Faster internet connections - for some - in Bolivia

by Bernarda Claure, Inter Press Service

A varied crowd of academics, civil servants, and university and high school students gathered in the hall of the vice-presidential building to celebrate Internet Day. The main event was the launching of Internet II, a project to incorporate Bolivia into the cutting-edge Latin American Cooperation of Advanced Networks (CLARA).

World Telecommunications Day, May 17, was declared Internet Day in Bolivia, and the meeting looked back on the history of web connectivity in this country of over nine million people, which has fewer than 70,000 Internet connections. In addition, a new domain name was announced for all government websites.

"All this is based on the vision that the Internet is the latest tool for development," the head of the state Agency for the Development of the Information Society in Bolivia (ADSIB), Sergio Vallejos, told IPS.

The Internet II project will link Bolivia up with CLARA, a high-tech system of advanced telecommunications networks that foments research, innovation and education. In turn, CLARA connects academic networks in Latin America with similar university networks in Europe, via the European Géant system, and in the United States, via Internet2.

Géant is a collaboration between 26 academic and research networks and the European Commission that aims to develop a system to be used specifically in science and education.

Internet2 is a consortium of 200 universities as well as industry and government in the United States that develops advanced network technology and applications for educational and scientific purposes.

The CLARA system already includes Panama, Mexico, Argentina, Ecuador, Peru, Cuba, Costa Rica, Uruguay, Colombia, Guatemala, Brazil, Venezuela, Paraguay, Honduras, El Salvador, the Dominican Republic and Chile.

Based in Montevideo, Uruguay, the non-governmental CLARA system acts as a bridge between over 3,500 research centres and universities in different countries, and the challenge now is for Bolivia's institutes of research and higher learning to join it in order to stimulate scientific and technological development.

"In Bolivia, we have been working in isolation, and practically in an intuitive manner, on initiatives directed towards the same ends, and I think now is the time for us to move up a step and make real progress," said Franz Vargas Loayza, rector of the state University Mayor of San Simón (UMSS) in Cochabamba, in central Bolivia.

The UMSS and Bolivia's eight other public universities, each with their associated research centres, will be the beneficiaries of this essentially academic virtual community, by obtaining access to the latest generation of high-speed networks.

CLARA's own rotating fund will finance Bolivia's incorporation into the network, with the money paying for the necessary technological upgrades. The velocity of Internet connections in Bolivia at present is 10 megabytes of information per second, and within CLARA it will be upgraded to 2 gigabytes a second, equivalent to increasing a car's speed from 10 kilometres per hour (kph) to 2,000 kph.

Among other advantages are the opportunity to publish and exchange research and information in various fields created by the latest technologies: for example, tele-health, tele-medicine, and tele-education. This kind of information will also become available to the approximately 313,000 university students in the country.

"This work is highly relevant to human development, because initiatives like Internet II bridge the gap between developed and developing countries," said Alfredo Marty, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) deputy resident representative for Bolivia.

Thursday's events were part of the National Digital Inclusion Plan. Over the next four years, the goal is "to move towards universal use and application of information and communication technology (ICT) in order to reduce the marginalisation, social exclusion and invisibility suffered by many Bolivians," ADSIB's Vallejos said.

This is an ambitious goal, given that there are only 1.23 computers for every 100 Bolivians and a total of 67,614 subscribers to the Internet, while less than four of every 100 households have an Internet connection, according to statistics from the Telecommunications Superintendency, the state regulatory body.

"A lot of ideas are being talked about these days, such as connectivity, networks, e-government and so on, but it's important that all these, as well as Internet2, should be available to everyone, not just an academic group that is rather an exclusive elite in Bolivia," said Máximo Terán, a rural schoolteacher.

"The government has sent computers to some rural towns, but some places don't even have electricity," he complained, referring to 31 educational community telecentres in remote locations of the country that were equipped by the present administration with computers and ICT, using solar power and other sources of energy.

We have to start somewhere, said Vallejos, who recently announced that the main thrust of the National Digital Inclusion Plan would be the prompt provision of multi-purpose community telecentres, "a tool for people in rural areas to gain access not only to informational content, but also to public services," he said.

However, that is still on the drawing board. The concrete achievement of Internet Day was the launch of CLARA, and other new departures like changing the state website domain name "gov.bo" ("gov" for government, in English) to "gob.bo" ("gob" for "gobierno", in Spanish).

A decree will be issued in early June to formalise the standardisation of domain names for state web pages, create specific regulations about formatting and use of e-mail within the state apparatus, and produce uniform government portals.

How will the digital divide be overcome by these measures? IPS asked Vallejos. "There is a great deal to be done; for example , not only must more Bolivians be able to connect to the Internet, but they must also know how to use the technology," he replied.

article originally published at http://www.ipsnews.net/news.asp?idnews=37799.

The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey