COVID-19 and digital inclusion in Latin America and the Caribbean: A connectivity and access problem

June 04, 2020
author: | Carlos I. Ortuño (*)


One of the priorities of Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC) is to overcome the gap between "connected" or digitally included individuals and “unconnected" or digitally excluded individuals. This situation, categorized by Baigorri and Fernández (2000) as digital fracture or by other authors as digital divide (DD), consists of the small possibility that a considerable segment of the population has to access and effectively use Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) with the ultimate goal of achieving an improvement in their living conditions. The reasons that prevent their effective use lie not only in the lack of quality tools and sources of access, but also in the wealth of skills or knowledge to use these devices.

In the early 1990s, government action to reduce DD was channelled through the provision and use of computers in schools and public libraries. At the same time, a segment of private groups or non-governmental organizations built public spaces for free Internet access and provided remote sources for the use of Internet services. These initiatives provided for the "shared access model", a system still maintained in most countries in the region.

At present, the scheme of policies to reduce DD aims to ensure the effective presence of three elements: Technological infrastructure, connectivity infrastructure and technological or digital literacy, in order to provide people with access and effective use of ICTs. The availability of these factors would help promote individual and social development through genuine digital inclusion, defined not only as the ownership of equipment and software for individuals to access the Internet and ICTs, but also as an action that incorporates cognitive factors of significance. This would enable users of these technologies to understand the language used, master the contents accessed and, thus, feel socially included.

According to UNESCO, digital inclusion is a crucial element in addressing socio-economic inequalities in the region, where Internet access services are considered essential to ensure the well-being of citizens. In line with this perception and the 2030 agenda, LAC countries have made the universalization of Internet access a priority policy (Galperín, 2017).

However, according to ITU (2017), the number of unconnected or digitally excluded individuals in the region exceeds 200 million people of working age. This population resides mainly in urban areas where, paradoxically, the offer of access services is wide. From an income point of view, the IDB (2020) estimates that less than 30% of the most vulnerable families have access to computers.

Among the main elements that characterize connectivity in LAC, the following stand out: i) Deficits in telecommunications infrastructure; ii) low population density; iii) lack of human capital; iv) poverty, and v) inadequate regulatory framework. In addition, there are barriers associated with the lack of digital skills or low level of competence in using equipment ("technological illiteracy"). This condition occurs especially among low-educated individuals who did not complete the primary education cycle, which prevents them from making effective use of ICTs and reveals an education-connectivity relationship. The existence of many indigenous languages is another barrier of access, because they have no representation on the Internet (Galperín, 2017).

The slowdown in the pace of growth of the Internet-connected population in the region is also worth mentioning. According to ITU (2019), "as mobile broadband services (3G or 4G) coverage expands, there is a growing demand gap, a concept that captures the differences between Internet infrastructure coverage and service subscriptions." "There are just over 54 mobile broadband subscriptions per 100 inhabitants in the region," even though mobile broadband networks cover approximately 90% of the LAC population. These circumstances represent "a demand gap of approximately 200 million potential users, the causes of which must be sought in socio-demographic and human capital factors."

According to the IDB (2020), in 2018 56% of the LAC population used the Internet, but only 45.5% of households in the region had broadband connection. This proportion is lower than that of OECD member countries, of 86.3. According to ECLAC, the average digital divide between rural and urban areas is 27%. In Peru, the DD has been addressed through the Internet for All (IpT) Project, which "makes it possible for telecommunications operators to use existing infrastructure to expand the coverage of 4G LTE mobile technology services". At present, the IpT project has 3,130 sites, and by 2021 it aims to install 866. This initiative, whose purpose is to "connect the unconnected", is the result of an alliance between IDB Invest, CAF-development bank of Latin America and two large computer transnationals.

A recent study by CAF-development bank of Latin America (2020) concludes that the digital divide in LAC is being exacerbated, because "Internet use in much of Latin American households is limited to communication tools and social networks," and thus "Internet penetration per se does not reflect a high degree of digital resilience of Latin American households." The digital divide prevents the region from effectively leveraging and relying on ICTs to drive the sustainable development and integration processes of countries. At present, amid the disruption of the pandemic, the DD represents a very significant vulnerability that compromises the success of the measures that LAC governments have taken in response to COVID-19.

In fact, many of these measures are aimed at intensifying and ensuring the continuity of operations in areas such as telehealth, telework, teleeducation, government and electronic commerce, among others. Organizations linked to health systems for pandemic containment use ICTs during the execution of activities, including traceability, diagnosis, prevention, control, mitigation, treatment, remote communication (with patients, specialists, healthcare assistant, protection personnel and authorities, among others), construction and use of specific app and communication devices in real time. In other sectors, digital initiatives include activities associated with service provision, sourcing of goods, social connectivity, and access to information and entertainment.

Ensuring the development of the aforementioned activities and the universal access of users to these services implies the urgent need to maximize the capabilities of the digital ecosystem of the region, so that it becomes an effective tool in the fight against COVID-19 and is a basis for post-pandemic resilience.

In order to consolidate the use of the Internet, a key component of the digital ecosystem in the region, UNESCO recommends the incorporation of the following premises, within the framework of planning regional programmes for the reduction of the digital divide: i) Addressing critical barriers to access: Affordability, digital skills and relevance; ii) the extension of the regulatory framework aimed at strengthening competition in access markets; and iii) the need to implement public policies that guide private investment and complement them in areas of low economic profitability and high social impact (Galperín, 2017).

According to this organization, digital inclusion planning and projects should incorporate the implementation of the following public initiatives: i) Promoting connectivity of educational facilities, in parallel with curriculum reforms and the introduction of ICTs in schools; ii) developing online applications and contents to meet the needs of groups with low connectivity, in particular older adults, people with disabilities and indigenous language speakers; and iii) granting connectivity subsidies for low-income households with school-age children subject to the development of educational activities. In addition, UNESCO made ten specific recommendations to ensure continuity of the teaching-learning process during the closure of schools due to the pandemic (UN, 2020).

For its part, CAF, in highlighting the role that digitization can play in mitigating the pandemic and making some eminently technological recommendations, stressed the importance of: i) Stimulating the productive sector for it to innovate around the restructuring of processes that may increase the percentage of the population that can work remotely; ii) emphasizing training of the most vulnerable social sectors to mitigate unemployment; and iii) promoting cooperative action by the government sector, the private sector and civil society in the region with a view to agreeing on and facilitating the implementation of the necessary actions to optimize the performance of the digital ecosystem (CAF, 2020).

One can only hope that the implementation of these recommendations, on the basis of the premises given and with the support of UNESCO, will contribute to solving the connectivity problems and eventually strengthen digital inclusion in the region with all the benefits it would offer at present and, especially, in the post-COVID-19 era.


  • Baigorri, Artemio and Fernández, Ramón (2000). Universitarios de primera y universitarios de segunda: la fractura digital en la universidad.  First World Congress on Technology Literacy in a Connected World. Available at:

  • CAF-development bank of Latin America and the Caribbean (2020). El estado de la digitalización de América Latina frente a la pandemia del COVID-19. Available at:

  • Galperín, Hernán (2017). Sociedad digital: brechas y ritos para la inclusión digital en América Latina. UNESCO Regional Bureau for Science in Latin America and the Caribbean: Montevideo. Available at:

  • International Telecommunications Union (ITU) (2017). Measuring Digital Development: fact and figures 2017. Geneva: ITU. Available at:

________________________________________________ (2019). Measuring Digital Development: fact and figures. Geneva: ITU. Available at:

United Nations Organization. UN News (2020). Diez recomendaciones para estudiar a distancia durante la emergencia del coronavirus. Consulted on: 5 May 2020. Available at:

(*) Official of the Centre of Information and Database
Direction of the Information and Knowledge Network



(*) Official of the Centre of Information and Database

Direction of the Information and Knowledge Network