Innovative Project Bridges Digital & Housing Divide

Thursday, October 27, 2005

A dream of bridging the digital divide is coming true in the countryside outside Mexico City. A municipality called Tecamac in the state of Mexico witnessed birth of Real del Sol, a development of 1,800 small but attractive homes surrounded by palm trees, quiet streets and a connection to the world.

Surprisingly it is a pilot project in Mexican low-income housing. Even more surprising, perhaps, is that each home comes equipped with a computer and a high-speed connection to the Internet. A Mexican Texa PC connected to the Internet is included in the house price, and the connectivity is merely $18 per month, including a neighborhood portal, a security system, e-mail account and more. All that for about half the cost of DSL connection service in the region. The homes are available to families earning less than U.S. $700 per month, and according to Adriana Labardini, a telecommunications expert, demand has exceeded all expectations, as about 600 homes are now finished and sold.

“With visionary and socially responsible entrepreneurs, like Real Paraiso, inexpensive houses are not condemned to be ugly, poor quality, environmentally unfriendly and technology divorced,” said Labardini. In addition to connecting to the Internet, the housing development has its own Web site for local interaction with neighbors and allows online purchasing from local shops, internal communication among neighbors and its homeowners association, and an impressive security system you can access online.

“So you have the potential to order all the supplies you need and you can order your meat online, or a taxi,” she said. “The businesses in the neighborhood are advertised on this Web site, offering special prices for the neighborhood. So this is the kind of grass roots, creative and consumer-oriented project we want to see in Mexico.”

Security cameras are located throughout the neighborhood’s common areas. “From your job, for instance,” said Labardini, “you just access that Web site, enter your password, and you can watch the neighborhood and your door entrance on the Web site. Or when you are at home, working or cooking, parents can watch their children play on the playground nearby.”

A public elementary school has been built in Real del Sol and is also connected. The federal government through INEA provides digital educational contents both for youth and adults who had no formal education, and a multimedia program called the Encyclomedia, for fifth and sixth graders. “So this state of the art elementary school,” said Labardini “was possible because of the vision and commitment of Mexican entrepreneurs who believe in doing well while doing good and the use of disruptive technology.”

The project has caught the attention of many people from President Fox to Microsoft and Intel. The latter offered promotional support and low prices in partnership with Texa for both hardware and software. Infonavit, the federal government financial entity for low-income housing, has also endorsed the project as a role model that should be followed by other developers. It is a win-win investment.

Real Paraiso, the developer named it G-7 Habitat (Seventh generation homes).

Two weeks ago, Conectha, the ISP, was awarded by President Vicente Fox, the “Housing Best Practices” Annual Award, a recognition within the “Premio Nacional de Vivienda.”

“That’s an example of what creativity, goodwill and ethics can do. It is a beautiful place,” said Labardini.

Monopolies and Regulatory Opposition
Not everyone, however, is as enamored of the Tecamac project as Labardini. Being very well acquainted with Mexican telecommunications regulation, she is acutely aware of the power of an entrenched telephone industry not willing to deploy broadband access to remote or low-income areas, while opposing municipal wireless networks in underserved markets arguing unfair competition. Therefore Wi-Fi hotspots are limited to airports, hotels, coffee shops or restaurants, and intra-building LANs, provided they are connected by the incumbent’s ISP or telephone carriers. This has created difficulties in reaching the base of the pyramid population — the isolated rural communities, and homes without telephone service.

Labardini says the digital divide will only widen without municipal or community-owned wireless networks as are appearing in many developed and developing countries. “What’s important is the ability of this pilot to be replicated,” said Labardini, “that’s what we’re really looking for. And this represents a major challenge for the regulatory agencies. Why? Because Mexico is still struggling to draft a public policy that truly serves the public interest — that is, the 104,000,000 citizens — as regards fostering broadband connectivity and a development-driven Information Society. The [U.S.] FCC in 1985 reserved unlicensed spectrum for communications purposes which in turn triggered the development of the IEEE 802.11 standard for what we know as ’Wi-Fi.’ But here, the Communications Ministry (SCT) 20 years later contested COFETEL’s (the spectrum and telecomm regulatory body) ruling proposal to unlicense the 900 MHZ, 2.4 and 5 GHz bands for wireless Internet access. SCT’s proposal not only has major legal flaws but lacks legitimacy since it overlooks the public interest of a population of 90 million who are not connected. So let’s hope COFETEL’s proposal prevails, otherwise SCT would be blocking every single effort of President’s Fox education, economy, social affairs and foreign affairs’ ministers to bring Mexico to the Information Society and to reduce poverty.

“Nice hotels, cafes and office buildings in Mexico have wireless hot spots,” says Labardini, “which is fine, but we need to make sure that inexpensive access to rural areas is secured by the regulators so that we empower low-income communities by making Internet available at home. Public e-Mexico telecenters and private cyber cafes are a good start to build — marginally — some digital literacy. But the social impact of having Internet at home for information, education, security, health, livelihood and communications purposes is the best way to fight poverty and isolation. The idea of connectivity in an OECD member such as Mexico goes far beyond having Internet access at … telecenters and Sanborns restaurants.” Labardini begins speaking faster here, as she focuses on the subject about which she is most passionate.

“The long-awaited communications infrastructure is now possible by leapfrogging the basic wired network. Technology brings Mexico the once-in-a-lifetime chance to connect millions of people through enabling wireless networks rather than by creating public telecenters which are seldom sustainable. The only thing we need is to remove unjustified regulatory constraints.

“They tell me: ’poor people, why would they want to go online when they first need food, housing, clothing, education?’ First of all, because wisely-driven ICT grassroots programs do break the cycle of poverty and empower people to a better life. Secondly, the number two source of income is remittances from outside Mexico. We have 25 million Mexicans who have migrated, and who send to Mexico over $18 billion a year to their families in Mexico. So these people need to transfer money and goods and communicate with their relatives in other countries, and we don’t even give them a voice over IP connection so they can call their relatives abroad or receive the money electronically at low cost? No. Instead, in Ayoquezco Oaxaca, rural cellular telephony charges U.S. $0.82 plus tax per minute for a call to California. That is absolutely unacceptable.

“This is an opportunity to build Wi-Fi and most importantly, WiMAX networks with a wider range. But the telephone companies are not interested in going there. They’ve had a chance. Why don’t we let ISPs, municipal authorities, or even communities finance and own a small Wi-Fi network that can link its community to the world? So they could send voice over IP, access information, advertise agricultural produce and make a better living. All kinds of miraculous community-based projects are possible — as we saw in North Carolina under the vision and empowerment of a person like Jane Patterson, director of e-NC. Why not do that in Mexico, where poverty is especially bad and is rooted in the rural community? The open spectrum is a tool for development, especially in the Information Society. If we want to see more projects like Tecamac, we need to allocate more unlicensed spectrum with higher power.

“Technology will take care of interference. The companies will have to offer some interference and security solutions. So let’s not try to ban this just because of technical problems that technology can take care of.”

Final Irony
Surprisingly, Tecamac, this Internet-connected city of the future, until recently had no telephone service. “The incumbent only started providing the service (although it had deployed the phone lines) when a critical mass of residents was present,” said Labardini. “So for a while we had the development served only by Internet, no voice. The ISP is not allowed to provide voice over IP, because it is not a carrier.”

Mexican laws still do not recognize convergence, said Labardini. “This is local voice, this is long-distance voice, this is video and this is data. They are all in different drawers. Uganda, Colombia, Bangladesh, India — they do not have this narrow-minded view of what a regulation should focus on. In Mexico we have wonderful resources, wonderful people, good software programmers, but we do not have the vision and the willingness to put them to work in harmony to the benefit of users. Profitability of huge firms is what matters. But reaching to a greater market, 100 million instead of 10 million — I would think, must be a better business. See The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid by C.K. Prahalad.

“The reason for regulatory agencies,” she said, “is to create a balance between the interest of capital and the public interest.”

Source: Government Technology (link opens in a new window)