Keeping consumers connected through crisis

Like many other nations around the world, in early 2020, Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru were negatively impacted by the emergence of COVID-19. Shortly after the World Health Organisation declared the outbreak of COVID-19 a global pandemic, the three Andean countries declared a state of emergency and imposed national lockdowns. The governments also acknowledged the need to implement measures to protect the life, health, integrity and wellbeing of the population. Overnight, internet access was transformed into a lifeline for people confined to their homes. However, the circumstances surrounding the pandemic also exposed the perennial inequalities in internet access and affordability, demonstrating that this lifeline was still out of reach for millions.

Prior to the pandemic, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Peru were all focused on implementing strategies aimed at improving internet access and affordability, two of the major challenges affecting the region where telecommunications are concerned. Each nation has progressed at a different pace due to their particular context and characteristics.

Among these three countries, Peru has performed the strongest when assessed through the lens of the A4AI Affordability Drivers Index. In 2020, Peru was ranked 5th because of its outstanding improvement in broadband affordability and quality of service. One of Peru’s most recent achievements is that they have started to develop a wholesale open access network to spur market competition and expand connectivity. Additionally, the country has supported innovative practices, such as the Internet Para Todos project, to bring connectivity to rural and underserved regions. A positive outcome of these efforts is that the number of unique mobile subscribers has continued growing at a steady pace.

Ranked 16 in the 2020 A4AI Affordability Drivers Index, Ecuador stands out as one of the countries in the Latin American region that has improved broadband affordability and mobile internet connectivity in recent years. One of Ecuador’s main achievements is that between 2015 and 2019 the price of 1GB as a fraction of the average monthly income decreased from 6.58% to 1.96%, reaching the ‘1 for 2’ affordability threshold for the first time in 2019. Moreover, the mobile internet penetration in the country increased from 36% in 2014 to 48% in 2019.

Bolivia ranked 43 in the 2020 A4AI Affordability Drivers Index, one of the lowest in South America. Up to 2019 Bolivia had approximately 652,272 fixed telephone subscriptions (5.67% of the population), 11,688,830 mobile telephone subscriptions (101.55% of the population), 746,872 fixed-broadband subscriptions (6.49% of the population), and  9,558,754 mobile-broadband subscriptions (83.05% of the population). Due to its lack of direct access to the sea (and the ability to access undersea cables), Bolivia is a country with a particularly challenging operating environment for providers in the telecommunications sector. To date, Bolivia has primarily depended on providers outside of the country to connect to fiber optic cable, which historically has resulted in higher connectivity costs for end users. Recently, however, internet access prices have been reduced thanks to the implementation of an Internet Exchange Point (PITBolivia) and the presence of international content providers, which have increased the international IP traffic between 30 to 40%.

In 2017, Bolivia approved its National Broadband Plan with the objective of promoting telecommunications infrastructure expansion for the provision of broadband connectivity. By August 2019, Bolivia was able to provide internet services to 83% of all localities with a population of more than 50 inhabitants.

Nevertheless, across the region more progress is still needed to improve infrastructure and access for all because affordability was still a key challenge at the onset of the pandemic.

To support the public health measures taken by their respective governments, telecommunications regulators in Bolivia, Ecuador, and Peru each adopted strategies to guarantee the continuity of voice and data services during the pandemic. While these three countries shared the same goal, their respective strategies were designed and implemented in different ways to protect consumers.

Peru was the first country to act. On March 15th, 2020 through the Supreme Decree 044-2020-PCM, the Peruvian government officially declared a state of emergency and established that the access to public and essential services, including telecommunications, should be guaranteed throughout the duration of the crisis. Complementing this effort, Ospitel, the country’s telecommunications regulator, established several provisions in the presidential resolution 00035-2020-PD/OSPITEL to guarantee the continuity of telecommunication services at a national level from March 18th, 2020 and throughout the duration of the state of emergency announced by the government. With the objective of protecting consumers who may experience financial hardship due to the lockdown, the regulator prohibited all operators in the country from suspending or terminating telecommunications services due to non-payment. As an additional measure, the regulator asked operators to prioritize network traffic usage needed for remote working, distance learning, and e-health Monday to Friday between the hours of 8am and 6pm. Furthermore, Ospitel asked providers to evaluate the possibility of adopting other measures to support consumers, such as connectivity provision options to areas with low or no coverage at lowered costs, offering free and unlimited access to instant messaging services including SMS, WhatsApp, etc., or increasing their customers’ data allowance free of charge.

On March 22nd 2020, the Ecuadorian Ministry of Telecommunications (MINTEL) issued the Ministerial Agreement 009-2020. This agreement established a set of guidelines to guarantee the continuity of mobile or fixed telephony and Internet services during the contingency due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Article 3 granted the Agency of Regulation and Control of Telecommunications (ARCOTEL) the power to command all operators not to suspend services due to non-payment and to offer their customers, if necessary, the possibility to pay outstanding debts owed in monthly installments after the health emergency ceases. Operators were also made responsible for providing zero-rated access to official emergency mobile apps, the Health Ministry website, and other sites providing Covid-19 related content, support or assistance. Moreover, Article 4 established that in order to cope with the high demand of network traffic, which during the early weeks of the pandemic increased by 30%, operators should guarantee the service quality, and if possible, improve the speed of fixed broadband.

On April 1st 2020, two weeks after Bolivia declared a national public health emergency, the country passed the Law 1294 and issued the Supreme Decree 4206 in an effort to support the whole population at the start of the pandemic. The law established that all public and private companies and cooperatives offering basic services, including drinking water, electricity, sewage, gas, and telecommunications, should ensure the continuity of service provision during the health crisis. Article 35 of the Supreme decree, which sets the rule for applying this law, established that operators and telecommunication service providers were responsible for guaranteeing the continuity of service provision throughout the period of the national emergency. Article 36 prohibited the suspension of telecommunication services and the application of sanctions for both prepaid and postpaid users.

The efforts by the Bolivian government to ensure people’s access to telecommunication services did not end with the implementation of Law 1294 and the Supreme Decree 4206. On 28th May 2020 Bolivia also issued the Supreme Decree 4250 with the objective of setting the conditions for guaranteeing access to telecommunication services during the national lockdown.

Article 2 of this decree introduced Mantengámonos Conectados (Let’s Stay Connected), a free voice and data service for prepaid and postpaid users. Let’s Stay Connected was available from June 8 to September 21, 2020 to all users with at least two non-canceled bills by the payment due date and to those who were unable to pay their bill on time. After the due date of at least the second bill or non-payment altogether, providers were not allowed to suspend services. The two available options were to keep the contracted service active or to replace it with a Let’s Stay Connected tariff, giving the user seven days written notice about the change. According to Article 5 of the Decree, which established the minimal and mandatory conditions for the operation of Let’s Stay Connected, fixed telephony users received at least 10 minutes per month or 10% of the hired plan, while mobile broadband and telephone users received unlimited WhatsApp messages, unlimited calls to two contacts, 10 minutes to make calls to other numbers, 500 MB internet navigation, and 10 SMS messages.

Since the programs implemented in Bolivia, Ecuador, and Peru were available nationwide, the number of people who benefited during difficult times was substantial.

Following Ospitel’s announcement, Peruvian operators implemented strategies to comply with the requirements established in Resolution 035-2020-PD/OSPITEL. Customers experiencing financial hardship were able to continue using telecommunication services during the crisis and were offered the possibility to repay debts in installments when the national emergency period was concluded. Telefónica, Entel, Claro and Bitel each also expanded their network capacity. Thanks to these measures, operators were able to cope with the increased internet traffic on their mobile networks (in the first week of the pandemic the increase was by at least 24%). Likewise, operators made their fixed and mobile networks capacity available to users for remote work, e-health, and distance learning apps.

Beyond this, operators adopted additional measures to support the population. For example, Claro offered a nationwide SMS service at no cost to its customers between March 19 to March 31, 2020 and enabled them to hold multi party calls of up to five lines simultaneously through their mobile network. Entel, another leading operator, offered unlimited use of SMS and WhatsApp messaging services.

In Ecuador, shortly after announcing measures in response to the pandemic, operators offered additional benefits to their customers and committed to expanding their network bandwidth to ensure people could stay connected during the social distancing measures implemented to contain and mitigate the spread of the novel coronavirus. Beginning March 17, 2020, Claro and CNT, two of the main telecommunications providers in Ecuador, doubled the benefits provided to prepaid mobile users who made top ups, as well as doubled the GBs available in their prepaid plans. Movistar provided an additional data allowance of 3GB to all postpaid plans and doubled the data allowance for prepaid users. Thanks to the uninterrupted provision of telecommunication services, the necessary conditions were made possible to provide medical service to more than 800,000 Ecuadorians who attended digital medical appointments through an online platform between February 29 to March 14, 2020.

The Bolivian strategy Let’s Stay Connected benefited the entire population for 3.5 months. This service was particularly helpful for users who experienced difficulties to afford postpaid services during this period. According to reports from Tigo, one of the main telecommunication services providers in the country, approximately 590,000 users benefited from this free service without interruption.

Through coordinated responses supported by swift regulatory action and the prioritization of low-income users’ needs, connectivity was able to be maintained for most citizens living in Bolivia, Ecuador, and Peru during the early stages of the pandemic.