Brazil is a beautiful land, full of bustling development. And even though, traditionally, Brazil is thought of as a land of dichotomy between the favelas (shanty towns) and the ultra-rich, increasingly it is being defined by its emerging middle class.
So when I was in Brazil, in the city of Curitiba and state of Paraná, for two weeks late last year, I asked this question: How does one of the most rapidly growing economies of the world, with one of the most Internet-savvy populations, get connected?
Because Brazil is not there yet, for the most part.
Walking through the many malls, you will quickly see that for 2,000 raeis (approximately 1,200 USD at current exchange rates), you could get a “new, top-of-the-line” laptop with Windows Vista, a 200GB hard drive, 2GB of DDR2 RAM, and an outdated 1.3-GHz dual core processor. A similar model in the US would sell for $250.
Brazilian taxes and tariffs, in general, are very high, and electronics can carry additional fees of more than 75 percent. The resulting high prices -- for outdated tech, no less -- cause Brazilians to look for friends and family returning from abroad to bring home quality products, particularly computer equipment and software.
In fact, many Brazilians make extra cash by going to Paraguay, a duty-free zone, and returning to resell these electronics in Brazil.
If one cannot afford a PC in Brazil, there are still school libraries and the ubiquitous “LAN houses.” As we passed through a small mountain farming town, with literally one paved road and horses being the most popular form of transport, the LAN house was the center of local activity. People of all ages relaxed in the sun with beers, having a good time while waiting for their turn to access the Internet. In a country that has always had a difficult time connecting one area to another, the Internet is clearly bringing people closer together in new and exciting ways.
The real boon to information-sharing in Brazil is cellphones. I have never seen more people “getting more bars” than I did in Brazil. I even noticed on several occasions where cell towers were built over favela houses. Residential cell towers are a rare sight in the US, seen only after extensive zoning battles.
The economic benefits of wireless connectivity to the favelas cannot be underestimated. Having a phone number to use as the face of a business is a tremendous boon. The majority of people in the favela are self-employed tradesmen, and previously, business relationships were formed by word of mouth. Telecom had little relevance then; now, it's making a positive difference.
But while connectivity is booming, the pricing model leaves much to be desired. Phone services are very expensive, and many people opt to pay by the minute, rather than signing up for a monthly plan. To call outside of your local area code and state is prohibitively expensive. Most mobile phone users use a phone card for those kinds of calls (pay phones accept only prepaid cards, to prevent crime). A 5-raeis phone card will get you a 2- to 3-minute out-of-state phone call. That equates to paying about $1 a minute!
One of the biggest reasons why people have mobile phones and bear the expense is security, they say. In a land where danger lurks in the shadows, the ability to reach out for help instantly can be a great comfort. A phone is also very useful for calling a taxi, if one is needed.
During my visit, no one I talked to seemed to care at all that the government would be installing tracking devices in all cars by the end of 2011. Since tracking devices are already in place in all transport trucks, no one seems to mind; the added security outweighs the privacy issues.
Brazil is simply used to this kind of monitoring. Automatic ticketing machines for fining speeding drivers, for example, have been in use for some time.
All in all, major strides are being made, and the pace of change is incredibly fast. Still, Brazil’s Web-based future is far from secure, given prohibitive PC costs, high service costs, and recent actions by the new government regarding the sharing of WiFi.
Nevertheless, keep your eye on the emerging tech-savvy middle class as it continues to grow, in spite of systemic weaknesses.
— Adam Williams works as a technology consultant dealing with medical, security, and LBS tech.