The reality of 5G in Latin America

The region faces a major dilemma: pursuing 5G revenue objectives or prioritising a broader and more robust coverage rollout to bridge the digital divide and accelerate digital transformation.

Reading time: 3 min


The socio-demographic reality of Latin America

To analyze the 5G situation in Latin America, it is necessary to consider the technological reality of the region. A precise diagnosis of the situation must start from the differentiation in the level of evolution of Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) in large urban areas in contrast with outlying and rural areas of lower population density. While the former cities have high quality 4G services, with high penetration and good user experience, the latter have problems of lack of connectivity. The population of these rural or hard-to-reach areas does not even have 4G coverage, but rather 2G and 3G networks with quasi-aspirational Internet access.

This reality means that Latin America faces a titanic challenge: closing the digital divide so as not to deprive the entire population of the opportunities and advantages of digitization, regardless of their place of residence.

This will require public policies adapted to the sociodemographic reality of the region, with market conditions that encourage investment and provide the legal security of these huge outlays. The objective of these policies should focus on ensuring connectivity for all citizens to guarantee access to quality digital education, telemedicine services, remote work, among other activities. This brings us to a new challenge generated as a consequence of the global pandemic of Covid-19 that aggravates the situation in Latin America in terms of digital divide.

José Juan Haro (Director of Public Policy and Wholesale Business, Telefónica Hispam) and José Otero Muñoz (Vice President of 5G Americas for Latin America and the Caribbean), moderated by Rosa Jiménez Cano (journalist) analyzed the challenges and opportunities of 5G development in a debate organized at Casa de América, under the title “What are we talking about when we talk about 5G in Latin America?

The contribution of 5G networks to the connectivity of the region

5G networks will be a firm bet for the productive and industrial development of our societies and economies. However, they are a false promise if the expectation it generates is transferred to closing the digital divide affecting Latin America.

This premise should make us reflect on whether in reality “the promise of 5G in Latin America” is convenient or could even delay that greater connectivity, digitalization, and reduction of gaps that the region so longs for and needs. In fact, the resources that would be allocated to 5G could distract from a more efficient purpose for the objectives of greater coverage, such as: accelerating 4G and fiber optic deployments. In this type of decisions -which fall under the scope of the different national governments- there is a trade-off that must be overcome for the immediate benefit of 4G, a technology that has not yet reached its level of maturity in the region.

In short, the governments of the region face a major dilemma: to pursue the revenue goals promised by 5G (through bidding processes) or to postpone this decision in order to lay the foundations for broader and more solid coverage to enable the country’s maximum development.

Faced with this dichotomy, the main objective should always be the general benefit of citizens that accompanies the progress of the region. Therefore, public policies must be in line with the specific reality of each of the markets, looking after the general benefit rather than the specific economic interest. As we pointed out in our Digital Deal, digital transformation is the best lever to build back better our societies and economies and, to develop it, it is key to expand the coverage and capacity of infrastructures.


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