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| 1/21/2011 12:00:00 AM

Virtual Traffic Jam

Colombia could have to face a traffic jam in the telecommunications highway. What would the government do?

Colombia needs to improve its telecommunications infrastructure to avoid saturation and prevent it from becoming another mess similar to the one in the roads. The demand for services like Internet access or mobile telephony has been growing so fast that the networks could fall short to respond to the dynamic.

According to the company Comscore, specialized in statistics about Internet, in September Colombia had 11.8 million unique users on the web and was ranked as the fourth largest market in the region, really close to Argentina (12.8) and surpassed only by Brazil (38.1 million) and Mexico (17 million). The number of users in Colombia grew 30 percent in one year and, if the dynamic continues, the third place in the rankings is just around the corner.

With the increase of users, Internet traffic has soared: it grows at higher rates than 60 percent for sites hosted overseas and 45 percent for Colombia. Traffic to Google, Youtube and Facebook is growing well above average.

As this occurs, the country still has five submarine cables with good capacity, but all are hosted in the Caribbean. This generates huge vulnerabilities. Proof of this were the five Internet disconnections that the country suffered over the past five years, especially between 2006 and 2007.

Cellular companies are giving another sign of saturation. These firms are offering more ‘heavy’ services for the web, as mobile Internet access; at some point the spectrum used to send signals will no longer be enough because the number of these services’ users grows every day.

The picture is not disastrous, but it is necessary to take action on the matter. This was understood by Diego Molano, Minister of Information Technologies and Communications, who recognizes that the network overload is a real threat. In fact, the telecommunications infrastructure is one of the priorities of the Development Plan for the sector, called ‘Vive Digital’.

The solutions

The first important move will be in a couple of weeks, when a tender for 400 billion pesos (200 million dollars) will be opened for an operator to construct the fiber optic network that will reach 700 municipalities. It is an ambitious goal, because it would mean to cover 90 percent of the country. This would also achieve the targets of quadrupling the number of subscribers to broadband (Internet access with high speed) from 2.2 million people to 8.8 million, and increasing the national capacity to carry data.

On the other hand, Molano believes it is necessary to install more submarine cables to consolidate the international network. The country currently has five of this type, all located in the Caribbean. Molano aspires to leave another one installed in the Pacific, to reduce vulnerability.

Provide more spectrum is key to cell phones companies, as this would help them overcome their capacity difficulties. The decision was approved by the National Agency of the Spectrum. Additionally, new bands will be allocated to other operators that can provide interconnection services with more advanced technologies.

Colombia is witnessing a rapid development in the telecommunications industry. The nation can not afford to delay solutions on this front, or it would face a funnel in the coming years. Telecommunications require large information highways without holes: it is essential to prevent that in order to help the country’s development.

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