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“We are committed to closing the digital divide”

Interview - September 2, 2013
Dr Diego Molano Vega, Colombia’s Minister of ICT, speaks to United World about the Government’s raft of initiatives that are boosting the take-up of ICT and encouraging a new era of educated, Internet-savvy entrepreneurs.
DR DIEGO MOLANO VEGA, COLOMBIA’S MINISTER OF ICT
DR DIEGO MOLANO VEGA | COLOMBIA’S MINISTER OF ICT
The OECD, the so-called club of rich countries, invited Colombia to begin negotiations to become a member. Politically and economically speaking, what does this inclusion mean for Colombia on the world stage?

It means recognition from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) that Colombia has reached a point where it is eligible to belong to a group of countries that have achieved best practices and have much to offer. We have been involved in the OECD’s discussions regarding the world of ICT, and we have seen not only how Colombia has much to learn from other OECD countries, but also much to contribute. In regulatory practices and in political practices, Colombia is now recognized in the world of ICT in the OECD.
 
When we were meeting in Paris, it was the OECD who invited us to take part and with that courtesy distinguished us from other sectors who had to apply for membership. Colombia stands out as a leader in ICT policy thanks to all the actions we have been implementing through the technology plan of the Santos government. Our Vive Digital Plan was recognized at the Mobile World Congress – one of the world's most important trade fairs on technology, held in Barcelona, Spain – when we took home the Government Leadership Award 2012 prize for the best policy in the world.

The Global Information Technology Report 2013 notes that Colombia, Uruguay and Panama have become champions of electronic administration, e-government, and connectivity. Internet connections in Colombia have tripled in the past two and half years or more, reaching 6.6 million in the first quarter of this year. What is behind the solid technological development seen in the country today?

In this report, Colombia has the privilege of being a case study – for the first time – on two issues: the first documents the achievements of the Vive Digital Plan, which aims to reduce poverty through the use of ICT; and the second recognizes the country as an example of good practice in e-government. According to the report, the country rose seven places, having improved in areas such as: growth of Internet users, increased number of online government services, citizen take-up and participation, and reduction of broadband prices.

The first time we interviewed you in 2010 you were launching the Vive Digital Plan, whose main objective as you have explained is to make ICT accessible and promote the mass use of the Internet to make a leap towards democratic prosperity. What successes are being achieved in reducing unemployment and poverty?

The Vive Digital Plan aims to propel a great technological leap by stimulating the mass use of the Internet in order to reduce poverty and create jobs. To achieve this, the Plan has driven the country’s digital ecosystem, consisting of four major components: infrastructure, services, applications and users. The rise in Internet access is becoming greater every day: previously we had 2.2 million Internet connections – with the previous Government – and it has grown to more than 6.6 million broadband connections so far with the Santos Government. The goal for 2014 is 8.8 million connections. Poverty reduction is a priority for the Government. Through the Ministry (MinTIC), some 1,508,000 families at levels 1 and 2 will receive broadband Internet subsidies – on average 300,000 pesos (US$154) will be allocated per family to purchase a computer or for Internet service payments.

We understand that this year the second phase of the National Fiber Optic Project starts, where 551 municipalities are already connected.

The National Fiber Optic Project will connect 753 of the 1,122 municipalities in the country with fiber-optic cable. To date, and in accordance with established schedules, we have connected 452 municipalities through the project, which – added to the 325 municipalities that already had the technology at the start of the project – gives us 777 Colombian municipalities now connected to the fiber-optic network. Additionally, the project has connected 1,026 public institutions to broadband Internet that is free for five years.
 
On December 12 2012, 226 municipalities were hooked up in Group 1 and 226 municipalities in Group 2 on June 12 2013, making a total of 452 municipalities connected. Groups 3 and 4 will be connected between February and July 2014.
 
With the arrival of the fiber optics, the ICT Ministry opens the way for operators to reach new municipalities and provide services with much more economical, reliable and efficient technology. The next step is for public and private entities and telecom operators to use this network to provide services to users, as well as to develop projects using this connectivity. 
 
And how is the important apps industry growing in Colombia?
 
To strengthen the IT industry we managed to extend the tax exemption period for innovative software development. It also reduced the withholding tax to 11% from 15%. The ICT Ministry’s Apps.co initiative is already helping 35,000 Colombians in the creation and innovation of ICT-based enterprises, especially those that make digital content and applications. We have already started seeing the first applications emerge.
 
Another important indicator of Colombia’s IT growth is the ViveLab National Network, high-tech centers where application developers and digital content creators can train and create new businesses. They are already up and running in Manizales, Cali and Popayan. The national government – through MinTIC – will invest 20 billion pesos to have 17 ViveLabs in 2014 that will benefit at least 15,000 people in the regions.
 
You also briefly mentioned 4G. In May you received bids from six companies interested in participating in the auction of the 4G spectrum, which is valued at US$250 billion. What future do you see for this technology in Colombia and why can it consolidate the Government’s plan to popularize the Internet in the country?

With the advent of 4G technology we will massively increase Internet use; we are seeking to build a more modern and fair country for everyone. This technology is one of the tech solutions that the Government of President Juan Manuel Santos is implementing to bring wireless Internet to the poor. The introduction of 4G technology enables the much faster, smoother and better transmission of data via a wireless modem, a tablet or a cell phone, optimizing services such as videoconferencing, streaming video and streaming audio through and downloading media files.
 
As a result of this auction, we will go from three 3G operators to six 4G operators. This represents more competition, which means better prices and better quality. We raised resources close to 770.535 billion pesos (US$400 million), 70% more than estimated; this money will go to social projects for the mass use of the Internet. In addition to this sum of money, operators will have to devote resources to meet obligations to extend coverage to the farthest municipalities, special plans, and purchase 556,374 tablets for poorer students, as part of the payment for the spectrum. The main operator has to meet the highest requirements. This auction process, noted for its transparency, was supervised by bodies such as the Attorney General's Office.
 
You recently stated that quality education becomes the engine of social development of a country, and ICT the opportunity to access knowledge. How are you working with the Ministry of Education to ensure that this relationship also see reflected in the processes of student learning?
 
We are committed to closing the digital divide. Through the Computers for Schools program we have made the biggest delivery of computers and tablets largest in Colombia’s history. It has benefitted our children with 355,000 computers and 82,000 tablets in schools across the country, and in 2014 we will increase those numbers to 669,000 computers and 1,132,000 tablets. 
 
We are bringing the Internet to rural areas with more than 100 inhabitants, which are designated as populated towns, via a strategy implemented by the Directorate of Connectivity, which we have called Vive Digital Kiosks. In 2014 the Government of President Santos, through the Ministry of ICT, will have 1,144 Vive Digital Kiosks in the country installed and up and running, which will undoubtedly facilitate the teaching and learning processes supported by ICT.
 
This creativity that allows the creation of apps and access to the Internet has a clear effect on the improvement of human resources, and this has been a major focus of President Juan Manuel Santos, to revive the economy and productivity. One of the proposals your Ministry has been giving incentives to the BPO and ITO industries. Could you comment on the state of the sector and its potential?
 
For us the key is talent and so we have a great plan called "digital talent" where, thanks to a budget of US$36 billion, 4,661 students will have benefited from technical and technological courses by 2014. Whoever wants to do a degree in ICT can do it, because the government will fund it; we invite you to visit the site www.talentodigital.gov.co 
As I have mentioned before, the lack of money is no longer an impediment to becoming a professional. Thanks to the support of Icetex we are also strengthening the education sector with regard to ICT.
 
Likewise, of 1.6 million companies in the country, over 95% are MSMEs (MiPymes), and only a small percentage (7%) used the Internet in 2010. The MiPyme Vive Digital program, with an investment of 33 billion in a Bancoldex fund, seeks to expand the use of the Internet and promote useful applications for MSMEs. In 2012 we managed to increase the percentage of Colombia’s MSMEs to 20%; we are working to connect 30% by the end of this year, and our goal for 2014 is 50% of MSMEs. The Ministry also has certified 150,000 business people as Digital Entrepreneurs in order to ensure the take-up of ICT by MSMEs.  

I understand that when you assumed office as Minister in 2010, you anticipated an intense program to convert Colombia into a sort of Silicon Valley of South America, and these types of ideas are examples of this. There is also a big project that I would like to know about, which is the "Andean satellite". Could make an assessment of the capability of this satellite?
 
Ten ICT companies were selected by MinTIC’s support initiative for entrepreneurs, Apps.co, and HubBOG, and in April this year they prepared to present their digital projects to the best business people in the world in technology development in what is known as the birthplace of innovators: Silicon Valley.
 
Apps.co helped the teams of entrepreneurs strengthen their business models, fortify their internal structures and take part in the processes necessary for angel investment. Likewise, they travelled to Silicon Valley where they gained knowledge, opened new markets, expanded their networking reach and managed to gain strategic partners for their companies.
 
For a week these talented Colombians had the opportunity to learn about the processes taking place in the city of technology, which has produced such companies as the Intel Corporation, Google, Apple, eBay, Adobe Systems, among others. They also took part in a ‘Demo Day’ where the entrepreneurs shared their initiatives with a panel of investors (Business Angels), and sought strategic alliances for continued growth in their ICT businesses. The Apps.co initiative helps companies to improve their skills and project their initiatives globally, opening themselves up to the international market. 
 
The enterprises that represented Colombia were: 
 
LasPartes.com: An e-commerce enterprise that brings together the best and most recommended garages. During the process they tripled their weekly sales, linked more than 150 workshops to their network and received an investment of more than US$100,000 from a private investor associated with Biomax: www.laspartes.com and @LasPartes
 
Vanitech: Web and mobile technology platform, which enables the online ordering of services such as manicures, pedicures, hair styling and makeup at home. Since the program's inception, they have increased their stafffrom two to 10 beauty professionals, and have come to provide up to 150 services in just one day, which puts them almost at a breakeven point within just a few months of its creation. www.vanitech.com
 
Tappsi: An application for mobile phones that allows users to contact several taxi service providers with one search, allowing access to this service easily and safely from anywhere. In the past weeks they have gone from 25 connected taxis to more than 1,000, attending to around 450 requests per day from over 13,000 users. www.tappsi.co
 
Copres: Multiplatform construction management software, which allows to efficiently take control of the works and work as a team in real time, regardless of geographic location. www.sistemacopres.com
 
Fanitive: A platform that allows independent artists to create and monetize their own community, communicating with their fans or members in an interactive manner. The company multiplied its customers tenfold and generated sales of US$2,500 over a period of four weeks. www.fanitive.com
 
GuitarrasyBaterias: Guitarrasybaterias.com is Colombia’s first online store specializing in musical instruments, offering products of different brands and styles for any level of learning, with products sent directly to an address in Colombia. It generated revenues of US$600 in two weeks. www.guitarrasybaterias.com
 
The Andean satellite is an interesting project by Andean Pact countries that have an orbit there. What we did as the Andean region was to auction the orbit, which a European company won and provides us with the satellite service.  The good thing about the Andean Pact that we act in consensus and for the benefit of everyone, from a political standpoint. We want to have many satellites in competition that offer us the best services.
 
And before you were Minister, your career led you to hold positions of great importance, such as your position in Spain with Telefónica, and the American company BellSouth. How has this experience shaped your strategic vision for private enterprise and how it is helping to achieve success now for the Colombian people?

I think that the success of a country is in leaders who combine experience in the public and private sector, and that is the advantage we have today in the Government of President Juan Manuel Santos. The President has a cabinet with extensive experience in both the public and private sectors. Even President Santos has extensive experience in both sectors. For example, Finance Minister Mauricio Cardenas was formerly a professional businessman before he became Transport Minister in the Government of President Pastrana, but after this position he spent over a decade in the private sector, and now he is back in the public sector.
 
We could list other cases, such as the Minister of Agriculture or the Minister of Education for example who came from the private sector. I can also point out the path of Juan Carlos Pinzon, the Minister of Defense, who was a portfolio manager and knows the public sector; he has served as Deputy Defense Minister and also worked in New York. This combination of understanding both worlds makes policies more consistent and have greater momentum and bring prosperity to the lives of every Colombian.

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