Roaming the Andes

Closing the digital divide in the Comunidad Andina (CAN).

In recent years, the advance of globalisation has underscored one of Latin America’s most pernicious public policy challenges – digital inclusion. For various reasons, it’s an issue that regional policymakers have struggled to place centre stage in debates about more inclusive societies, especially in the realms of healthcare and education.   

Despite challenges, there are signs that the Andean Community (“CAN”) – a free trading bloc consisting of Peru, Colombia, Ecuador and Bolivia – is taking the issue seriously. The elimination of roaming fees across the Andes this month, benefiting some 100 million mobile phone users, is a good start and could herald the first step towards more meaningful regional collaboration.  

A CAN representative emphasised the importance of digital integration, “The elimination of roaming charges points to a brighter future for the Andean countries where closer collaboration on developing digital networks is of paramount importance. The region must, and is, developing better measures and policies to that end. The right technology will lie at the heart of furthering integration and making the region more economically dynamic.” 

“The elimination of roaming charges points to a brighter future for the Andean countries where closer collaboration on developing digital networks is of paramount importance.”

Representative, Andean Community

The Bloc should be lauded for its imagination and is already thinking ahead – the CAN is integrating cross-border customs technology so that governmental agencies can retrieve information in real time, lowering costs and processing time.   

However, infrastructure itself counts for little if a significant proportion of society lack the digital literacy to properly use it. Here, the CAN faces a real challenge. Chronic underinvestment in digital education, challenging geography and stark rural-urban disparities are but a few of the hurdles Andean governments must overcome. Political infighting could also complicate matters.    

A former Ministry of Transport and Communications official remarked, “The CAN is working on a policy for telecom users ensuring quality assurance measures across the region – this could facilitate better communication and make commercial transactions easier. However, it is taking a long time to approve due to divergent conflicts of interest and electoral politicking.”

“The CAN is working on a policy for telecom users ensuring quality assurance measures across the region – this could facilitate better communication and make commercial transactions easier.”

Former Ministry of Transport and Communications official

Indigenous communities who live in remote areas with limited internet access tend to have the lowest levels of digital literacy. Greater participation in the labour market for such communities’ rests on improving their digital literacy.

Indeed, as the concept of remote working takes a greater hold in the region, put into sharp focus by the realities of Covid, there is a greater than ever need to adapt. Part of the solution is widening access to optical fibre internet, another goal of the CAN.

In the future, countries in the region could move towards sharing environmental and spatial information to better monitor degradation of natural environments and track the movements of illegal loggers and miners. The Andes already operates a community satellite, but it is underused, especially when it comes to data collection that could be crucial to enforcement agencies.

Ultimately, if the Andean countries wish to remain competitive in a global marketplace where people are as mobile as capital, they will have no other option but to invest in digital education for their own citizens or risk being left behind. Whether legislatures across the region will be convinced that reorienting fiscal policy is worthwhile remains to be seen.     

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