Back in 2000, less than 3% of Brazilians had access to the internet. Nineteen years later, this has risen to 74%, according to data from the Regional Center for Information Society Studies (Cetic). That puts Brazil far ahead of the developing world (47%), as well as the global average (53.6%). However, access to the internet is by no means democratic – with coverage and quality varying greatly from area to area.
But with many Brazilians forced into confinement – and remote work – by the COVID-19 pandemic, a new form of ‘digital inequality’ became apparent.
“In the North, entire regions depend on satellite connections, or mobile 3G and 4G. In the Southeast, on the other hand, fiber optic internet is widely available. That already separates these two regions when it comes to speed, quality, and stability of connections,” says Fábio Storino, who is senior coordinates one of the most complete and respected technology surveys in Brazil, TIC Domicílios.
This inequality is exemplified by the household of 22-year-old Thamyres Talyne Oliveira da Silva, from the small northern town of Itaguatins. Her mother pays BRL 90 (USD 16.50) for 10 megabytes of data per month – but they have never had the opportunity to use their plan to the fullest. At most, they get around half of what they pay for. “When it rains, getting online becomes a challenge. And whenever we try to complain, we always get the same answer – ‘our engineers are performing maintenance in your region.’ Well, that ‘maintenance’ has been going on for the best part of the last two years,” she told The Brazilian Report.
Purchasing power plays an important role when it comes to internet access. In Brazil’s socio-economic class structure, ranging from the wealthy class A to the impoverished class E, 99% of class A homes are connected to the internet; that rate falls to 43% for class E.
Smartphones to the rescue?
The inequality of internet access would be much more profound in Brazil if it weren’t for smartphones. Of the 74% of Brazilians that have internet access, 58% go online exclusively via their cell phones. “Since 2015, smartphones are the main device used by Brazilians to connect to the internet. That rate jumps to 80-85 percent among lower-income users,” Storino explains.
At times when most schools remain closed, this disparity becomes even more harmful for lower-income students. After all, remote learning content on a smartphone screen with an inferior connection is a very different experience of consuming the same material on a desktop computer with high-speed internet.
During the pandemic, Brazil saw the rise of several initiatives aiming at providing quality access to the internet for public-school students. In many states, classes will not return until March 2021, and there is a real concern of skills being lost in the meantime.
The Education Ministry launched a public procurement process worth BRL 24 million (USD 4.3 billion) to distribute SIM cards with mobile internet data packages to 400,000 students in public universities and professional certificate courses.
Nossa, an activist network for education initiatives, began a crowdfunding campaign to take 4G connections to low-income schools during the pandemic. Their goal was to raise BRL 100,000 (USD 18,200) for the “4G for studying” project – but they managed to raise six times that amount. “We helped 31 university preparation courses from ten states – and made sure that 4,600 students would have access to the internet for at least three months,” says Daniela Orofino, a 27-year-old student undertaking a master’s degree in Information Science, who spearheaded the project.
Besides private initiatives, there are at least two bills pending in the Senate which would give aid to vulnerable populations in order to guarantee access to the internet.
Experts believe that 5G technology would help mitigate these gaps. That is, depending on how it is regulated. However, Brazil is still lagging behind on the issue with the repeated postponement of public auctions for 5G frequencies, which are now set to be held early in 2021.