Expanding rural connectivity will mean taking the internet to these places and assisting people to utilize its services
Brasilia, 17 December 2020 (IICA). Brazil is tackling the major challenge of providing connectivity to half the rural population and improving the internet quality of the other half. To this end, public policies aimed at expanding the internet in rural areas should consider the diversity and specific needs of rural communities.
This was the common view of experts participating in the webinar, "Rural Connectivity in Brazil: the Challenge of Inclusion – Approaches and Perspectives", spearheaded by the Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture (IICA). The webinar was attended by senior executives of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food Supply (MAPA); the regulatory body, the National Telecommunications Agency (ANATEL); the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) and Microsoft.
Approximately half of Brazil’s rural population has no access to high-quality internet services, according to data presented in the webinar.
IICA Brazil Representative, Gabriel Delgado, felt that internet availability has become an issue that impacts settlement in rural areas. “At previous times in history, trains, highways and roads became extremely important issues for development; nowadays, the issue is the internet”, stressed Delgado at the start of the meeting, which was moderated by Valor Econômico journalist and columnist Daniel Rittner.
According to data from the study, “Rural Connectivity in Latin America and the Caribbean: a Bridge to Sustainable Development During the Pandemic” , which IICA prepared in partnership with the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) and Microsoft, 47% of Brazil’s rural population has significant connectivity services, meaning a quality signal and adequate equipment.
Another Brazil-based study, conducted by the Public Policy Group of the Luiz de Queiroz College of Agriculture (ESALQ) at the University of São Paulo (USP), studying the extent of signal transmission in rural areas, reveals that 46% of small-scale agricultural establishments have a 3G signal and 39% have 4G.
In the case of medium-scale establishments, 44% and 34% of them have 3G and 4G connectivity, respectively, as compared to 39% and 27% of large businesses. However, the quality of the signal was average.
“In general, in Latin America and the Caribbean, the urban population has double the level of access to quality Internet than the rural population. In Brazil, 53% of the population has no access to significant connectivity services and the disparity between high-quality connectivity services for urban and rural populations is 31%”, said IICA Economist Joaquín Arias, who co-coordinated the IICA-IDB-Microsoft study along with specialist Sandra Ziegler. The regional study collected information from 24 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, which were then divided into three groups: high-level, medium-level and low-level.
Brazil is in the first group, as is The Bahamas, Barbados, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica and Panama. In considering the 24 countries that the survey covered, 63% of the rural population has no access to significant connectivity services at the necessary minimum standards of quality. When Brazil is excluded from the sample, because of its higher relative population weight and the fact that it is in a better position than some of the other countries, the percentage rises to 75%.
According to agronomist, Alberto Barreiro, Territorial Analysis Coordinator of the Public Policy Group (ESALQ / USP), the number of people with internet access in rural Brazil is more than the amount declared in the last agricultural census (2017), when 28% of establishments reported having internet access.
“The fact that a person has access does not mean that that person knows how to use the internet or even what it is. He or she may not have a device or may only use their mobile phone for calls”, explained Barreto, who is coordinating a rural connectivity survey in Brazil, as part of a technical cooperation project with MAPA and IICA to assist the federal government in making public policy decisions for the sector.
According to Barreto, there are two main agricultural production dynamics in Brazil: the first, involving low-income agricultural companies and those involving companies trading in the global market. Making a comparison, he said, “Of the five million agricultural establishments in the country, three million, that is, 60% tend to lose productivity. Those are entities with income less than 25,000 reales annually. At the other extreme, are the 1% of ventures that are able to access the global market, experiencing increased productivity, an expanded scale of operations and the incorporation of new technology.
“Digital sciences will be key to optimizing production systems and productivity”, remarked Cleber Soares, Director of Innovation at MAPA. He believes that the use of technology allowed Brazil to increase average production from 1,500 to 1,800 and from 3,000 to 3,500 kg per hectare over a period of approximately 30 years”.
“Digital sciences are the sciences that will contribute to enhancing productivity. We also have to take a comprehensive look at another aspect, which is digital platforms, and finally, we have to consider the digital delivery of services”, added Soares. According to him, currently only 23% of the Brazilian agricultural space has some level of connectivity.
Soares explained that the Brazilian government is considering four connection models for rural areas. The first is telecommunications by 2G, 3G, 4G and 5G, with the latter to be implemented after the auction for the new radiofrequency spectrum that will take place next year, according to the National Telecommunications Agency (ANATEL). The other modalities involve connectivity via satellite; fiber optics in specific rural areas and analogue bands, that is, WEB TV, which is still in the regulation phase.
Luciano Braverman, Director of Education of Microsoft Latin America recalled that, “In November, I visited a project of the Ecuadorian government with Microsoft’s WEB TV Space, which brought connectivity from a school in a remote area in Ecuador. The students were able to connect to a school in Peru, which opened up opportunities to share experiences and cultures. Some of them were experiencing connectivity for the first time. It was very exciting!” For him, there is no doubt that a connected population has more opportunities to work, generate income, acquire knowledge and access services, such as telemedicine and distance education – a new reality that the pandemic has accelerated”.
Resources and legislation, training and heterogeneity
ANATEL’s Regulation Manager, Felipe Roberto Lima, explained that attracting financial resources is a challenge in scantily populated places, such as rural areas. He said that, “The State needs to guarantee funding sources so that private agents will make investments. In November, Bill 172 was approved, changing the structure of the Telecommunications Financing Fund”.
He recalled that, until then, this fund could only be used for fixed line expansion projects, focusing on the older legal framework of the 90s, which had sought to universalize this service.
“The fund may now be used for any project to expand internet access. The fund has accumulated resources from providers that charge a percentage of their earnings”, he said. The new rules are awaiting presidential approval.
According to Lima, the bill will also cover radio frequency advisories. The model establishes a partnership with the government for the winners of the auction and terms for conduct adjustment and conversion of fines.
The Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) has been analyzing how countries of the region have been handling the issue of connectivity during the pandemic.
Marcelo Cabrol, Social Sector Manager at IDB reported that services, such as telemedicine and education have not been accessible in rural areas.
“Social contracts have changed”, he stressed, “and therefore we need to think about proper software and platforms for the rural world and human resources to empower these people”.
He reflected that, “When we use the term rural world, we cannot assume that it is homogenous, since we have indigenous populations that we must work with and consider their characteristics. Rural women have different needs than urban women; and young people, notwithstanding where they live, are part of a digital generation and thus need to be able to enjoy everything that is happening”.
For Carbol, this diversity teaches that the digital products developed for rural areas cannot be the same and should be mindful of this heterogeneity.
“Expansion of technology does not teach people how to use technology”, added Barreto, who feels that rural policies, including digital ones, should consider the three elements on which the sector is built: cooperativism, technical assistance and rural credit.
Institutional Communication Division.