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Brazilian government and corporates disagree over fiber optic roll-out

Telcos don't see national fiber coverage as a priority; reelected president wants half the population to get Internet access to the technology.

Telecommunications companies operating in Brazil have implied that rolling out fiber optic networks across the country is not a priority — despite government ambitions to improve nationwide broadband access through the technology.

The head of Brazilian telecoms union Sinditelebrasil, Eduardo Levy, has been quoted as saying that there is no point in creating fiber networks in more remote areas will not be able to pay for the service.

"There is a cost that is not compensated by the demand. People [in areas outside large urban areas] do not need [fiber] and do not want it. Fiber is about fixed internet access and people want mobility ," Levy told portal Convergência Digital, adding that it makes more sense for countries with poorer infrastructure to focus on mobile access.

The view of the telcos is at odds with government intentions: during her recent campaign, reelected president Dilma Rousseff talked about her "Internet for all" plan of connecting digitally excluded Brazilians by broadening the fiber optic infrastructure of the country.

Data from the Ministry of Communications suggests that about 42 percent of Brazilian municipalities still lack fiber optic infrastructure and president Rousseff has expressed her desire to cover most of those locations in her second mandate. But the Brazilian president has also conceded that telcos will not invest unless there is a legal requirement to do so - and the latest union declarations reinforce that fact.

According to to Communications minister Paulo Bernardo, Rousseff has requested the Internet For All project is fleshed out ahead of the start of her new presidential term on January 1.

The president has "a few options to choose from," according to the minister, but the overall idea is to create a government-sponsored program to promote the development of broadband provision with fiber networks, particularly amongst citizens of lower incomes — the parcel of the population that, according to the telcos, does not want or need fast Internet. 

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"We can, and we need, to considerably expand our fiber optic networks," the minister told delegates at an awards ceremony last night.

The president is correct to imply that without a major policy shift to increase competition and investment in infrastructure, broadband provision in Brazil will continue to lag behind the rest of the world. But there is more groundwork to do. 

Hyper-connected South Korea has shown the world how that's done: it provided incentives to computer manufacturers to make purchasing of computers possible by poorer people, while subsidizing the price of connections for that digitally excluded part of the population.

In addition, it invested in the actual infrastructure, a first step towards creating ways to encourage more companies to enter the market without having to make massive investments. This in turn led to more choices and cheaper services.

As it stands, the handful of companies that concentrate the provision of broadband services in Brazil are unlikely to let their monopolies slip away all that easily, or even agree to novelties such as open networks. So far, they have also been allowed to get away with it: only recently telcos have been forced to comply with minimum standards of services, which come at a premium. 

What Brazil needs is a clear-cut plan to become a connected country, so creating the environment and policies necessary to make high-speed connections accessible to a large parcel of the population. But the process of creation of Brazil's Internet governance rules has proven that getting the telcos to cooperate is far from easy.

In her second term, Rousseff will have to take responsibility for these improvements rather than leaving it all up to the private sector, make that plan a priority - and of course, execute on it.