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Building the infrastructure for rural connectivity

Context

As a landlocked country, Bolivia has a number of challenges that require a robust policy response to improve its telecommunications sector. Mountainous terrain, a lack of access to the sea, relative economic isolation from the rest of the world, cataclysmic weather events that can damage infrastructure, and a large number of poor and remote communities are just a few of the country’s characteristics that make it difficult to provide universal access to the internet. Compared with its coastal neighbors, the costs to deploy telecommunications infrastructure are higher due to more expensive equipment, transport, and installation costs. These factors, along with average incomes in Bolivia compared to its neighbors, help explain why Bolivia has made less progress in connecting unconnected regions than most other countries in Latin America.

 

The Bolivian telecommunications sector was made fully competitive by 2001 yet, five years later, there were still only 94 mobile subscribers and 21 internet users for every 1,000 individuals. By 2008, 40% of the population had a mobile phone but still only 4% had internet access. Those citizens who were connected typically lived in more densely populated urban areas. In 2008, the Empresa Nacional de Telecomunicaciones (ENTEL), the once state-owned incumbent telecommunications operator, was renationalised, partly to dovetail with new sovereignty-focused national development agendas but also in response to what was deemed a failure of the private sector to (re)invest profits to further develop telecommunications in the country.

 

As ICTs and connectivity have grown in importance to national economies, Bolivia has attempted to keep pace with recommended standards for connectivity. In 2009, Article 20 of the country's Constitution designated basic telecommunications a human right and identified the state as the entity responsible for ensuring all citizens were able to exercise this right. Yet, the country still lacked a formal approach for connecting hard to reach areas.

Policy Action

By 2011, the lack of progress in extending internet access had reached a critical point. Based on ENTEL data, Bolivia ranked lowest in Latin America for internet penetration, with just 8% of its approximately 10 million people online. This drove a renewed push to ensure all citizens could access basic telecommunications, including the internet.

 

The Bolivian government promulgated the General Law No. 164 of 8 April 2011 on Telecommunications and Information and Communication Technologies, which delegated the responsibilities for various activities within the telecommunications sector to specific government bodies. It also outlined a vision for e-government services in Bolivia, and — most importantly for realizing universal access — created the National Telecommunication Program for Social Inclusion (PRONTIS).

 

The remit for PRONTIS focuses on funding government efforts to extend internet access in the country. Resource allocation under this scheme to develop universal access is first given to telecommunications service providers in which the government has a majority stake. For any activities that the state is unable to carry out, tenders are then held to identify providers that can implement the project. While PRONTIS has a strong focus on building connectivity in rural areas and for remote populations, it also conducts work in urban settings.

 

PRONTIS is also supported by two other government bodies. The Plurinational Committee on Information and Communication Technologies (COPLUTIC) oversees all the activities of the various ministries and agencies that work to support PRONTIS. In addition, the Sectoral Council for Telecommunications and Information and Communication Technologies (COSTETIC) gives advice on ICT-related project proposals and facilitates communication between the national and local governments on ICT matters.

 

With stronger political backing and clearly delegated responsibilities, concerted efforts towards helping more Bolivians come online could be made.

Results & Insight

A number of projects have been developed since the enactment of General Law No. 164, including base station installations to reach nearly 9,000 places that previously lacked any telecommunications services, connecting schools in 270 rural areas, and installing fiber optic networks in each municipal capital. COPLUTIC has also announced plans to roll out e-government services in 2020.

 

Gradual improvements towards the goal of universal access in Bolivia have been documented. While in 2013 only 9.5% of its population had internet access, by 2016 this figure had increased to 14%. In its ICT Development Index (IDI), the ITU commended Bolivia not only for increasing its standing by six places but also for increasing its IDI value by double the rate of the global average. This progress was due to the increase in families with a computer and/or internet access.

 

Annual audits provide information about the approval, execution, monitoring, and evaluation of projects executed under the PRONTIS framework. Though most of the progress made through PRONTIS to date has had a greater impact in urban rather than rural areas, unconnected places remain a priority in the government’s activities.  Despite the substantial challenges that lay ahead, Bolivia shows continued determination to realise its vision of universal access.

Full Story

As a landlocked country, Bolivia has a number of challenges that require a robust policy response to improve its telecommunications sector. Mountainous terrain, a lack of access to the sea, relative economic isolation from the rest of the world, cataclysmic weather events that can damage infrastructure, and a large number of poor and remote communities are just a few of the country’s characteristics that make it difficult to provide universal access to the internet. Compared with its coastal neighbors, the costs to deploy telecommunications infrastructure are higher due to more expensive equipment, transport, and installation costs. These factors, along with average incomes in Bolivia compared to its neighbors, help explain why Bolivia has made less progress in connecting unconnected regions than most other countries in Latin America.  

 

The Bolivian telecommunications sector was made fully competitive by 2001 yet, five years later, there were still only 94 mobile subscribers and 21 internet users for every 1,000 individuals. By 2008, 40% of the population had a mobile phone but still only 4% had internet access. Those citizens who were connected typically lived in more densely populated urban areas. In 2008, the Empresa Nacional de Telecomunicaciones (ENTEL), the once state-owned incumbent telecommunications operator, was renationalised, partly to dovetail with new sovereignty-focused national development agendas but also in response to what was deemed a failure of the private sector to (re)invest profits to further develop telecommunications in the country.  

 

As ICTs and connectivity have grown in importance to national economies, Bolivia has attempted to keep pace with recommended standards for connectivity. In 2009, Article 20 of the country's Constitution designated basic telecommunications a human right and identified the state as the entity responsible for ensuring all citizens were able to exercise this right. Yet, the country still lacked a formal approach for connecting hard to reach areas.

 

By 2011, the lack of progress in extending internet access had reached a critical point. Based on ENTEL data, Bolivia ranked lowest in Latin America for internet penetration, with just 8% of its approximately 10 million people online. This drove a renewed push to ensure all citizens could access basic telecommunications, including the internet.  

 

The Bolivian government promulgated the General Law No. 164 of 8 April 2011 on Telecommunications and Information and Communication Technologies, which delegated the responsibilities for various activities within the telecommunications sector to specific government bodies. It also outlined a vision for e-government services in Bolivia, and — most importantly for realizing universal access — created the National Telecommunication Program for Social Inclusion (PRONTIS).  

 

The remit for PRONTIS focuses on funding government efforts to extend internet access in the country. Resource allocation under this scheme to develop universal access is first given to telecommunications service providers in which the government has a majority stake. For any activities that the state is unable to carry out, tenders are then held to identify providers that can implement the project. While PRONTIS has a strong focus on building connectivity in rural areas and for remote populations, it also conducts work in urban settings.  

 

PRONTIS is also supported by two other government bodies. The Plurinational Committee on Information and Communication Technologies (COPLUTIC) oversees all the activities of the various ministries and agencies that work to support PRONTIS. In addition, the Sectoral Council for Telecommunications and Information and Communication Technologies (COSTETIC) gives advice on ICT-related project proposals and facilitates communication between the national and local governments on ICT matters.  

 

With stronger political backing and clearly delegated responsibilities, concerted efforts towards helping more Bolivians come online could be made.  

 

A number of projects have been developed since the enactment of General Law No. 164, including base station installations to reach nearly 9,000 places that previously lacked any telecommunications services, connecting schools in 270 rural areas, and installing fiber optic networks in each municipal capital. COPLUTIC has also announced plans to roll out e-government services in 2020.  

 

Gradual improvements towards the goal of universal access in Bolivia have been documented. While in 2013 only 9.5% of its population had internet access, by 2016 this figure had increased to 14%. In its ICT Development Index (IDI), the ITU commended Bolivia not only for increasing its standing by six places but also for increasing its IDI value by double the rate of the global average. This progress was due to the increase in families with a computer and/or internet access.  

 

Annual audits provide information about the approval, execution, monitoring, and evaluation of projects executed under the PRONTIS framework. Though most of the progress made through PRONTIS to date has had a greater impact in urban rather than rural areas, unconnected places remain a priority in the government’s activities.  Despite the substantial challenges that lay ahead, Bolivia shows continued determination to realise its vision of universal access.


Suggested Citation: Alliance for Affordable Internet (2019). "Bolivia: Building the infrastructure for rural connectivity." Good Practices Database. Washington DC: Web Foundation.

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