The news of the last few days has been disastrous, the Covid-19 refuses to die. Like the phoenix, when it is apparently in ashes it is reborn to burn stronger in its path. The consequences of this resurgence of the disease leave with it several lessons that range from strategic planning and logistics of health systems to public policy decisions to react quickly to this type of situation – although with this virus they have been more than 24 notice.
Another aspect that once again becomes central in the discussion of how to deal with the pandemic without increasing the economic suffering of the most vulnerable households is how to use alternative means to complete the same tasks. Faced with this scenario, many will say that information and communication technologies (ICTs) are that tool and that just by increasing their coverage and access, everything is solved.
However, reality gives us different lessons on many occasions. Yes, technology has been integrated into the value chain of numerous micro-enterprises, but it has not completely supplanted the reality that preceded it. Those who used to sell vegetables can now receive orders through a chat platform or simple text message, but the shipment is made with someone walking (sometimes running), by bicycle and in rare cases by car (we are talking about micro-businesses ). That world in which pizza or hamburger orders are delivered by drone is still a long way off.
Another reminder that the resurgence of the virus leaves us is the need to be able to offer information solutions and electronic government applications to the population that make it easier for them to carry out paperwork and decongest government offices from the long lines waiting for a document. Although advances have been seen in Latin America in this area, they have been asymmetrical with some governments much more advanced than others in everything that is the digitization of government procedures.
Perhaps the biggest obstacle observed in the region in several markets is the lack of dissemination by government authorities of the different electronic government platforms that have been made available for use by citizens. As the old adage goes, that which is not known, does not exist. What’s the point of having the best e-government solutions in the world if the vast majority of the population doesn’t know they exist or don’t have a way to connect to them?
On the other hand, the need to facilitate procedures for citizens has led many regional governments – states, departments, provinces, etc. – has improved and expanded its efforts to approach citizens through digital means, including the evolution of purely informative portals towards pages that allow transactions to be carried out.
The comments are part of an effort that began almost 24 months ago in the region when Covid-19 was barely sighted and governments began to implement measures to ensure people’s connectivity during the months of the pandemic, focusing primarily on avoiding disconnection due to lack of payments. In those same months, although less mediatic, other efforts were made to verify the resilience of existing telecommunications networks to see if they could withstand the increases in traffic that a quarantine could require from fixed broadband connections to homes.
Around those same dates, other issues that are recurrent in the world of telecommunications were also temporarily addressed. Among them, lighten the necessary permits for the deployment of infrastructure as the municipality of Campinas did in the state of Sao Paulo or the temporary licenses to access radio spectrum in Central American markets such as Panama.
Since then, another local government in Brazil, that of Porto Alegre, has digitized the process for requesting infrastructure deployment permits. Unfortunately, in the markets where it is most necessary to allocate radio spectrum in Latin America, the Central American countries, history seems to have stopped. The need to solve a system failure by granting temporary access licenses to the radioelectric spectrum did not become an objective of the regional administrations to speed up the assignment of this asset. In some of these markets, part of the problem has been due to the disconnection between the collection aspirations of the governments and the investment plans of the mobile operators.
The pandemic has also served to validate Colombia’s pre-covid strategy, while the countries of the region were vying for media leadership in advances towards 5G, the South American country did some introspection and admitted that its effort to promote the adoption of 4G in the country to become the regional leader of this technology did not meet this goal. Instead of crying tears of blood, we learned from the lessons of the 2013 process and from its foundations (which were not few) a strategy is begun to accelerate the adoption of 4G at the national level by the mass market and which should conclude in 2024 While the adoption of a mobile broadband technology accelerates that with enough spectrum can reach peak speeds of more than 500 Mbps, work begins in the Covid era on initiatives to gradually promote the adoption of 5G in the world business.
Perhaps the Colombian approach should serve as a reflection for those markets that have operators that do not feel comfortable with promoting an accelerated and rapid deployment of 5G because they do not consider that the mass market is ready for it due to the different challenges that the adoption of this technology, among which the complications in obtaining infrastructure deployment permits, the high prices for using the radioelectric spectrum (especially in Ecuador and Mexico) and the cost of cell phones that operate in this technology stand out.
Better to promote the accelerated adoption of 4G, take actions so that the quality and coverage of these networks improve, create solutions that justify the migration of users to these data plans and simultaneously create a strategy to promote 5G that is seen positively from the sectors productive of the economy. As the case of Costa Rica shows, companies dedicated to the export of high-tech products want the arrival of 5G as soon as possible, an arrival that does not have a large geographical coverage to meet their needs.
The damned Covid has returned, and many of the initiatives that were formulated to mitigate its impact will return with it. What is needed in the world of telecommunications is to make many of these solutions permanent so that when the next challenge comes we are better prepared. According to the Inter-American Development Bank, each month during the pandemic represents a year of knowledge for public policy authorities about the importance of ICTs in the development of a country. At a very high cost we have gained practically a quarter of a century in awareness, that this knowledge is not wasted and that public policies can be established that correspond to the level of market development, always with the collaboration of the different actors. Let us not forget that any country strategy for 5G will depend on the launch of the technology by telecom operators and for this to happen, such a launch has to make sense from a financial perspective if the offer is to be long-term.