Bolivia Navigates To Satellites and Modernity

Bolivia has launched its first communications satellite. Túpac Katari was built and launched by the Chinese at a cost of US$300m, $250m of which was financed by the China Development Bank.

The satellite is named for Túpac Katari, an Aymara Indian, who in 1781 formed an army of 40,000 people who rose up in rebellion against Spanish rule. Túpac’s army took a handful of cities and held onto the capital, La Paz, for three months, until the Spanish put down the rebellion. For this, the Spanish cut out his tongue and then pulled him apart with horses.

Bolivia’s president, Evo Morales, also is of Aymara descent, as are more than 1.5 million Bolivians. That the president is an indigenous person is a point of pride for people who have long been dominated by the upper-class, lighter-skinned people of European descent. But Morales’ status as a man of the people has not seen his reign pass by without incident. Recently, a quarter of the army went on strike, saying that the military discriminates against the indigenous people by not promoting them to the rank of officer.

In any article on Bolivia, it would be tempting and fun to point out those items that are stereotypical of the country. So before we show what Bolivia is doing to lift itself into modernity, we have to point out a couple of items.

El Mercurio newspaper recently printed a joke which has been told time and again.  A man checks into a hotel in downtown La Paz and asks, “Can I have a room with a view of the next revolution?” The newspaper says that the government in Bolivia has changed hands or faced insurrections in 150 of the 186 years since it gained impendence from Spain.

President Morales too is not without a sense of irony. He wondered out loud why there are so many flight schools in La Paz. The answer is there is a need for many pilots to make the one-way trip to ferry cocaine into Brazil. Having made the trip across, most abandon their planes rather than risk getting shot down on the return trip. The cargo is much more valuable than the aircraft.

Now, let’s get serious and return to the theme of the internet in Bolivia, a landlocked country bordered by Brazil, Paraguay, Chile, Peru and Argentina.

The country’s new satellite will provide improved telecommunications to the estimated 10 million people of Bolivia where the geography —the country incorporates both the peaks of the Andes and the Amazon basin — is awkward and where communications infrastructure is difficult to put in place. The satellite’s cameras also will help patrol border and flush out illegal gold mining operations, where miners pollute those areas with mercury and other heavy metals.

Bolivia is mainly high desert (antiplano), the Andes mountains, and far-flung towns.  The elevation is so great that La Paz had the highest ski resort in the world at 5,421 meters (17,785 feet), until global warming and a lack of rain melted its glacier. People who went skiing there invariably came down with a pounding headache.

The Túpac Katari satellite was launched into orbit on December 20 last year. It will provide 12 free TV channels for people in remote areas and in the cities too. Entel, a telecommunications company that was nationalized by Bolivia, will use it to deliver broadband internet as well.  La Razon newspaper said that broadband via satellite will cost less than half what is available today.

Entel previously charged $112 for 1 megabit-per-second connection and now charges only $33. A 3Mbit/sec service now costs $41 rather than $159 and faster services are now available at up to 10 megabits.

Ookla, which runs the web site, has up-to-the-minute reports on internet speed around the world. It shows the average download speed in Bolivia currently at 2.3Mbit/second. That is fast enough to stream video, but not HD video.

Selling Cellphones

According to OpenSignal, there are 3 wireless carriers in Bolivia including Movil GSM, which is the brand operated by Entel. The coverage maps shown for all three wireless providers show that coverage in Bolivia is limited to populated areas; viewed from a wide angle, most of the coverage map shows no coverage at all.

The article in La Razon says that the new satellite will lower prepaid cell phone prices by 96%, giving the country the lowest prices in the region after Venezuela. Cell phone prices in Bolivia are high by American and European standards: Tigo charges about 12 cents per minute with a contract and a few cents more per minute if calls go beyond the contracted limit. But they are much lower than in Chile, where an onerous tax is being repealed, and Mexico, where Carlos Slim, the world’s second richest man, has a monopoly.

Prepaid plans are 25 cents per minute at peak times but can dip as low as eight cents. People who are too poor for a cellular phone contract do as they do in Mexico and Chile, which is to call someone, quickly convey their message and hang up. In Chile there is even a verb for this: pinchar.

Smartphones and computers in South America have traditionally been expensive, mainly because the retail market is not as competitive as in Europe and the US.  But prices have fallen a lot in the last two years everywhere as competition between the manufacturers has heated up.

In Bolivia, you can buy a 16GB iPad with WiFi and 4G online from Tibo for $780.  A Samsung Galaxy S5 costs $730.   

Tapping Apps

What about smartphone apps?  Does the country have anything like Yelp or something that will let you hail a cab?

Taxi Seguro, meaning “safe taxi”, will not let you hail a cab, but it will help you avoid unlicensed ones. The app verifies that your taxi and its driver are registered and have met safety standards. On the company´s web site, it says “don’t take any risks”. (While this would not be a risk for its passengers, some of the cabs in Bolivia are no doubt stolen. President Morales created a market for stolen cars in Bolivia when he allowed people to obtain license plates without paperwork. Presumably he did that as part of his verbal assaults against Chile, who he is suing in the International Court of Justice in The Hague to try to regain access to the Pacific Ocean lost in the War of the Pacific in 1883.)

Mo-Bus is an application where you can enter keywords or select from categories to find hotels, restaurants, bars, or other merchandise and services. Reached by phone, owner Pablo Nuñez said that buyers can browse among the various promotions and discounts offered there too.

Cruzero is a travel app that lets you punch in your destination then shows you which buses to take to get there. It also shows points of interest along the way.  It works in Santa Cruz, the largest city in Bolivia.

Bolivia is poor, but growing less so, as it is suddenly mineral rich, like other countries in the region. The country exports natural gas to Brazil and Argentina (a country that is also rich is natural gas, but unable to manage its successful extraction) and lithium to China. Having launched its first satellite now, telecommunication should improve for those in distant locations. And in the isolated country of Bolivia, everywhere is a distant location.


Walker Rowe is a US citizen living and working in Santiago, Chile. There he edits the online magazine and is currently writing a book about the pollution of the coast of Chile.


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Walker Rowe

Walker Rowe is a US citizen living and working in Santiago, Chile. There he edits the online magazine and writes the blog "The Avocado Republic" about life in rural Chile.

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