Mexico: Latin America's second-largest economy lags in digital accessibility

Barely 17 percent of Mexicans have internet access at home, compared to 40 percent of Chileans. High costs are in part blamed for this digital divide.

Of all the numbers that demonstrate Mexico’s persistent inequality, the digital divide is one of the more surprising.

There are fewer than 41 million Internet users in Mexico, a country of more than 112 million people. That’s a connectivity rate of just 36 percent in Latin America’s second-largest economy.

Barely 17 percent have Internet access at home, according to the latest figures of the Americas Barometer, a survey by Vanderbilt University’s Latin American Public Opinion. Although the digital divide – the gap between those who can afford access and those who can’t – has narrowed in recent years, progress has been slow and Mexico still finds itself well below its peers.

More than 40 percent of Chileans have Internet at home, according to the barometer. Brazil ranks second with a home connectivity rate above 38 percent. Sixteen Latin American countries fare better than Mexico, including all of Central America.

Many observers blame the high cost of broadband in Mexico – and the telecommunications dominance of billionaire Carlos Slim. (Yesterday, Mr. Slim was named Forbes' richest man in the world for the fourth consecutive year.) His companies, including Telmex, control nearly three-quarters of Mexico’s broadband connections, according to Jeffrey Puryear, vice president for social policy at the Inter-American Dialogue. Fast access in Mexico costs almost twice as much as it does in Chile.

Earlier this year, Slim announced he would invest $300 million in connectivity, digital libraries, and equipment for schools, as well as translations of Khan Academy online courses into Spanish. Telmex says its digital libraries will “create opportunities for development and education,” giving needy students access to 21st century tools.

The libraries mimic the free “cyber centers” Mexico City provides in metro stations as well as the work of nonprofits like Fundación Proacceso, whose network of “innovation and learning centers” offers access and free courses in marginalized communities.

Many have lauded Slim’s gift, but Mr. Puryear notes that the high cost still remains the heart of the issue.

“The most effective step that Carlos Slim could take to give poor children greater access to online courses would be to share his near-monopoly in telecommunications,” Puryear said in a recent Inter-American Dialogue newsletter.

The digital divide in Mexico has far-reaching consequences for education, too. As Mexico struggles to overhaul its education system – beginning with a major constitutional reform last week – it will be hard-pressed to close inequality gaps as long as only some students have access to digital tools.

The digital divide did narrow in recent years in Mexico, if only slightly. The number of users rose 14 percent between 2010 and 2011, according to the latest figures from the Mexican Internet Association, or AMIPCI. Connectivity has been bolstered by a boom in smartphones, whose use doubled over the same period.

Still, Mexico has a long way to go if it wants to catch up to the rest of Latin America – and not get left behind in the Information Age.

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