New emergency funding promises much-needed internet access to millions of Brazilian students and teachers
Photo: Fundação Lemann/Website

New emergency funding promises much-needed internet access to millions of Brazilian students and teachers

Brazil’s education system faces a politically induced crisis, the pandemic, and totally inadequate internet access. LABS examines this intersection, the state of remote internet access for education, and how bringing connectivity to those who need it most plays out on the ground.

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Millions of students and teachers across Brazil received much-needed good news in early June. The National Congress of Brazil passed a measure (law 14.172/2021) to provide BRL 3.5 billion ($690 million) in emergency funds for public schools to help ensure internet access for remote learning during the pandemic. More than 18 million students and 1.5 million teachers in Brazil’s public school system will benefit as a result. President Jair Bolsonaro vetoed the same measure just three months earlier.

The monies will be used primarily for mobile internet, or for fixed broadband if it’s less expensive or for locations where mobile connectivity is not an option. Groups receiving the highest priority include those already enrolled in social programs, rural populations and indigenous communities, quilombolas (communities created by the descendants of African slaves), and ribeirinhos (communities that live near and make their living on rivers).

Overturning the veto and the sudden availability of much-needed money during an unrelenting pandemic might seem like a major victory. However, BRL 3.5 billion is really just a Band-Aid attempting to address a gaping hole in Brazil’s education budget.

READ ALSO: Digital divide: the poorest in Brazil do not get pandemic aid because they do not have a cell phone nor internet connection

According to Andressa Pellanda, general coordinator of the Brazilian campaign for the Right to Education (RTE), the country has been living in what she calls a “crisis within a crisis” since the pandemic began. Brazil’s political and socioeconomic crisis — including major budget setbacks in education — began long before anyone ever heard of COVID-19.

In 2016, the National Congress passed Amendment 95 as a way to severely curb public spending. This constitutional amendment stipulates the government cannot spend more than it did the previous year, with inflation being the only allowable correction. Passing the amendment, which does not expire until 2036, essentially enshrined austerity measures into Brazil’s Constitution for 20 years. Bolsanaro based his recent veto of the emergency internet funds on Amendment 95.

Consider this pre-pandemic statistic from 2019: Although the internet reached 88.1% of Brazil’s students, 4.1 million public schools did not have internet access.

We were already facing severe setbacks to quality basic education, especially making internet access available in all schools. Then, the pandemic closed the schools, and the students need internet, computers, tablets, and training to access the online class activities from home — and we don’t have money and resources to provide that.

Andressa pellanda, general coordinator of the Brazilian campaign for the Right to Education.

According to a recent Human Rights Watch article, Brazil: Failure to Respond to Education Emergency, the Education Ministry, under Bolsonaro’s administration, did not just cap future education spending. It held back funds that had already been allocated for public education. 

The overall budget for education in 2020 provided BRL 48.2 billion specifically for primary education. Of that amount, the Education Ministry spent about two-thirds of that, or BRL 32.5 billion, which is a 10-year low in terms of overall annual spending on Brazil’s education system. 

In addition, the Education Ministry cut back support for its Connected Education Program, a project designed to make universal high-speed internet access part of basic education in Brazil. For 2020, the ministry earmarked only BRL 100.3 million, which equates to less than half of the 2019 budget item.

On top of this, Brazil’s education budget outlook for this year is even worse. Pellanda’s organization calculated the current education budget needs an additional BRL 36.8 billion to help address remote learning and to reopen the schools in Brazil safely. RTE based its calculations on CAQ, an index that establishes a minimum cost-per-student required to guarantee quality education.

Andressa Pellanda, General Coordinator of the Brazilian Campaign for the Right to Education. Photo: Courtesy

“Not only did they not add the BRL 36.8 billion, but the education budget they approved is 27% less than last year,” said Pellanda. “And then, Bolsonaro blocked an additional BRL 2.7 billion of the 2021 budget.”

When the dust finally settled, Brazil’s federal government allocated a total of BRL 74.56 billion for education in 2021 — a far cry from the BRL 102.27 billion allocation the previous year for 2020, and more than a 25% budget cut year-over-year.

Unlocking access to another BRL 3.5 billion in emergency funding comes at a crucial time, while Brazil still struggles to get the pandemic under control.

“This law gives states and municipalities resources to provide millions of students and teachers with internet access, computers, devices, and the training required for remote education,” said Pellandra. “It gives us more time to fight for schools to provide vaccinations for all the teachers and education workers so they can return to class safely.”

It’s one thing to talk policy and, as in many countries, education is a political hot potato in Brazil. But, it’s another to understand the many negative effects those policies  have on the ground. 

READ ALSO: For the CEO of Faculdade Descomplica, social isolation can change perceptions about digital education

According to a study conducted by UNICEF, in partnership with Cenpec Education, closing Brazil’s schools in November 2020 left 5.1 million children between the ages of 6-17 without access to education. The study confirmed that the lack of access affects children in Black, brown, and indigenous communities at a higher rate. Of those 5.1 million children, 69.3% come from marginalized communities. 

The UNICEF study broke out the numbers of children without access to education by region in Brazil: North (28.4%) and Northeast (18.3%) — the giant country’s most economically marginalized regions, compared to more well-off regions in the Southeast (10.3%); Central-West (8.5%), and South (5.1%).

In a study statement, Florence Bauer, a UNICEF representative in Brazil, said: “The country is at risk of regressing two decades in improving access of girls and boys to education; back to the numbers of the 2000s.”

Although not specific to Brazil, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) provides a long list of adverse conditions associated with COVID-19 school closings.

Another aspect to consider is that Brazil’s public schools provide more than just education. They provide a lifeline to services many Brazilian families need. According to Catarina de Almeida Santos, coordinator of the Committee in the Federal District of the National Campaign for the Right to Education, schools provide students and their families with vital services they simply cannot get anywhere else.

In Brazil, public school is the only place where many students have access to food, teaching materials, government and NGO programs, in addition to protection from child labor, drug trafficking, or domestic violence,” said de Almeida Santos. “Closing the schools exposes and exacerbates the social problems that existed before COVID-19.

Catarina de Almeida Santos, coordinator of the Committee in the Federal District of the National Campaign for the Right to Education.

Brazil’s internet access by the numbers

The Regional Center for Studies for the Development of the Information Society (Cetic), has been monitoring the adoption of information and communication technologies (ICT) across Brazil since 2005. Its current findings, published in May 2020, reflect data collected between October 2019 and March 2020.

Let’s look at the numbers of households with internet access today: Only 71% have it and 28% do not. That works out to 20 million households without internet access in Brazil

READ ALSO: Pandemic exposes ‘digital inequality’ in Brazilian internet access

The digital divide is similar in urban areas where 75% of households have access and 25% do not. The three main connection types in urban households include fixed broadband (61%), TV cable/optical fiber (44%) and mobile 3G/4G (27%).

The digital divide widens in rural households where only 51% can access the internet while 48% cannot. Connectivity in rural households breaks down as follows: Fixed broadband (48%), TV cable/optical fiber (16%) and mobile 3G/4G (33%).

Cetic’s Covid-19 ICT Panel: Web survey on the use of Internet in Brazil during the new coronavirus pandemic, noted social-class disparities among students aged 16 or over in terms of the devices students used to access remote learning activities. 

Devices used by Brazilian students age 16+ to access the internet. Graphic: Cetic

In wealthier class AB, 70% used laptops and 46% relied on desktop PCs. The numbers for students in class C are 32% and 19% respectively, and the poorest students, in classes DE, came in at a much lower 12% of students using both devices.

The same age group said they used mobile devices most frequently (37%) to access remote classes. The class ranking is as follows — AB: 22%; C: 43% and DE: 54%. 

It’s important to note these numbers provide only a partial picture, since they don’t reflect students younger than 16. Nor do they reflect the number of students who cannot afford any type of device at all. What’s more, RTE’s Andressa Pellanda pointed out that simply accessing the internet doesn’t guarantee a decent remote-education experience.

“Many students have internet access, but it’s with only a cellphone,” said Pellanda. “That’s not an adequate device for accessing the education platforms.” 

“The Lay of the LAN”

What happens now that Brazil’s federal government has unleashed this new BRL 3.5 billion emergency fund? Policy change meets implementation, on a national scale. 

In the most general terms, the federal government will distribute funds to the state-level governments, and they will either identify local suppliers or transfer the funds to municipalities. They, in turn, will work with local ISPs to provide broader internet connectivity to teachers and students.

Here’s where internet access in Brazil gets interesting: 

According to Diego Canabarro, the Internet Society’s regional policy manager for Latin America and the Caribbean, it is the small, local ISPs working with fixed, cable or fiber-optic broadband — not telcos and mobile broadband — that will connect the most challenging areas in the country.  

Diego Canabarro, the Internet Society’s regional policy manager for Latin America and the Caribbean. Photo: Courtesy

“Unlike other Latin American countries, Brazil has a thriving market for fixed broadband,” said Canabarro. “We have somewhere between 8,000 and 9,000 small ISPs, and they’re expanding the reach of internet connectivity in the most remote areas of the country.”

Local fixed broadband ISPs have deployed more than 60% of the country’s fiber-optic cable, and Canabarro noted that the growth rate of ISPs delivering fixed broadband has far outpaced that of mobile connectivity providers.

“In 2014, 49% of Brazil’s registered ISPs offered fixed broadband connectivity, and that number jumped to 78% by 2017,” said Canabarro. “Providers of wireless technologies and mobile connectivity realized only a mere 1% increase in the same timeframe: moving up slightly from 84% in 2014 to 85% in 2017.”

Here’s another fun fact about internet access in Brazil

While about 98% of Brazil’s population has internet coverage, that doesn’t mean they have internet service. The spectrum auctions’ system stipulates that, for example, telco provider X will cover a geographic region. But, telco provider X does not necessarily have to offer services to all the people living in that region. 

Reasons for not deploying and maintaining the appropriate mobile broadband infrastructure may include geographic challenges, but Canabarro said the primary reason is due to the lack of revenue that telcos would receive from small populations of people in remote areas.

Mobile broadband has reached a plateau, because it already covers all the areas where big operators receive a good return on their investments. Fixed broadband connectivity is advancing precisely in those places where mobile operators don’t operate.

Daniel Canabarro, the Internet Society’s regional policy manager for Latin America and the Caribbean

Expanding fixed broadband is an essential step in making internet access and services available to millions of students and teachers. And it’s one of the reasons the recent bill contained a very important stipulation. 

“It’s no accident that this new law allows for subsidized fixed broadband connectivity,” said Canabarro. “If there’s no mobile connectivity available in the region, then local governments can buy fixed broadband from local ISPs.”

The new law contains another provision that Canabarro calls a major landmark. It authorizes states and municipalities to buy fixed connectivity for communities.

Remember that 20 million households in Brazil are excluded from internet access today. According to Canabarro, digital inclusion is adversely affected by the traditional way that connectivity spreads geographically — through models that start at the internet backbone and move out to the periphery.

Reaching populations living at the margins through this internet-connectivity model requires government incentives to attract private businesses. However, no one said connectivity has to be a one-way street.

READ ALSO: Starlink expands satellite internet access to Latin America

According to Canabarro, a municipal broadband model takes a different, nuanced approach. It connects the community at the margin and then moves in the reverse direction to the center of the backbone. 

“A network using the municipal broadband model that’s managed by local communities provides an option that doesn’t have to depend on the government incentives or the profit margins of private businesses,” said Canabarro.

Community networks already exist in some parts of Brazil, but Canabarro said they need help to connect, or improve the connection, to the internet. And the money from this new law has the potential to enact significant change.

“This new law will absolutely serve students and teachers, and it can also help communities at large,” said Canabarro. “That’s the reach of what this law can accomplish in real terms.”