Earlier this month three Android phones—LG’s GW620, Samsung’s i5700 Galaxy Spica and Motorola’s Milestone Smartphone Android 2.0—were introduced by the rapidly growing Tigo telephone company in Guatemala. Android, an open operating system that allows access to Google’s features such as email, text messages, calendar, maps and its browser, allows devices to be built faster and at a lower cost. It also increases the technology’s accessibility.
The fact that Android is free and open source and now available in places like Guatemala is important because many people in developing countries use mobile as their primary or only source for Web access. According to the World Bank, more than two-thirds of the world’s population lives within range of a wireless network. Half the global population has access to the Internet through a mobile device. This represents about 2.5 billion mobile users worldwide, which means many more people have access to a cell phone than to a personal computer.
In Guatemala, long after the asphalt and pavement ends, cell phone networks extend deep into the mountains, and coverage is almost universally accessible. Much to the surprise of its Central American neighbors, Guatemala’s telecom sector is in the top four in Latin America, according to Mario Marroquín Rivera, a consultant for Fundación2020. The cell phone infrastructure (99 percent saturation) is extremely well developed in contrast to Internet access where only 7.7 percent of people have high-speed access.
Cell phones are ubiquitous and becoming widely adopted each day in a country where there are more cell phones than citizens. Claro, one of the largest cell phone service providers in Guatemala, reported almost 6 million users, equivalent to 40 percent of the Guatemalan market in 2008. The second largest company, Tigo, reported 5 million users or 34 percent. Following that, Movistar, provides service to almost 4 million customers. A 2007 study by Telefónica reports a 65 percent annual growth in cell phones—from 500,000 cell phones in 1995 to 13.3 million in 2007.
The reality of Guatemala’s telecom advantage is starting to influence the way people, organizations and government institutions get and provide information. News organizations like Emisoras Unidas, Radio Sonora, El Periódico, and others provide breaking news via text or SMS alerts and ask listeners to contribute news, comments and traffic reports that are often then read on-air. During a major four-hour electrical blackout that affected 17 departments in October 2009, people texted updates to radio stations that then shared breaking news over the airwave and with listeners who had bought their $10 cell phones at the local market.
Of the country’s 332 municipalities, some like the municipality in Mazatengo and Chinaulta are on Twitter delivering local events news and stories. The municipality of Guatemala City sends out traffic alerts throughout the day to Twitter and users also contribute development about protests, blockades and construction. It’s no surprise that cell phones provided a lead during CICIG’s investigative work in tracking the perpetrators and masterminds behind the murder of attorney Rodrigo Rosenberg.
But cell phones are being used even more broadly in the community. Groups like TuiterasGT (women in Guatemala using Twitter) organized the first RallyGt last February to bring together groups of mobile users, many who had never met offline, to playfully compete in a series of obstacles.
Cell phone-based twitter only works via online access or an application that enables it. But as more smart phones like the Android-powered models are sold in Guatemala, then more people will be able to browse and use cell phones for purposes beyond just telephony.
Access is not just for the wealthy or for those with good credit. Anyone can buy a cell phone in Guatemala by texting 805 “wap”. Under Tigo’s plan, $.60 per day allows for unlimited access browsing the Internet. That’s cheaper than texting.
Cheap and accessible technologies like cell phones are transforming Guatemala. And innovations like Android phones are playing a central role in the country’s gradual process of democratization.
*Kara Andrade is a contributing blogger to AmericasQuarterly.org. She is a Central American-based freelance journalist who has worked as a multimedia producer and photojournalist for Agence France-Presse, Associated Press, San Jose Mercury News, and Oakland Tribune, among other publications.