Planning for inclusive, affordable connectivity

With the 2010 presidential election, Colombians elected a new government who carried in a new digital policy program. This program, the Vive Digital plan, was the government’s key policy to modernize the country and its economy. It carried 93 objectives for the next four years, many set to address the social and economic problems of the country at the time.

In 2010, Colombia was in a prime position for regional leadership. It holds the third largest population in Latin America, after Mexico and Brazil, but was only the fifth largest economy in the region. In 2010, the average income was lower than the regional average, and unemployment was stuck at 12% – the highest in Latin America. Colombia also lagged behind on indicators for digital inclusion.

A little over one third of Colombians used the internet in 2010 – again below the regional average. Only just over a quarter had access to the internet at home. 40% of those without access identified unaffordable data costs as the barrier keeping them offline, and 20% saw no value in using the internet. Because of this lack of interest and high costs, municipalities also gave little to no priority to internet connectivity, leaving just 200 of the country’s 1102 municipalities with access to the country’s fibre optic network.

Limitations in the country’s digital infrastructure were similarly limitations for Colombia to sustain and grow a digital economy. As the government hoped to use the technological revolution to invigorate the country’s economic fortunes and social development, infrastructure posed a key first challenge to address.

The first term of the Santos government focused its ICT efforts around the Vive Digital plan, intended to last from 2010 to 2014. The plan was focused around embedding digital technology into the pre-existing pillars of the Colombian economy and building the additional infrastructure to support a digital revolution. In four years, the government had plans for greater connectivity at each tier of the network: connecting as many municipalities as possible to the nation’s fibre optic backbone, half of small- and medium-enterprises and homes with a fixed connection, and 8.8 million people to the internet.

With the success of the first four-year plan and the reelection of Juan Manuel Santos, the Colombian government launched a second plan, Vive Digital para la Gente. This plan included renewed targets for access and further projects around innovation, entrepreneurship, and the application of this new infrastructure into the Colombian economy. This project also included the construction of Vive Labs, 17 community computer centres across the country with access to digital equipment and resources that would normally remain unaffordable for the majority of Colombians without this support.

These high-level plans have the capacity to be transformational over the long term. With years for implementation and adequate financial and political capital, high-level broadband plans can deliver remarkable results for internet access and affordability and for the integration of the technology into everyday life.

Over the eight years of the Vive Digital plans, Colombians have seen tremendous expansions in internet access and use. By the end of the first phase, 96% of all municipalities with at least 100 inhabitants were covered by a 4G network. In 2016, mobile broadband took the majority of mobile connections, and mobile internet reached a majority of Colombians for the first time in 2017. Internet access at home has doubled since 2010 to 52%, with just over half of all internet users in Colombia using it at least daily or just about. In addition, the government built almost 900 Vive Digital public access points. Cumulatively, these projects have contributed to the closing of the digital divide along lines of education, income, and age.

Indicators of the broader digital ecosystem reaffirm the successful embedding of internet infrastructure in Colombia. In the first two years, the number of municipalities connected to the fibre optic backbone doubled. By 2018, 1108 municipalities were connected. The mobile broadband market has also grown and become more competitive over time, with new network operators and virtual network operators joining the market.

These changes have been a positive force on affordability of data in Colombia. Since 2015, the country has consistently had the price of 1GB of mobile broadband hover between 1.8-3% of the average monthly income. The country met the international ‘1 for 2’ standard for affordability in 2019. Greater affordability, along with greater infrastructure coverage, create the bedrock for digital invigoration of the economy.

Indeed, Colombia’s economy appears to have benefited from the implementation of Vive Digital. Now over 95% of businesses have broadband connectivity – putting Colombia among the top-third of OECD countries – although speeds continue to lag behind that peer group. Since 2011, Colombia has boasted annual economic growth greater than the Latin America and Carribean average.

This digital transformation has also enabled the generation of new sectors in the country’s economy. The mobile sector in Colombia generated around $10 billion in value-added terms, roughly 3.8% of the country’s total GDP in 2016, and 42,000 jobs within the industry. In addition, Colombia’s modernisation and status as the world’s third-largest Spanish-speaking population (after US and Mexico) positioned it as a prime environment for creative industries and the so-called ‘orange economy’. This sector has been one of the country’s fastest-growing industries and is now a key part of the 2018-2022 Plan Nacional de Desarrollo (National Development Plan).

The benefits of the Vive Digital plan have been more than just economic. With greater internet access, the Colombian government has been able to move more public services online, with over 1,000 e-government services made available by 2012 and winning the government international recognition for this effort. The plan has made technology and devices more available to marginal populations, including 577,000 computers in public schools. The country has also become a world leader in open government data.

Because of the success of the two Vive Digital plans, the country has gone on to issue a third plan: El Futuro Digital es de Todos.

The plans also offer a model for other countries looking to jumpstart their digital economies: with long-term vision, sufficient resources, and inclusive and ambitious targets, governments can see returns on their investment with overall economic growth and expanded internet use.

Suggested Citation: Alliance for Affordable Internet (2020). “Colombia: Planning for inclusive, affordable connectivity.” Good Practices Database. Washington DC: Web Foundation.