Digital divide

5G continues its expansions across Latin America but challenges remain.

Latin American countries continue to expand its 5G networks through spectrum auctions, frequency reordering processes, and the adaptation of existing infrastructure. Nevertheless, the deployment of 5G networks is not exempt from obstacles and governments need to work hard to attract the necessary investment and, mostly, increase the radio spectrum for telecommunications operators.

By the end of June 2022, Latin America had 813 million wireless 5G network connections, which are expected to reach 1.1 billion by the end of the year. In Brazil, 5G pure standalone networks are already available in 22 of the country’s state capitals. In contrast, Telcel and AT&T have adapted 3.4GHz bands to install 5G networks in 50 cities throughout the country. Chile, the first country in the region to hold a 5G spectrum auction, already has coverage in its 16 states.

”Chile has been among the frontrunners in terms of technological development and connectivity,“ explained a telco executive in Mexico, ”while consumer demand for smartphones and other technology-related services in the home is growing. They are targeting 1 million connections by the end of the year. Brazil has also made great strides in 5G deployment. Last year, they held the largest spectrum auction in the region in terms of the licences and spectrum blocks offered.”

“Chile has been among the frontrunners in terms of technological development and connectivity […] Brazil has also made great strides in 5G deployment.”

Telecommunications executive, Mexico

Colombia is a different picture, according to a veteran public sector telecommunications expert, “Colombian operators aren’t showing much interest in 5G. The state is working hard to ensure that 5G doesn’t widen the digital divide but the operators are concerned about the profitability of deploying into rural areas. For context, 30% of the urban population is still without internet access in Colombia and this increases to 70% in rural areas.”

The development of 5G is hoped to trigger economic growth in the region in the mid-term. The socio-economic benefits are estimated to total USD 41 billion, having a more significant impact in Latin American and the Caribbean economies than in more developed regions like the US and Europe. Brazil’s adoption of the technology will be crucial for the regional maximisation of 5G networks as it is expected to account for 43% of the total benefit.

Nevertheless, 5G networks will only be able to offer all of their features when operating through pure standalone infrastructure, which the region is struggling to install. By 2025, 14% of the world’s mobile network connections will be through 5G technology, while in Latin America the figure will hardly reach 7%. The slow progress in the region lies on the migration of 2G and 3G customers to 4G networks, which still reaches only 80% of customers. For a full migration to 5G networks, governments need to secure more funding for new infrastructure that meets the requirements of this new technology.

“There is no reason to think that the roll out of 5G will be any faster than the rollout of 4G.”

Public sector telecommunications expert, Colombia

This will be a long journey, according to the public sector telecommunications expert, “There is no reason to think that the roll out of 5G will be any faster than the rollout of 4G in Colombia. Personally, I believe that before starting with the implementation of these 5G networks, connectivity should be guaranteed in territories where there are not even 4G networks, as well as the creation of a simplified and clear regulatory framework that promotes legal certainty to give confidence to operators.”

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