The Latin American and Caribbean region has made significant gains in information and communication technologies (ICT) in recent years.
The mobile industry generated an estimated $260 billion in economic value to the region in 2016—counting direct, indirect and productivity impacts—and supported 1.7 million direct and indirect jobs, according to GMSA, an industry group representing the interests of mobile operators around the world.
In a 2017 report, GMSA pointed to the fast expansion of 4G networks in Latin America and the Caribbean and said that at the current pace, the region’s 4G coverage would be on par with the global average by 2020. Here are some of GMSA’s other findings:
- At year-end 2016, 451 million people in the region had subscribed to a mobile service, giving the region a 70 percent subscriber penetration. This is higher than the global rate (66 percent), but lower than that of Europe (85 percent) or North America (80 percent). Projections are for another 60 million new subscribers to be added in Latin America and the Caribbean by 2020.
- Mobile subscribers are rushing to get smartphones. These devices accounted for 59 percent of total mobile connections by the first half of 2017.
- The region’s market is enormous. Latin America has nearly 350 million mobile internet subscribers, more than the United States and on pace to rival the size of the European market by 2020. However, about 300 million people in Latin America and the Caribbean remain “digitally excluded,” and that number is expected to dip only modestly, to 250 million, by 2020.
In other words, the region’s high levels of inequality translate into wide digital disparities. At one end of the spectrum are wealthy young men in cities; at the other, low-income older women in rural areas. Yet rural residents are among those who can derive major benefits from mobile services, for example by being able to pay bills or make purchases online instead of traveling to the nearest city.
Affordability is one factor keeping many people away from internet access and mobile ownership. In some countries, the cost of owning a mobile device can represent a good portion of a low-wage earner’s income. Other factors include security concerns, incomplete connectivity, a lack of digital skills and awareness, and a lack of local relevant content—for example, in indigenous languages.
The region clearly gets a mixed report card. In its Measuring the Information Society Report 2017, the International Telecommunications Union ranks most Latin American and Caribbean countries in the medium to upper groups of its ICT Development Index, which monitors performance on ICT infrastructure, use and skills. (Uruguay, Barbados and St. Kitts and Nevis earned higher rankings.) However, the region ranks lower than any other region except the Middle East and Africa on such quality measures as average download speeds and network latency (a measure of the miniscule delays that add up to slower performance).