Educational connectivity in complex areas: a call to resolve the gaps in Latin America | International
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The countries of Latin America face a challenge of strategic importance: to extend significant connectivity for educational purposes throughout the length and breadth of the territory. Areas of low population density, distant from urban centers or isolated due to their geography, have extremely low coverage and internet use rates. The forced virtuality during the pandemic highlighted the significant gaps faced by a significant number of homes and schools and, consequently, the relevance of having significant connectivity—with appropriate and regular speed, sufficient data, and access to affordable devices—with educational purposes.
Beyond the emergency context, meaningful connectivity has the power to improve educational processes and expand the portfolio of teaching models and pedagogical methodologies that can be implemented in the classroom – including activities such as student monitoring, administrative management and the evaluation of learning.
In all cases, closing significant connectivity gaps becomes a priority. Continuing to delay this objective implies condemning millions of boys and girls to a low-quality education. The advances that have been made in recent years in public policies in the region have not been able to create the conditions for the coverage of Internet services to increase sufficiently, since in large part, these areas continue to pose a challenge of profitability to traditional operators. If the current rate of progress is maintained, educational inequalities – already observed – will continue to grow.
Ensuring meaningful connectivity for educational purposes requires finding creative and flexible solutions, promoting response packages that extend quality service quickly and economically. The technology to do so already exists, so achieving this objective requires guaranteeing financing and appropriate regulatory and institutional conditions so that the private sector, communities, and users develop the necessary investments, complementing the investments assumed by the State.
This call to action is the result of a joint initiative by leaders from the public and private sectors, as well as multiple civil society actors who have responded to the Inter-American Dialogue’s call for a Working Group on Educational Connectivity in partnership with the Inter-American Development Bank and the World Bank. Four lines of action are proposed that all countries must systematically follow to promote the expansion of significant connectivity for educational purposes.
1. Private investment must play an important role in expanding educational connectivity in complex areas. With this objective, it is essential to create consistent regulatory conditions and incentives to facilitate the investment process and sustainable business models.
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- Spectrum bidding processes are an important instrument to promote network expansion, including service obligations in areas with low population density. Tax collection should not be the only (nor the main) consideration when designing spectrum auctions. In this sense, creating incentives (fiscal and regulatory) that encourage private investment for better connectivity in rural areas is not only justifiable from a social point of view, but also positive from an economic and fiscal point of view in the long term. Attending to the appropriate balance between collection and connectivity objectives will allow reducing the demands for subsidies to respond to unsatisfied connectivity needs in complex areas.
- Regulatory frameworks must also consider the necessary incentives for expanding coverage and providing quality internet services. In particular, it is important to facilitate the voluntary sharing of infrastructure between operators and between actors involved, and even of spectrum.
- Public policies must recognize the fundamental role played by the different actors, such as passive infrastructure companies, whose business model is precisely sharing, an efficient tool to bring more and better connectivity, especially in remote and dispersed areas.
- In the same way, promoting openness in the use of unoccupied spectrum will make it possible to diversify the supply of providers and, in this way, expand the sources of financing for the necessary investment, including by the communities themselves. In addition to expanding access to the spectrum, it is key to harmonize the processes for granting permits, licenses and authorizations within the countries, at different institutional levels (national, provincial and municipal). The national government can participate by recommending model standards and incentives to municipal entities to modernize their local regulations for the construction and regularization of passive telecommunications infrastructure.
- The development of more flexible institutional figures can also contribute to better coordination of the actions of companies (including those that provide online services or content) and the State.
- Finally, it is necessary that public policies are long-term and bet on actors who are willing to invest equally for the long term, which guarantees the sustainability of projects, both from a financial point of view and in terms of infrastructure quality. .
2. Public investment is and should be an essential component of any strategy to extend Internet coverage for educational purposes to rural populations. The challenge, however, is not only to mobilize the necessary resources, but also to ensure that their allocation contributes to boosting private investment and maximizing the provision of significant connectivity.
- The most effective use of public resources to expand rural connectivity should not be based on subsidies for operating costs or service fees, but should contribute to reducing the fixed costs of private investments in these areas. Public investment should not exclude the development of backbone or regional networks, but should favor the search for complementarity with investments of private origin in order to cover last-mile gaps and reduce fixed costs for companies.
- It is of utmost importance to associate and redesign the universal service funds of the telecommunications sector, which typically exist in many countries, with the resources specifically allocated in the national budget for the expansion of fiber optic networks and other related investments, and to promote their use cash. Additionally, in some countries, it will be necessary to update the regulatory framework referring to universal service funds to facilitate this investment.
3. Technological solutions to connect rural areas, in the current state of technological development, must include a set of options both in the short and in the medium and long term.
- In the immediate term, for last mile contexts in which low density or geographical location complicates the expansion of terrestrial networks, it is necessary to take advantage of technological options such as satellite connections or the use of television white spaces (TV White Spaces). Recognizing the limitations that they may have in terms of speed and quality, the urgency of generating solutions throughout the territory, highlights the importance of taking advantage of the different options available. Even more so, when these technological solutions can feed and integrate with cell phone networks.
- At the same time, educational solutions should be considered, including teaching models, that work with low bandwidth consumption or even without connectivity or with delayed connectivity, in order to guarantee immediate access to schools in remote areas.
- Additionally, rural educational connectivity strategies must develop measures so that the necessary equipment in homes and for users is more affordable and accessible. In some countries, equipment import tariffs are a major barrier to implementing new models in isolated or complex areas.
- Even recognizing the primacy of land connections, technological advances could allow the use of these solutions to be extended over time, so it is recommended that the necessary regulations for their adoption be introduced at the regional level.
4. The State must develop long-term national strategies in which the objective of guaranteeing significant connectivity for educational uses in rural areas (in schools and in homes) is duly incorporated into the planning instruments and/or public policies of the States. , so that the actions of various state agents are effectively coordinated. This vocation must go beyond the declarative stage and address the complex regulatory framework and a consistent incentive structure that drives significant connectivity efforts in these areas.
- The search for solutions and the design and implementation of said strategies is a task that must involve multiple ministries (Telecommunications, Education and Economy or Planning) and regulatory entities. The coordination of such efforts must be carried out at the highest level of public administration in order to ensure the necessary political and financial commitment.
- Ministries of education must play an active role in formulating and implementing such strategies. That means taking full responsibility for identifying the gaps that exist in schools across the country in terms of access to meaningful connectivity. In the same way, they must take responsibility for adapting the school infrastructure so that it has the minimum conditions (electricity and equipment). This will require, in many cases, strengthening their technical capacity to be part of these conversations at the national level.
- The resources allocated within the education budget to connect schools must be strengthened and facilitate access for neighboring communities (for example, through Wi-Fi hot-spots), and not only for schools in isolation.
We call for action so that the education of this century, a source of equal opportunities and economic and social development, reaches all corners of the region.
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