Although Bolivia had enjoyed strong economic growth prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, GDP remains among the lowest in South America. Many areas of the country outside the main cities are poor and undeveloped, and there is a sizeable proportion of the population which live in remote valleys and areas where telecom infrastructure has been chronically neglected. As a result, the penetration of telecom services is relatively low.
The structure of Bolivia’s fixed telecom market is different from most other countries. Local services are primarily provided by 15 telecom cooperatives. These are non-profit-making companies privately owned and controlled by their users. Since the market was liberalised, the cooperatives have also provided long-distance telephony, while several also offer broadband and pay TV services. They have invested in network upgrades in a bid to improve services for customers, and to expand their footprints.
Bolivia has a multi-carrier system wherein consumers can choose a long-distance carrier for each call by dialling the carrier’s prefix. Several operators have also adopted fixed-wireless technologies, and some rent fibre-optic capacity.
State-owned Empresa Nacional de Telecomunicaciones (Entel) is the country’s incumbent long-distance operator, also offering local telephony, DSL, and pay TV services. Its subsidiary Entel Movil is Bolivia’s largest mobile network provider.
Bolivia’s fixed broadband services remain expensive, though the cost of bandwidth is only a fraction of what it was only a few years ago. Services are still unavailable in many rural and remote areas, and even in some of the major urban areas. Being a landlocked country, Bolivia had no direct access to submarine cable networks, and relies on satellite services or terrestrial links across neighbouring countries. In September 2020 Entel inaugurated a new cable running via Peru, which has increased capacity and contributed to a dramatic fall in end-user prices.
Fixed broadband services are fast migrating from DSL to fibre, while there are also cable broadband services available in some major cities.
Since it was renationalised in 2007 Entel has focused on providing telecom services in rural areas under a project known as ‘Territory with Total Coverage’. This project aims to increase telecom coverage through mobile rather than through fixed networks.
Bolivia has almost twenty times as many mobile phone subscribers as fixed line connections, and the trend towards fixed-mobile substitution continues. Besides Entel, two other companies offer mobile telephony: Tigo, wholly owned by Luxembourg-based Millicom International, and NuevaTel, trading as Viva and controlled by Trilogy International. A proposed deal to merge Millicom’s business units in the region with those of Liberty Latin America was called off in February 2019.
All three mobile companies offer 3G and LTE services. Due to the poor quality, high cost, and poor reach of DSL, mobile networks have become the principal platform for voice services and data access. The take-up of services based on LTE has risen steadily as network builds have developed. Tigo launched the first LTE services in mid-2014, followed by Viva in mid-2015. By early 2021 both companies’ networks reached more than 95% of the population. About 92% of all internet accesses are via smartphones.
BuddeComm notes that the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic continues to have a significant impact on production and supply chains globally. Since 2020 the telecoms sector, to various degrees, has experienced a downturn in mobile device production. It was also difficult for network operators to manage workflows when maintaining and upgrading existing infrastructure. Overall progress towards 5G has been postponed or slowed down in some countries.
On the consumer side, spending on telecoms services and devices is under pressure from the financial effect of large-scale job losses and the consequent restriction on disposable incomes. However, the crucial nature of telecom services, both for general communication as well as a tool for home-working, has offset such pressures. In many markets the net effect will continue to be a steady though reduced increased in subscriber growth.
Although it is challenging to predict and interpret the long-term impacts of the pandemic, these have been acknowledged in the industry forecasts contained in this report.
The report also covers the responses of the telecom operators as well as government agencies and regulators as they react to the crisis to ensure that citizens can continue to make optimum use of telecom services. This can be reflected in subsidy schemes and the promotion of tele-health and tele-education, among other solutions.
Autoridad de Fiscalización y Control Social de Telecomunicaciones y Transporte (ATT), Entel Movil, Tigo (Telefónica), Viva (NuevaTel), SES World Skies.
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