- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 31, 2012

With a major free-trade deal with Washington now in effect, Colombia is looking for American companies to help make Internet service available throughout the developing nation.

Diego Molano Vega, the Colombian minister of information technologies and communication, said in an interview Thursday that officials in Bogota are focused on deploying 4G and fiber-optic networks throughout the country.

The 4G network will provide wireless Internet for smartphones, tablets and laptops, while the fiber-optic network, which already is being built, will connect computers to the Internet through a high-speed cable or cord.

“The Internet is a fantastic tool,” said Mr. Molano Vega, who traveled to Washington this week to speak about the project with the government and private investors. “We have to work hard with investors to deploy networks in those areas.”

When the current Colombian government took over in August 2010, only 2.2 million households in a country of 45 million people were connected to the Internet. That number has increased to 5.2 million connections, or 70 percent of the population. The goal is to hit 90 percent by 2014.

Colombia plans to auction two 4G contracts to Internet companies in September. Officials estimate it will cost $500 million to build the network in addition to the auction price.

Mr. Molano this week spoke with Nextel International and several U.S. banks about participating in the 4G project. He said the auction is open to all companies worldwide, but he is particularly hoping for an American partner.

Cellphone penetration in Colombia is close to 100 percent for voice plans, but a 4G network would open the market to much broader services. That, in turn, could create an opening for companies such as Apple Inc. and Google Inc. to come in.

Connecting Colombian businesses and consumers to the Internet also would help boost overall trade between the U.S. and Colombia - just two weeks after the free-trade agreement between the two countries went into effect May 15.

Last year, in anticipation of the trade agreement being passed, Mr. Molano came to the U.S. to recruit companies to participate in a separate auction to build the fiber-optic network. No American companies participated in the auction, but Bogota did find a Mexican investor that has agreed to build the network. The cost is estimated at more than $220 million, and it is supposed to be completed within 30 months.

The project eventually will connect almost 1,100 towns to the Internet by 2014, up from 200 towns before the auction.

Colombia hopes these Internet projects will help lift much of the nation out of poverty by providing jobs and connecting more of the population to global computer networks, suppliers and customers.

“If American companies want to invest in Colombia, we have a talented workforce there already waiting for them,” Mr. Molano Vega said.

• Tim Devaney can be reached at tdevaney@washingtontimes.com.

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