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Chile Surpasses One Million Broadband Connections

Nathan Crooks, Santiago, Chile, February 15, 2007

Two children play an on-line game on a computer in a nearly empty Internet café. (Photo: Joel Nito / AFP-Getty Images)

Chile, known globally for copper, wine, free trade, and its relatively high standard of living, ended 2006 with another distinction — the southern cone country now boasts both the highest rates of broadband connectivity and general Internet use in Latin America.

Sponsored by California-based tech company Cisco, the Latin America Broadband Barometer reported in January that Chile ended 2006 with 1,034,000 broadband Internet connections, nearly 6.8 dedicated connections per every 100 Chileans and far above the regional average.

The "broadband penetration rate," the number of dedicated, high-speed connections for every 100 residents is currently tracked by a number of international organizations and is frequently used to compare broadband access among nations. The rate tracks physical high-speed connections to the Internet, typically DSL, cable, or dedicated lines owned by universities, companies, and other types of Internet service providers.

In Latin America, Chile's 6.8 percent penetration rate is followed by Argentina with a 3.2 percent penetration rate, Brazil with 2.6 percent, Peru and Costa Rica with 1.5 percent, and Colombia with 1.1 percent, according to the most recent statistics available from the Cisco Barometer.

While the Barometer does not track Mexico, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) reported a broadband penetration rate of 2.8 percent in their most recent report. Other benchmark countries cited in the OECD report include the U.S. at 19.2 percent, Canada at 22.4 percent and Spain at 13.6 percent. Denmark is currently the most connected country on Earth, with 29.3 high-speed connections for every 100 residents.

Broadband connectivity is frequently seen as a key ingredient for a successful, innovative economy, and Cisco launched the Broadband Barometer with exactly that purpose in 2002. First brought to Chile when only 186,000 high-speed connections existed in the country, the Barometer set a specific goal of reaching the one-million connection benchmark by 2010 and began working with various Internet service providers and government organizations.

"We reached the goal in half the time," said Aldo Signorelli, the general manager of the Chilean Association of Information Technology Companies (ACTI). "In short, what we projected for eight years we reached in only four, thanks to an annual growth rate of nearly eighty percent …We can now begin work on increasing the actual speed of the connections and in increasing the amount of families and small businesses that are wired."

With the one-million mark reached so far ahead of the projected time, the Barometer now hopes to see 1.5 million connections in Chile by 2010, and organizers hope to replicate the Chilean success in other Latin American countries — Cisco launched the Barometer program throughout 2006 in Brazil, Argentina, Peru, Colombia, and Costa Rica.

While broadband connectivity is frequently cited as a key for economic development, businesses are not the only beneficiaries of policies that seek to increase high-speed connections. Internet World Stats, located online at http://www.internetworldstats.com, uses a variety of official information to publish updated statistics on a country's general Internet penetration — the total percentage of a country's residents that use the Internet, whether it be on a dedicated line or in a cyber café or library.

Chile once again leads the Latin pack with a general penetration rate of 42.4 percent as of January 2007, supporting the argument that broadband connections do trickle down and increase a population's general Internet penetration rate.

Other Latin American countries currently lag behind Chile including Argentina at 34 percent, Costa Rica at 22.2 percent, Mexico at 19 percent, Peru at 15.8 percent, Brazil at 13.9 percent, and Colombia at 12.9 percent. By comparison, 69.6 percent of U.S. residents have access to the Internet, while globally, 16.6 percent of the world's 6.5 billion people surf the net.

With the Cisco Barometer being launched in other Latin American countries, Chile is emerging as a regional leader in information technology. What is learned in Santiago can be exported and applied to other emerging Latin American economies, and Chile seems to have perfected the public-private alliances needed for sustained broadband growth.

Chile's President Michelle Bachelet said late last year that ending Chile's digital divide was essential to the country's success, pointing out that there was now one computer for every 30 students in the country. Bachelet pledged, however, that her government would specifically focus on increasing Internet connections in Chile's schools.

"These increases will allow us to develop our economy and increase its competitiveness, something that it is essential not only for generating more jobs, but decent and dignified jobs," said Bachelet.

Cisco's Broadband Barometer took note of these policies, as it found that Chile's educational sector saw the highest growth rate in broadband connections in 2006.

Chile's Internet boom is also getting a boost from the private sector. In October, Chile's Digital Country Foundation (Fundacion Pais Digital) took several high-level Chilean leaders, business executives, and technology prodigies to meet with major Silicon Valley companies including Google. The foundation seeks to promote Chile as a high tech gateway to the rest of Latin America and has already achieved marked success.

Shortly after the foundation's trip, networking company Oracle announced that it would move its Latin American headquarters to Santiago, and Google recently announced it would use Chile as its base for a giant new telescope to map the stars — a sort of Google Earth for the heavens.

As Chile's Internet boom takes hold, everyday Chileans are also starting to change their habits. For example, 2006 was a record year for online sales in Chile, with nearly 1.5 million people ordering $250 million of goods in 2006 — an increase of 44 percent from 2005, according to the Santiago Chamber of Commerce (CCS).

The biggest effects of an increasingly wired citizenry, however, are seen in the way the very fabric of society is changing. Cisco's Broadband Barometer found that most of the growth in high speed Internet connections in 2006 occurred outside of the Santiago metropolitan region, an encouraging fact in a country — and region — so centralized around the capital city.

Once known as Latin America's most conservative country, Chile is currently undergoing rapid social changes on many fronts. The Morning-after Pill is now distributed by the government, Chile's gay-rights movement is increasingly vocal, and environmental protests are quickly gaining strength against a number of very questionable, climate-defacing projects. These include the Pascua Lama gold mine project proposed by Barrick Gold, the Los Pelambres tailings dam project owned by the Luksic family, the Celco paper mill project operated by the Angellini group, and a succession of dams in far southern Chile promoted by various national and international consortiums.

The Internet seems to be an integral part of all these changes, and an increasingly wired citizenry is an increasingly vocal one, especially when rural residents now find they have an equal voice.

Sergio Laurenti, the director of Amnesty International Chile, said that the Internet is playing a vital role in all of AI-Chile's campaigns. "Internet use in Chile has grown in an explosive trend in the recent years, and our base of cyber-activism and Web visitors expanded significantly," he said, continuing, "Increased access to Internet in Chile and elsewhere has allowed many small organizations and individuals in remote areas to become part of an always expanding community of human rights defenders."

In a region plagued with inequality and past human rights violations, Chile is once again emerging as a shining beacon for Latin America. Just as Chile set the standard for democracy and economic policy in the region, the country now appears tasked with leading Latin America through its digital revolution.

This article originally appeared in the Santiago Times.

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