HURRAY FOR URUGUAY Closing the digital divide aims to make democracy more open to all

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CANADA COULD USE A LITTLE URUGUAY. In 2013, The Economist named Uruguay the “country of the year.” How did an obscure, little country located in the southeastern region of South America win such an honour? By being one of the most liberal and advanced nations, not just in Latin America, but in the world at large.

Marijuana use, same-sex marriage, and abortion are all legal in Uruguay. Political corruption and income inequality are low, and the free press is highly respected. Uruguay also works hard at bringing the possibility of participating in its democracy to all its citizens by eliminating any “digital divide.”

The publicy-owned Administración Nacional de Telecomunicaciones (Antel) is Uruguay’s main telecommunications company. Movistar and Claro offer mobile wireless phone services, but the government-owned Antel has a monopoly of landline, telephony, and all hard-wired data services in the country. Antel makes sure the internet is available to everyone, almost everywhere.

Democracy goes digital
According to the website Euro Investor, Antel “has a strong commitment to universalize broadband access and has taken firm steps to eliminate the digital gap, with the current deployment of a nationwide fiber optic network.

The infrastructure offered by Antel is essential to the success of the Uruguayan Digital Agenda for an Information Society launched in 2008 by the government of Dr. Tabaré Vázquez.

Vázquez wrote the key objective of the program would be to: “increase the access of citizens—including the most marginalized—to government services and public institutions through the use of the Internet.”

Vázquez  said “overcoming the digital divide” was a key to “creating a culture of citizenship with clearly defined rights and responsibilities.”

Nowadays Antel has a total of 70% of households across the country connected to the Internet and more of 50% of those has fiber optic access. Antel is the first company in Latin America providing customers with LTE technology, placing Uruguay among the top 10 countries with the highest mobile broadband average.”

There was a move, in the early 90s, to privatize government-owned companies in Uruguay. A referendum rejected the attempt. This allowed Antel to stay public and continue to bring these services to the majority of the people.

In 2008, Antel expanded their monopoly on services even further by putting restrictions on cable companies which would keep them from providing internet with their cable services.

Some have argued that these actions are unconstitutional because consumers should have a choice of internet providers. But there are arguments to be made in favour of the status quo in this case.

In other countries, including Canada, private, for-profit cable companies are able to charge people more money for additional services, and as cable TV subscriptions are becoming less common thanks to the popularity of streaming services like Netflix, internet prices through cable companies are continuously increasing.

Here in Canada, cable and internet provider Bell got themselves into hot water last year when some of their customers received misleading internet prices and usage-based billing. This is something that could be avoided with the type of public internet service they have in Uruguay—a service that is provided as a public utility and separate from private ownership by cable companies.

This article was originally published by The Canadian Labour Institute.  
Reprinted with permission for CALM Members use.