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As Mobile Phones Take Over, Colombians Discover “Real Time” While Regulators Face Challenges

Posted by: admin on Mon, 2010-03-29 22:05

By César Caballero

29 March 2010

(Bogota, Colombia)--In “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions,” the science historian Thomas Kuhn asserts that such revolutions take place when a dramatic shift occurs in the prevailing paradigm: the lens through which we view the realities of the world. [1] In Colombia, the growth of information technology and the communication sector in the last 5 years clearly constitutes a radical transformation in the way in which we view and how we relate to the world.

According to the Public Services Superintendent’s Office, the number of Colombians with a fixed telephone line has been decreasing, from a peak of 7.92 million in 2007 to 7.73 million at the end of 2009 , or from one in every18 habitants to one in every 17. [2]

Meanwhile, the Industry and Commerce Superintendent’s Office, which regulates cellular phone service, says the number of cellular phone customers increased from 6.1 million in 2003 to 42.3 million in the third quarter of 2009. [3] Three international companies provide mobile services in Colombia: two European and one from Mexico. The market is dominated by the latter, Comcel, with a 67% share of the mobile phone market . [4]

Cell phones - the social impact

The decrease of fixed lines and the rise of mobile phones are generating a profound change in our society, exemplified by some now-commonly used Colombian phrases that had little meaning only a few years ago: “I’m out of minutes”; “Will you lend me a minute?”; “Do you know where I can get hold of minutes?”

In other words, our relationship with time is transforming insofar as communication is becoming more rapid: these days every minute, not just every day, month and year, counts. It is imperative to be in constant communication and it is a necessity that a person is able to be instantly located, as much for work as for family and personal relationships.

The technological transformation is not limited to the upper income or career levels. For example, a bus conductor receives cellular phone messages or calls from his supervisor asking him to drive slower or speed up to complete the bus route.

Meanwhile, new types of businesses have developed. Notably, internet and telephone cabins have been installed in low-income areas and surveys have been run through cellular phones and PDAs. Working mothers can be contacted by their children. Doctors are no longer dependent on using beepers, and they can be called to duty through a simple text message.

Evolving regulatory landscape

The communications business continues to transform. According to the Telecommunications Regulation Commission, another entity that regulates the service in the country, mobile phone services account for 37 percent of total sales in the sector. [5]

In terms of internet access, the country relies on 10 large service providers, most of which are local public companies that also provide fixed telephone services. There were 2.1 million Internet connections in 2009, and the vast majority (1.8 million) were broadband connections. Four of the service providers control 82% of the market (EPM Telecomunicaciones controls 22.3%, Une 20.8%, Colombia Telecomunicaciones 20.2% and Telmex Hogar 18.7% ), which means that despite being smaller than the cellular phone market, for the moment, it is more competitive. [6]

Up to this point, I have mentioned three entities that regulate the sector in some way, but there are others, including: The Ministry of Communication and Information Technology, the Superintendent’s Office for Commerce and Societies, and if a company wants to trade on the stock market, then they must respond to the Banking Superintendent’s Office. Additionally, if a telephone operator provides television services by subscription, then the National Television Commission will act as a monitor.

It can be assumed that these entities do not always agree on how the sector should be regulated, or on the type of information that should be generated in this new world.

For example, more than 11 government offices regulate one company in the sector, some promoting and facilitating the integration of services and others acting as an obstruction. In other words, both the companies that provide the services and the customers that use the services are caught within an infinite tangle.

The complexities of these changes are exemplified by the above-mentioned figure regarding the number of active cellular phone lines. According to national statistics, the population of Colombia above the age of 5 in 2009 was 40,699,504 , and as noted above, in 2009, there were 42.3 million cellular phone customers. [7] This figure could be interpreted to show that all Colombians above 5 years old have 1.04 active cellular phones. This is a rather unreasonable claim. In other words, is it not that easy to answer the question: how many cellular phone users are there today in Colombia?

Further changes will require new types of regulation, concentrating on the convergence of services and developing distinct forms of research and ways to measure this vital part of our everyday lives.

Is it enough to know the number of Internet subscribers, or should we strive to understand the habits of the consumer better? Should people just be left to use their computers or should we have a type of People meter, like those used for television, for the Internet too? As usual, the market moves faster than the regulatory system, and as such, without any doubt, the system is no longer effective.

Be prepared: the communications sector stands before an important paradigmatic change that will instigate the transformation of the regulatory system. This will act as a catalyst for a change in the way that we collect data, and realize development and research. In a short while, we will not only have information regarding Internet connection times and the Web pages visited, but also about the way we “surf” the web and types of behavior that specific users demonstrate.

Internet users tend to make decisions faster on the Web and, as such, research needs to account for this reality by exploring how specific segments of society act on the web (such as children, youth and persons with a high income). We are at the tipping point of a scientific revolution.

 Related Material:
Urban Colombia Country Profile
Country Overview of Internet Access and Use
Field Blog: In Colombia, Street Vendors Hawk Candy, Cigarettes...and Mobile Minutes


[1] T.S. Kuhn, “La Estructura de las revoluciones científicas” (“The structure of scientific revolutions”, México, 1985.

[2] Public Services Superintendent’s Office,

[3] Industry and Commerce Superintendent’s Office,

[4] Ministry of Information Technology and Communications,

[5] The Telecommunication Regulation Commission,

[6] SIUST, Sistema de Información Unificado del Sector de las Telecomunicaciones,

[7] El Departmento Administrativo Nacional de Estatistica (DANE), proyecciones poblacionales, 2005-2011,


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