Mexico’s digital future: beyond technological determinism

Despite the rhetoric of Mexico’s digital future being just around the corner, telecommunication's reform initiatives lack the social and educational investment needed. Español

Joseph Brandim-Howson
4 April 2018

Source: Pixabay, Public Domain.

On March 31, phase 1 of Mexico’s new wholesale mobile network, Red Compartida, was launched. Covering 95% of Mexico’s vast territory, it is expected to bring cheap, reliable data to millions - along with all the digital products and services this will facilitate - by the mid 2020s.

Yet, despite the government’s rhetoric, this intervention is lacking in the social and educational investment needed to match radical technological change.

 Red Compartida (Shared Network) is a wholesale network. It will build a network across the whole country and rent out access to multiple digital companies, which will be able to offer products and services cheaply across the territory since they do not need to invest in infrastructure.

A private company, Altán Redes, will build and manage the network on a 20-year lease, but the spectrum rights (90 MHz in the 700 Mhz bandwith) will remain state owned. This public/private partnership is the first of its kind worldwide.

In an effort to ensure longevity, the network will use advanced 4G LTE technologies and is 5G ready. This is the biggest and most expensive telecommunications project in Mexico’s history, garnering international attention from governments and international organisations.

In fact, Red Compartida achieved recognition at the 2016 Mobile World Congress, where Mexico received an award for its efforts in government leadership.

The pressure is on to reform telecommunications in Mexico where, for years, the sector has been dominated by a private monopoly. The privatisation of Teléfonos de México in 1990 basically handed over a state monopoly into private hands, allowing the rise of telecom tycoons such as Carlos Slim (now one of the richest men in the world).

The market has long been acknowledged as failing: its privatisation, introduced with much fanfare and celebrated in the leading international institutions at the time, has been a resounding failure, with Mexicans suffering the highest call rates in Latin America and one of the widest gaps in rural/urban digital inclusion.

Red Compartida is a key mechanism to reform the market, improve customer experience and reduce the political and economic power of the likes of Carlos Slim.

According to the government, releasing cheap mobile internet access across Mexico will be the spark to catapult the Mexican economy, education system and social relations – everyday life in general – into the digital era.

But although the Mexican telecommunications system certainly needs reform, this reform - like many large-scale public and private technological initiatives - has been driven by technological determinists: technologists and technocrats who share the view that technology by itself can change society.

According to the belief that it is the most predominant agent of change in any given scenario, technology, once designed, needs only to be “switched on” in order to achieve its expected outcome.

The belief in the transformative power of technology, created through hyperbolic claims from international institutions and marketing speak, blinds technocrats and technologists alike to the simple fact that all technology (which requires human users) is socially embedded.

Any transformative power that technology has depends on a social, cultural and educational matrix underpinning it. Although taking into account this matrix of experiences, habits and knowledge into which technology is released is probably the less ‘sexy’ side of implementing technology solutions, it is often the most critical factor for their success.

Latin America has seen its fair share of “snazzy” technological fixes which, despite high hopes, have flopped because design and implementation have not taken into account the wider social context - the XOPO laptop programme in Peru, for instance. 

Several analyses of the Mexican government’s accompanying programmes to Red Compartida - such as Mexico Conectado and Mexico Digital – show that they actually lack any solid provisions for developing the digital skills of the population sectors most disadvantaged by current social and economic disparities. 

Long-term studies highlight that digital education and skills initiatives, though launched with much excitement, soon fall out of political favour and end up under-resourced. This means that programmes tend to be selective in their provision of services, targeting those who are easiest to access or require less investment per head.

School children in urban areas benefit the most from these initiatives, which focus on digitising educational resources and the use of online teaching methods. Obviously, providing opportunities for younger generations to develop digital skills is important.

But this should not come at the expense of older generations, rural populations and those with little formal education, who are already excluded from access to social, economic and political opportunities. The digital sphere should be seen as an opportunity to integrate them, and should not exacerbate their exclusion.

For those who already possess some digital skills, Red Compartida will make available  a whole new sphere of digital products and services. Much of the marketing speak and rhetoric surrounding it suggest a (nationalistic) new era of Mexican digital innovation.

Of course, given the forthcoming federal elections in the summer of 2018 and souring relations with the US, such a large-scale intervention is going to be milked for all the political capital it is worth.

But the new era is likely to benefit only the existing market players - mainly US-based multinational corporations – which possess the necessary financial resources to launch “big and fast” ready branded and packaged digital products and services.

Ironically (and sadly) this intervention comes at a time when Mexico’s telecommunications regulator is intent on shutting down the country’s only indigenous not-for-profit internet service provider.

Technocrats and technologists who dream of turning Mexico into the “Aztec Tiger economy” would be wise to look at Clapperton Chakanetsa Mayhunga’s recent What Do Science, Technology and Innovation mean from Africa (2017), which explores the social and cultural environments (some state-sponsored, some more organic) which have fostered the successful appropriation of mobile and digital technologies across Africa in recent years.

Importantly, the researchers and thinkers who contribute to this reader (along with those in Latin America such as Eden Medina, Ivan da Costa Marques and Christina Holmes) debunk the myth of technological determinism.

In order for large-scale interventions to be successful, they should include the appropriation of technology, not just its passive use – and this requires a deep appreciation of the educational, social and cultural foundations influencing technology usage and adoption. They need sustained investment and time for nurturing.

There is no “switch on” moment, but a number of years spent on cultivating skills and finding opportunities to make digital technologies useful and accessible for people in their daily lives.

After the March 2018 launch, Mexico is about to enter a new telecommunications era as it dismantles the existing monopoly and releases new social and economic forces into all areas of everyday life.

Let us hope that, over time, the Mexican government (and governments and institutions elsewhere) will recognise that a more holistic approach to technology intervention is needed, and that the current telecommunications reform will not end up being yet another tale of failed intervention.

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