Will Mexico deliver internet for all?

Bnamericas Published: Friday, December 06, 2019
Will Mexico deliver internet for all?

The role of telecommunication regulators becomes more important as the need for greater mobile and telephony coverage becomes a crucial topic around the world. 

In Latin America, however, governments still pay little attention to communications and layout agendas with little planning and poor investment packages aimed at expanding their current infrastructure.

According to a recent study, Latin America needs to build three times the telecom infrastructure it built in the past 30 years to remain competitive a decade from now. 

But the need for connectivity goes beyond economic growth.

Connectivity should be a universal service for all, former Mexican telecommunications regulator IFT director Luis Fernando Borjón Figueroa told BNamericas.

In his 30 years in public office, the engineer achieved the first tender for a public network in digital TV in Mexico and he is also responsible for launching IFT's first radio spectrum tender for advanced mobile services.

Before leaving his post as director of telecommunications investment promoter Promptel, Borjón Figueroa worked closely on the deployment and operation of Red Compartida, the country's wholesale mobile broadband network that will speed up the roll-out of the network in small and low-income localities.

With the recent changes in IFT has gone through and the challenges Mexico will face ahead with the broadband network, BNamericas reached out to the former public servant to get his views on the government’s role in telecommunications.

BNamericas: How has the demand for telecommunications changed in the past 10 years?

Borjón Figueroa: It's very different. Following the [telecom reform of 2013], the penetration of broadband, especially mobile broadband, increased considerably. Those numbers went from 20 lines per 100 inhabitants to 70-71 lines per 100 inhabitants in 2012. That is a really remarkable growth. It has changed a lot. I think it is one of the consequences of the reform but, at the same time, it also gives us numbers that are sometimes a bit duplicated. It does not mean that 71 of 100 Mexicans have access to mobile broadband, we actually have mobile broadband internet penetration numbers above 50%, much like the data induced by Arab countries, some African countries as well. But we are not very high, almost half of the population is missing.

BNamericas: What role does infrastructure play in the expansion of networks?

Borjón Figueroa: Infrastructure is always an important element.

First, there has to be the infrastructure, there have to be the signals, there have to be the networks and hence the demand comes. If you don't have the networks, if there isn't a service offer, people won't get the services. You always get into the dilemma - as it is happening with 5G right now - of how are you going to show the advantages of this new technology to the customer when people don't know what it is. For example, when mobile phones started we were happy to be able to speak over the phone. It is a mobile terminal with a brutal computing capacity. Now we rarely speak on the phone, but we are exchanging data, exchanging videos, exchanging documents. It has already become another type of action that we did not carry out before because we did not know about the capacity that networks could have to distribute these documents. 

If we remember the [analog modems from before] of 64kb/s, right now we talk about speeds of 30Mbit/s or more.

So, telecommunications have changed thanks to infrastructure, but there is always the challenge of the interior service, the legacy service. Operators have to play with it all the time to maintain service continuity. Right now, many countries, including Mexico, are finishing with the 2G service. Who uses the 2G service? Rural areas, distant areas that used bands of 800Mbytes to be able to have service, a service almost analog but of very high propagation.

When you change from a 2G to 3G network, coverage is cut, even if you keep the same radio stations. And it is even worse in 4G because they get even smaller. So it really is a topic that implies that at the same time they change technology they put in more radio stations to satisfy the previous coverage, but it is a coverage that is not economically attractive.

BNamericas: What is the social coverage gap?

Borjón Figueroa: Mobile broadband penetration levels in Monterrey, Guadalajara and Mexico City have levels above 80 lines, above 90 sometimes. They are already very high. What does this tell us about the coverage gap? How easy it is to have a mobile device, how easy it is to have a smartphone, how affordable or how easy it can be paid, and that has to do with the economic capability of people. Can you pay for the equipment? Can you pay for the service? That is the other side of the coin and that is where Latin America in general - Mexico in particular - has a problem because of the purchasing power of the population. That is, reaching people who have a lower economic capability with a service they can afford and with terminals it is one of the biggest challenges.

BNamericas: Will Mexico bring internet to the whole country?

Borjón Figueroa: I think it is a desirable scenario for all countries. There are very marked universal service issues that have always defined countries.

The point is, there are things that are elementary for the development of society: health, safety, work. Communication, on the other hand, was declared a universal right by us, but under the condition of competition.

It is the obligation of the state to be able to provide these types of [rights]. Why? Because another thing that the communication service seeks is education. Just as there are illiterates who cannot speak or write, now those who do not have a digital culture or do not have access to the digital world are blocked from information. 

Having digital access is a must. You can achieve universal service, but the question is how much does it cost. Internet for all must be a project that is not only limited to [power state company CFE's fiber optics]. The CFE telecommunications fiber is not enough to provide services everywhere in the country. One thinks that once CFE arrives [with electricity to a rural area], 98% of the population or more will have fiber optics. No, it is not like that. It does not even reach 70% of the population.

BNamericas: How has the Red Compartida project that “will take the Internet to all of Mexico” progressed?

Borjón Figueroa: Right now, I think they took an important step. They changed one of the obligations of the Red Compartida. Someone said: "they pushed forward the obligations of social coverage." It is not true. The Red Compartida had no social coverage obligations, they imposed social coverage obligations. The Red Compartida had the obligation to cover 0.15% for each coverage point of the population. That is, if you covered 80% of the population, then you had to offer 12% of coverage to less than 10,000 inhabitants. They are still very large populations. [In the recent change], the obligation states that there are populations of less than 500 inhabitants. 

The degree of population identification is not timely. There is talk about 82,000 populations. It is very specific and they did not remove the other obligation. That goes on but until they reach 85%. 

What they have to cover is like 8% of the total coverage in rural areas, but very granular. It is quite difficult what they are asking them for and that is the reason why I think they moved the calendar one year.

Altán Redes has covered 70% for a while now, but now the challenge is in how will it reach these populations.

BNamericas: So fiber optics was the solution all along? 

Borjón Figueroa: Bringing fiber optics everywhere will be very difficult. They need to recognize that they have other options such as mobile terrestrial, the Red Compartida, Telcel, AT&T, satellites, fixed or geostationary services. The whole point is: do not eat the whole cake in one bite, do a long-term program instead. It must be a program that grows progressively, little by little and you will have universal service. Maybe less than eight years, but let's not forget that there have to be terminals, that people have to be able to pay for the service.

The government spends a lot of money on social programs. Why not raise funds?

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