- veronica smink
- BBC World, Argentina
At the beginning of this century, Argentina was the first country in Latin America to achieve 100% cell phone penetration, that is, as many cell phones as inhabitants.
Today that figure continues to grow: with a population of 40 million there are 62 million lines in service.
However, having a phone and being able to use it are two very different things.
Anyone who has wanted to call someone on a cell phone in Argentina will have noticed how difficult it is to communicate.
Calls that do not go through or that are cut off several times during the dialogue are commonplace in the lives of many Argentines.
Experts point out that the reasons are multiple, but one of the main ones is the small amount of radio spectrum in use, the lowest figure in the region, according to the parameters of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU).
«Despite the fact that the demand for cell phones has multiplied in recent years, the Argentine State has not offered new spectrum for communications since 1998,» telecommunications expert Enrique Carrier, from the Argentine consulting firm Carrier and associates.
This is why Argentina is one of the only countries in the region that does not yet have fourth-generation cellular networks, or 4G, as they are known.
But that is not the only restriction that Argentine cell phone users will suffer: in the South American nation there is also limited use of the previous technology, 3G.
It is that since 2008 the State has reserved, without use, 25% of the 3G spectrum, which means that the clients of the three main cell phone companies in the country, Movistar, Personal and Claro, can only use 75% of frequencies, which has caused the collapse of mobile services.
The good news for Argentine users is that the situation should improve soon: the state will tender in November the idle 3G spectrum and also the frequencies needed to deploy 4G technology.
The government announced that this Thursday the offers of the participating companies will be announced.
But why did they wait so long to expand the spectrum of telephone companies?
According to Carrier, there was a mixture of «negligence» and political and economic pressure from groups interested in participating in this million-dollar business, which delayed the process.
This is not the first time that the Argentine State has opened a tender to assign spectrum: it already did so in 2012, when the arrival of the smart phones (smartphones) causing an explosion in the demand for 3G telephony.
However, the government itself decided to annul the process.
The Federal Planning Minister, Julio De Vido, explained that only one company, Claro (owned by the Mexican magnate Carlos Slim), was «in patrimonial and financial conditions» to be awarded the frequencies.
And according to the official, giving more licenses to this operator would have generated «concentration.»
«We don’t want to create monopolies,» justified De Vido, who announced that the government would use those frequencies to create a state mobile phone company, to be called Libre.ar.
But despite the announcement, officially made by President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner during an act in December 2012, the truth is that years have passed and the state company has never been lost.
Thus, while the number of lines multiplied by eight in a decade, the radio networks not only continued to be the same as they were in the 20th century, but there were 25% fewer.
Finally, in May of this year, De Vido, the Minister of Economy, Axel Kicillof, and the Secretary of Communications, Norberto Berner, announced that the 4G frequencies and the remaining 3G frequencies that remain unused will be tendered.
Berner explained to BBC Mundo that the government discarded the Libre.ar project for a matter of «time, practicality and costs», and said that the November tender will result in an improvement in the quality and coverage of the service.
The official stressed, however, that the lack of spectrum is only one of the causes of the system’s deficiencies.
«Spectrum is even a secondary issue if you have a sufficient number of antennas,» said the secretary, who estimated that Argentina has some 15,000 antennas and base stations, a number well below the ideal number.
«This is a very large country and therefore the problem of communication is not the same as in smaller countries, such as Uruguay or European countries,» he said.
Unlike the spectrum, which is controlled by the State, the placement of antennas is the responsibility of the municipalities, although it is the companies that install them in each neighborhood.
This has made the situation very different in different parts of the country, and in some neighborhoods there are «black holes» where it is impossible to make a call or connect to the system.
«The capacity of a wireless network is given by a formula that combines the amount of spectrum and the density of antennas,» explained Carrier, who said that the low number of antennas in many places is also related to «unfounded» fears from neighbors. about possible health effects.
«If it were up to us, we would double the network,» said Berner, who pointed out, however, that in 2013 92% more base stations were installed than the historical average.
Experts and officials agree that the «third leg» to explain the mobile telephony problems in Argentina in recent years was the lack of investment by telephone companies.
According to the Secretary of Communications, when mobile telephony began to «grow exponentially» in 2009, «a shift in the number of cell phones against investments» began to be observed.
Berner said this was one of the reasons the 4G tender was postponed.
«Investments were lagging, especially in infrastructure, and companies wanted to solve the problems with more spectrum, instead of investing,» he said.
Spokesmen for Movistar, Personal and Claro denied the suspicions and highlighted that in 2014 they increased their investments by 42% compared to the previous year, a figure that was well received by the government.
Those who did not celebrate so much were the millions of clients of the companies, who, despite suffering a service with many deficiencies, have been paying significant increases in their rates in recent years.
Complaints about cell phones have long led the ranking of complaints from consumer associations throughout the country.
To channel complaints and empower users, the Communications Secretariat created a portal called «Que no se corta», where mobile phone customers are encouraged to compare the costs, coverage and quality of operators.
But despite the discontent, few Argentines change providers.
Many know that problems plague all companies, which discourages them from tackling the cumbersome process of change.
However, that could change as of 2015, when the increase in spectrum, antennas and investment promotes a noticeable improvement in the outlook, putting Argentina on a par with its neighbors in cellular telephony.
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