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BOLIVIA: Information Highway Blocked by Rural Poverty, Underdevelopment

Franz Chávez

LA PAZ, Nov 16 2005 (IPS) - The proliferation of cybercafés in Bolivia’s largest cities, offering Internet access at relatively modest rates, contrasts sharply with the slow advance of this technology in rural areas, which depends on sporadic initiatives headed up by the private sector or civil society.

There are barely 62,000 Internet connections today in Bolivia, a country with a population of 8.2 million people – as well as an illiteracy rate of 25.7 percent in the countryside and 6.44 percent in the cities – according to the most recent census, conducted in 2001.

Indigenous people account for 62 percent of the population, and that proportion rises to almost 70 percent in the centre of the country and in the mountainous western regions. In rural areas, indigenous languages are spoken by 72 percent of inhabitants.

The Telecommunications Superintendency reports that there are 40 telephone service providers that offer access to the Internet, of which the largest is the national telephone company Entel, which was privatised in 1996.

Future growth of connectivity will be slow, because it must necessarily follow the pace of social development in general. It will depend on such factors as the population’s ability to afford Internet service, not to mention the availability of basic telephone and electricity services, which are the main obstacles to the introduction of the new technology in remote areas.

These prerequisites will be difficult to meet in a country where 1.7 million people in rural areas – which are home to half of Bolivia’s population – live in extreme poverty, with a monthly income of less than 16 dollars, according to figures from the National Institute of Statistics (INE).

In the few remote areas where Internet service is available, rates can run as high as two dollars and fifty cents an hour, as compared to a mere 25 cents per hour in La Paz and other cities. As a result, these services tend to be used exclusively by tourists or occasional visitors in outlying regions.

This has led to the emergence of initiatives undertaken by the private sector, in association with bilateral cooperation programmes and non-governmental organisations, to create educational centres that provide Internet access in the impoverished city of El Alto, next to La Paz, and nearby rural communities.

With the support of the European Union, 12 teaching centres for new information and communications technologies have already been established in El Alto, the site of the October 2003 popular revolt that led to the toppling of then president Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada and cost the lives of 67 people.

Each of these centres is equipped with lecture rooms and physics laboratories, as well as computers connected to the Internet. Together with another 18 centres that operate on the city’s outskirts with the support of Entel, these facilities benefit around 150,000 students, Entel institutional communications manager Juan León told IPS.

Entel, the telecommunications company with the largest number of users for all the services it provides, has developed a social policy aimed at guiding secondary school students in the use of digital technology, and distributes educational booklets to help them gain the greatest advantage possible from this service.

In the meantime, thanks to an agreement with the government of Spain, a new initiative has been launched in the town of Calacoto, some 100 km from La Paz, where a learning lab has been set up with computers connected to the Internet and powered by solar panels.

Despite the fact that electrical power has yet to reach Calacoto, during the daytime schoolchildren aged eight and over now have access to digital technology, and are guided by a specialised tutor on how to operate computers and search for information and images for their school work through the Internet.

Reducing the “digital gap” between the rich and poor with regard to access to information and communications technologies is one of the themes to be addressed this Wednesday through Friday in Tunis during the second phase of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS).

Paving the way for the transfer of resources and technology from the industrialised world to the developing nations is among the proposed goals of the summit.

For the areas of Bolivia where Internet access is possible, Entel and the Royal University in La Paz have created a “virtual high school” programme that allows people to complete their secondary education through computer-based distance study.

Another initiative currently underway, with funding from the Andean Development Corporation (the financial arm of the Andean Community of Nations), the Eco Pueblo Foundation and Aquino University of Bolivia, is a computer centre in the town of Calamarca, 80 km from La Paz, where the local Aymara indigenous children and adolescents are provided with access to information technology.

One immediate challenge for expanding the use of these new technological tools is the training of specialised teachers and instructors. This task has been taken on by the department of educational sciences at the public University of San Andrés.

The head of the department, Orlando Huanca Rodríguez, told IPS that a preliminary household survey revealed that 85 percent of students did not have direct access to a personal computer at home, because of economic limitations.

Huanca Rodríguez came to the newly created university department with a solid background as the administrator of educational computer centres in El Alto.

The university currently offers undergraduate and graduate programmes in virtual education, and is organising a congress on the use of new information and communications technologies in the teaching field.

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