Mexico Connects -- Policy and Rural Broadband

'Use of unlicensed spectrum on a secondary basis, such as Wi Fi and Wi Max standards -- is a matter of true public interest. This is the kind of project that does need government intervention, because there is a market failure'

by / November 30, 2004

Adriana Labardini is an attorney, who graduated from the Escuela Libre de Derecho in Mexico City. She wrote her thesis in 1987, on legal and regulatory aspects of satellite communications just after Mexico launched "Morelos" the nation's first communications satellites. Labardini earned a Master in Laws degree from Columbia University as a Fulbright Scholar, became a telecommunications and corporate lawyer but gravitated to regulatory issues. In 1999 she was appointed secretary of the Board of the Mexican Federal Telecommunications Commission.

Labardini was interviewed by GTI Editor Wayne Hanson in Mexico City as she returned from a year studying at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, focusing on public policy for sustainable development through information technologies.

Her purpose now, she said, is to launch a project to empower rural communities in Mexico through the use of Internet and digital literacy, building e-readiness and local content that can improve a given community's economic situation.

How did you become involved in national telecommunications issues?

First, while in Columbia U., I had the chance to work for Prof. Eli Noam, director of the Columbia Institute of Tele Information, a prestigious think tank within the business school addressing economic, regulatory and public policy issues of the telecomm and information industry.

At that time, in 1990, President Salinas de Gortari announced the privatization of Telmex as part of its ambitious economic liberalization plan. Thus, an enormous, undivested government monopoly was privatized and became a private monopoly with a gradual introduction of competition. Amazingly, regulation through the Telecommunications Act only came five years after privatization (we started playing the game before knowing the rules) and the law firm for which I worked participated partially with the Ministry of Communications, in that regulatory framework.

Then the Federal Telecommunications Commission was created in 1996, in an attempt to follow a world model of creating an independent regulatory body. However, it was a hybrid regulator because the Ministry of Communication [retained] part of its powers, and hierarchy ... over the Commission and its decisions. Besides, the licensing procedures were split among both entities, making it a long and burdensome journey for potential investors, not to mention the tensions and lack of adequate budget coordination between both, resulting in no strategic public policies, poor law enforcement and tons of law suits against the Commission's decisions due to a weak mandate and structure.

In a desire to contribute to regulatory projects and [to help make the decision process] more transparent and consistent, I accepted the chairman's invitation in 1999 to join the Commission, as secretary of the Board of Commissioners (el Pleno).

Four years later, after starting a new effort of restructuring the Commission's procedures which never came into existence, [and after the telecom bubble burst] I saw the need of addressing issues of long-term public policy ... and a systematic analysis of policy-making processes. So I applied and was awarded a Hubert H. Humphrey fellowship from the U.S. State Department, hosted by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, to focus on development through information technologies -- mainly Internet, public policy and IT, business models for the base of the pyramid -- among others.

I was fortunate to meet there Dr. Jane Patterson former North Carolina Secretary of Administration and Executive Director of the e-NC authority, who leads a very successful initiative, making high-speed Internet available to every N.C. resident at reasonable prices in rural areas and [which] makes sure that every individual knows how to use it and benefit from it, including by the way, near 400,000 Mexicans that have migrated to that state.

What kinds of programs does the Mexican government have now to foster Internet access, and how are they working?

There are several, separate digital efforts from both federal and state governments, businesses and NGOs, all useful, all providing some sort of solution at a given location or for a given group of people -- but uncoordinated, few of them community based. What we are still lacking from the government ... is a visionary, strategic, and "broad-mind" Broadband Internet policy cutting across all federal agencies, tightly linked to an even broader policy of sustainable development, as strongly recommended to Mexico by the World Bank and the Inter American Development Bank.

As a Humphrey Fellow, I made research on President Fox's e-Mexico project, one of the major federal programs, which has opened 3,200 community plazas -- public Internet access kiosks in 3,200 municipalities throughout the country. The system includes satellite connection to Internet -- an average of 10 computers per site -- where digital training is provided, elementary and middle school programs for adults through traditional teaching methods and also through the CONEVYT and SEP software; a TV set is provided for educational videos too.

Who "owns" and accounts for the digital centers? Who will maintain and upgrade the equipment? What has been the economic impact of the community members of these 3,200 communities with around 32,000 desktops in a country with 103 million population? [That has] yet to be seen.

Apparently, different ministries are in charge of the centers. In some cases SCT, SEP, SEDESOL, or SS all federal ministries. It is a federal program going from top to bottom, and not a grass-roots community based project, like eNC and like some of the very impressive NGOs projects in Oaxaca.

An e-Mexico public access plaza in Mexico City. This "community plaza" has free computer and software training but no Internet connection. Photo by Adriana Labardini

[I visited a plaza near a school in Mexico City.] It was well located, with good equipment. They were giving lessons on Microsoft programs. But they were not connected to the Internet after one year of operation, and there was only one trainer, part time.

There are other efforts at the federal level within SEP as far as educational content is concerned, Secretar
Wayne Hanson

Wayne E. Hanson served as a writer and editor with e.Republic from 1989 to 2013, having worked for several business units including Government Technology magazine, the Center for Digital Government, Governing, and Digital Communities. Hanson was a juror from 1999 to 2004 with the Stockholm Challenge and Global Junior Challenge competitions in information technology and education.

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