Although classed as an emerging economy, Brazil is among the top ten countries
worldwide when ranked by total number of broadband users. At the end of 2010
Brazil was in 9th position, with about 15m fixed broadband subscribers, as well
as 20m mobile broadband (3G) subscribers. This is not particularly surprising
considering that Brazil is the world's fifth most populous nation, but due to
the high levels of wealth disparity and the relatively large numbers of poor
and rural inhabitants scattered across its vast terrain, broadband penetration
in Brazil is lower than in other countries of equivalent income levels (ranked
by the World Bank as 57th in the world by GDP/capita - US$10,710 in 2010).
Regionally, Brazil is slightly above the Latin American average in terms of
penetration, but behind Chile, Argentina, and Uruguay. Speed of access follows
a similar pattern
Brazil is better than the regional average, but below US or European levels.
Likewise, Brazil has relatively good international fibre connectivity, although
it is not as well connected as some of its neighbours. Similarly, prices for
telecommunication and broadband access are lower than other countries in the
region yet still relatively high compared to North America and Europe, especially
outside the major cities. Phones, computer and telecommunication equipment are
also significantly higher in cost, partly due to import duties on IT equipment,
further reducing affordability of access among the lower-income groups.
Large variation in access levels:
As reflected by the wide variation in income levels within the country, broadband
access is very uneven. At one end of the spectrum there is a high density of
access in the industrialised urban areas, mostly in the south east of the country.
In these areas, Brazil has recorded some of the world's highest levels of Internet
use, and in particular, Brazilians have been early users of social networking
services such as Orkut, and now Facebook. At the other end of the spectrum,
there are the vast hinterlands of unconnected rural and remote areas, most particularly
in the less wealthy north and west part of the country. For example in the North-East
region, fixed broadband penetration languishes at 1.46%, while it is over 11%
in the more industrialised Sao Paulo region in the south.
The pattern of uneven access also repeats itself at the local level. Most cities
have wealthy areas with high levels of domestic broadband access, while close
by, in the informal townships (favelas), which house most of the country's poor,
there is almost no fixed broadband and residents mostly depend on cybercafes
or relatively slow and more expensive 3G connections.
In the last 10 years, the federal government has had little success in disbursing
its Universal Service Funds to address the digital divide, although a variety
of state and municipal level initiatives have improved the availability of public
access facilities to some extent.
Limited fixed infrastructure:
The private sector has invested about USD80bn in telecommunications over the
last 12 years, but Brazil's vast size and low population density in the rural
areas has resulted in limited national pervasion of telecommunication infrastructure.
This presents one of the biggest problems in broadening access to the Internet.
The relatively low level of fixed infrastructure, both in the long-haul, and
in the local loop for DSL-based broadband services, is one of the key constraints.
However the lack of middle-mile infrastructure necessary to ensure all 5500+
municipalities are connected to the national backbones probably represents the
biggest challenge to ensuring equitable broadband access across the country.
Competition in the fixed-line sector is low and fixed line penetration has actually
been falling due to mobile subscriber substitution. With the relatively high
level of penetration and competition between mobile networks, 3G services are
expanding rapidly to fill the demand for broadband, especially among lower income
households. As a result wireless access is likely to be the main growth area
for broadband in Brazil, especially now that some of the constraints in access
to radio spectrum have recently been addressed.
National broadband initiative launched:
In an effort to help to improve coverage and reduce the cost of broadband access,
the government has begun a major broadband infrastructure development initiative
which has set ambitious targets to triple broadband uptake by 2014. The largest
ICT infrastructure project ever carried out in Brazil, called the National Broadband
it aims to ensure that broadband access is available to low-income households,
especially in areas that have so far been poorly served.
In May 2010, when the project was officially announced, it was initially allocated
up to R$1bn (US$600m) a year until 2014 to ensure broadband reaches the 4000
cities and towns without broadband services, so that at least 40 million homes
(or 68% of the population) have access to speeds equal to or greater than 1Mbps,
for about USD20 per month.
The new government, under President Dilma Rousseff, has re-affirmed its commitment
to the PNBL which was originally developed under the previous President Lula
da Silva's administration. To implement the programme, the dormant former state-owned
monopoly operator, Telecomunicacoes Brasileiras (Telebras), has been resurrected
and given the task, working closely with the national regulator, Anatel, and
the Ministry of Communications which has also set up a special secretariat to
co-ordinate the PNBL in concert with the government's other digital inclusion
The initial focus of the PNBL has
been to address the deficiencies in the existing telecommunication operator
backbones by bringing on the oil and electricity network operators’ fibre networks
to help fill in the gaps. Local access is now also being addressed through
a variety of other measures, such as tax exemptions, reducing broadband license
fees, accelerating efforts to make additional radio spectrum available, and
other incentives to encourage the provision of broadband in rural areas.
In May this year (2011), Telebras awarded three operators contracts worth USD43mn
to provide transit, wholesale and broadband services in some states.
The Internet sector in Brazil is also supported by a large number of industry,
government and civil society groups, both monitoring and promoting access to
ICTs. As a result the level of up-to-date information on broadband utilisation
is high, and the debate over strategy is widespread.
The resurrection of the old public monopoly operator Telebras to compete with
the private sector has not been without controversy, and the extent to which
the poorest of the poor get access to broadband remains to be seen. But steadily
rising economic prosperity for the less wealthy, along with the flurry of ICT
investment made to prepare for the FIFA World Cup in 2014 and the Olympics in
2016, suggests there are much improved prospects wider adoption of broadband
in Brazil. The strategies adopted and lessons learned from both public and private
initiatives will be valuable for other developing countries planning to promote
better access to broadband, and are likely to have special relevance for other
large emerging economies, in particular the BRICS countries - Russia, India,
China and South Africa.