Digital innovation is often hailed as the solution to accelerate socioeconomic development around the world, however, in countries such as Mexico, where less than half of the population has access to internet, the digital divide is still as vast as ever.
María Covarrubias describes how the Covid-19 pandemic is only accelerating this trend by drastically marginalizing underprivileged communities and leaving them with very few options for progress.
Much like other places in Latin America, the current digital divide in Mexico is a reflection of the country’s pervasive economic inequality. Even though the Mexican government has made significant efforts to improve its digital infrastructure, these efforts still fail to reach the more than half the population that is not already online. In the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, this reality leaves many of its citizens living in poverty or remote locations in a vulnerable position. Without access to the internet – or in many cases even a computer - they are unable to self-isolate, work from home or even continue with their education. This marginalization is certain to have long lasting effects, and the country stands to inherit a worse level of inequality and poverty than before the pandemic began.
With nearly 90% of households in Europe having access to the internet, countries in Europe have experienced a relatively smooth transition in the shift from onsite to online. By contrast, in Mexico only 51.2 million people have access to internet, representing less than half of the total population. Moreover, this statistic is heavily skewed towards the wealthier demographics who tend to live in urban areas: Data from the National Institute of Statistics and Geography (INEGI) shows that while seven out of ten people in the highest income sector are internet users, this drops to only two out of ten people earning within the lowest income bracket. When we look at the home as a unit of analysis, less than half of Mexican households own a computer and about 70% have access to the internet (See: The National Survey on the Availability and Use of Information Technology in Households (ENDUTIH).
The Mexican Government holds a core fibre optic network of over 25,500 km to control the market and guarantee net neutrality, however, this hasn’t resulted in more access for all. If anything, it hampers internet penetration by discouraging competitive market rates and private investment in infrastructure improvement. Not enough people can afford the current internet rates, and many of them live in areas deemed unprofitable to offer adequate services. As it stands, not even half of households in rural areas even have internet services available to them.
Even households that do own a computer and have access to internet still face other challenges: In Mexico an average family of four has to share electronic devices to be able to fulfil their school and work obligations. Deficiencies in telecommunications services make this even more complicated: According to the ENDUTIH, half of internet users had problems connecting to a network and had trouble with slow speed in information transfers. In the same study, more than a third of respondents reported an interruption in service.
Marginalised populations in Mexico have been therefore left significantly behind in digitalisation, a reality that has only grown more dire in the context of the ongoing pandemic. The government imposed lockdown to avoid an exponential increase of infections has generated important challenges: On one hand the daily performance of the individual such as online education and work, and on the other it has an impact in the purchasing power, which has an effect in the difficulties to purchase food or payment for services online. For the 3 out of 10 people in Mexico who live without internet, working or studying from home is essentially impossible. As described, this statistic is heavily weighted towards people living in rural areas and in poverty who were in a precarious and vulnerable situation even before the pandemic began.
In our current world, there exists an economy based on digital information and a new paradigm that is represented only by those who have access to it. Digital tools have become an essential tool for social mobility. Specifically, it is important to consider the effect of educational backlog on students from these marginalised communities. According to INEGI, high school students from rural areas obtained the worst results in overall evaluations in 2019. School closures due to the Covid-19 pandemic stand to only widen this educational gap, as nearly half of students don’t have access to a computer, tablet or smartphone with access to internet to continue with their education. The Mexican Ministry of Education predicts that the impact of the pandemic will reduce the graduation rate in upper secondary education by almost three percentage points over the next six years. Over the next ten years, it will significantly reduce the wages of that same generation.
The Covid-19 pandemic has put front and centre the importance of a digital society in which more people can have access to the benefits of technology. Technological change is more important than ever in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic and demands decisive and sustainable digital development models. Going forward, we need to take advantage of the digital era to transform government and society, and strengthen public-private and social partnerships in order to guarantee adequate digital access for everyone.