can’t support high-capacity throughput,” he says.
“Sometimes, 9600 baud (9.6 kilobits per second) is pushing it.”
Yet the main obstacle to developing a modern telecommunications
infrastructure doesn’t involve wires, argues David Sangurima, an
electronic communications expert at Harvard University.
“The main obstacle isn’t technical, but the organizational challenge of
getting different sectors of Latin American society talking to each other,”
he says. “There has to be an equivalent of the National Science
Foundation (the U.S. agency largely responsible for setting up the
Internet) that provides a framework for cooperation.”
The participation of governmental agencies is crucial, says Peru’s Soriano,
who expresses dismay at the apathy exhibited by high-level officials in his
country and most other Latin American nations.
“The governments just aren’t interested,” he says. “They know nothing
of these matters and think they should be left to multinational
corporations and others.”
In Colombia, Casasbuenas and other experts are hoping for a “critical
mass” of Internet users that will spur the development of a national
“We need a development group that will take on this task,” he says.
“Without it, we will continue to face online bottlenecks. We have an
urgent need to be connected properly on a national level, and to the rest
of the world.”
All content =A9 1996 The Pioneer Press and may not be republished
Julio Ojeda-Zapata, technology writer
St. Paul Pioneer Press (a cool Knight-Ridder newspaper)
345 Cedar Street, St. Paul MN, 55101, USA
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