Recently the World Economic Forum launched its annual Global Information Technology Report (GITR), which highlights how countries in Latin America compare globally across the 54 different indicators of the Networked Readiness Index (NRI). The regional verdict: while some countries have begun to expand broadband infrastructure, improving connectivity across the region remains one of biggest barriers to development in the region.
There are successes at the country level, however, such as Chile, which ranks among the top quartile globally, due to the government’s consistent focus on expanding information and communication technology (ICT) infrastructure and spurring ICT usage. Panama is quickly moving up in the global ranks and is only eight ranks behind (at 43rd in the world), driven by the government’s recognition of ICT as a critical driver of economic growth. And Costa Rica, Uruguay and Colombia all merit kudos for focusing effort on increasing ICT adoption (of the Internet, mobile phones and broadband) as well as increasing affordability of technologies.
However, more can be done to accelerate the expansion of ICTs in order to facilitate economic and social development across the region. General policy issues such as reducing regulatory bureaucracy for instance, as well enhancing general ICT skills and focusing on innovation and entrepreneurship, all demand attention. But particular focus is needed to address two main issues in Latin America:
1) Expanding broadband infrastructure to ensure ubiquitous connectivity, particularly through wireless access. While companies and governments in the region have redoubled efforts to build out and upgrade broadband infrastructure, the timeline, upfront cost of fixed wired investment, and the geographic challenges of the region point to wireless broadband as the best way to start reaching most of the region’s population that reside in areas without access. The critical challenge in wireless build out is the release of spectrum in the 700 MHz band, which is best suited to provided high-speed wireless access. The Latin America region has a unique opportunity to accelerate this process by moving forward with the auctions of this spectrum band in 2014.
2) Transforming the delivery of government services particularly in education, healthcare and justice by leveraging connectivity and ICT. With rapid economic growth across the region resulting in per capita income growth and lifting tens of millions of people into the ‘middle class’, more Latin American citizens are demanding better public services from their governments. City mayors and national leaders can leverage the power of ICTs and broadband connectivity to improve the way they manage government, deliver basic services and interact with local constituents. Video and collaboration technologies can provide real-time interactions across large geographic distances, embedded devices can sense and measure environmental conditions to improve management of resources and the provision of e-government services and broadband access together support greater interaction with government.
Concrete action across these dimensions will help the economies of the region leverage ICTs for development. While the top ten of the 148 countries in the NRI consist of small advanced countries such as Finland, Singapore and Sweden, larger countries such as the US, the UK and Korea are also present. Countries in Latin America have started the process to join them in the top tier of networked readiness, what is needed now is continued progress.