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'A game of patience and persistence': life in São Paulo's internet deserts

More than 50% of people around the world now use the internet but in Brazil’s largest city, the digital haves and have-nots sometimes live just metres apart

'A game of patience and persistence': life in São Paulo's internet deserts
Luana Nunes’s home internet connection is very weak and unstable – for anything urgent, she has to roam her neighbourhood trying to pick up a signal in higher places. Photograph: Flavio Forner for the Guardian

For some people, getting into university is all about the grades. For Luana Nunes, it was about finding a reliable internet connection.

Nunes nearly missed out altogether on registering for the all-important high school leaving exam because she did not have web access at home, and had to go to the nearest internet cafe, 40 minutes away. “When I got there, I realised that I’d left a document at home,” she says.

I feel disconnected from the world, literally

Luana Nunes

Nunes lives in Barragem, on the southern outskirts of São Paulo, where large areas are internet deserts. It was not until 2018 that she finally got the option of having the internet at home.

Now 23 and a journalism student, Nunes is connected at home thanks to a local company that provides radio-based internet access. She has a modem that can just about pick up the nearby 3G signal, though it is very weak.

“It’s really unstable when it’s raining,” she says. “When it’s something urgent, I walk around the neighbourhood, trying to pick up a signal in higher places. I feel disconnected from the world, literally. It’s a game of patience and persistence.”

Residents of Heliópolis, São Paulo’s largest favela, seek free wifi signal. Photograph: Flavio Forner for the Guardian

Domestic internet access has been growing steadily in Brazil. According to the ICT household survey, 61% of households were connected in 2017, compared to 54% the previous year. But gross inequality exists in virtual Brazil too, and São Paulo, one of the country’s biggest and most developed cities, is also one of the least connected, ranking 99th in a list of 100 connected Brazilian cities.

“There is a myth that people without access live in north-eastern Brazil, but the largest number of families with no fixed connection is in São Paulo,” says Rafael Zanatta, leader of the digital rights programme at the Brazilian Institute for Consumer Protection.

The main reason is cost. A broadband connection of a speed of up to 10Mbps still costs around 100 reais per month, more than 10% of the minimum wage in Brazil.

In São Paulo the distribution of internet connection mirrors the city’s inequality. In Paraisópolis, one of the city’s largest favelas, located next to the wealthy neighbourhood of Morumbi, there are no high-quality fixed internet services. “But then you cross the street and there are several options,” says Zanatta.

Inequality ... in a photograph

Lourenço Coelho, president of the telecoms infrastructure grouping Abrintel, which is in charge of installing masts for mobile internet, says it takes two years to build and install a mast, and at least five to install one on top of a tower to provide faster connections.

Coelho says the last antenna installed in São Paulo was in 2016. At this pace, he says, most Paulistanos will have a hard time using mobiles in a few years from now – meaning connectivity in the city may actually decline.

It is not just students sitting exams who face marginalisation. A whole suite of government online services have now been rolled out, so getting IDs, driver licences and car registrations, and even paying for the city’s parking meters, can be a struggle for the disconnected.

The digital disenfranchisement contravenes Brazil’s own guidelines, enshrined in a 2014 civil rights framework for the internet that insists web access “is essential for the exercise of citizenship” and that the government must “promote digital inclusion”.

Aerial view of Heliópolis. Photograph: Flavio Forner/the Guardian

But the law is not being consistently enforced. Moreover, mobile internet providers are increasingly offering free access to WhatsApp and Facebook, meaning many users end up stuck on social media. WhatsApp is used by 81% of the population; a 2015 survey by Jana found that 55% of Brazilians agreed with the statement “Facebook is the internet”.

Those with no domestic or mobile connection are left with scarce public infrastructure for accessing the internet. In São Paulo, which has a population of 12.2 million, it includes 120 squares with free wifi connection and 85 telecentres – public facilities that offer free internet access.

Following a public consultation process, the city has been urged to double the number of free wifi points in the city, says Daniel Annenberg, the municipal secretary for innovation and technology. He said it is on track to meet a target of 300 free wifi points by 2020.

Annenberg says the city intends to modernise its telecentres, many of which date back to 2001, with a view to making them appropriate for co-working. “Especially in the outskirts [of the city],” he says, “these telecentres are crucial for those who don’t have computers or smartphones.”

Luana Nunes searches for a free internet signal in Parelheiros’ central square. Photograph: Flavio Forner/the Guardian

For Bruce Carvalho, 24, a painter in Heliópolis, São Paulo’s largest favela, a telecentre was his first experience of the internet, back in 2007. “Before that I didn’t really know what it was. At that time I used to go to internet cafés and the neighbourhood’s telecentres to access Orkut [a social network], download music and search on Google. I didn’t know it could be used for other stuff.”

Shortly after that, Carvalho’s mother bought a computer from her employer. “We used a dial-up internet connection – it was so slow and hard to use,” he recalls.

It was only in 2012 that he subscribed to a small, local company named Godnet, the first provider to offer broadband access in the favela. Such small firms are the fastest-growing providers and are responsible for extending the network and offering the best connection quality, says Zanatta.

The future of São Paulo sleeps in an improvised shack

But in large metropolises like São Paulo, competing with major operators is hard. “We advocate that small providers should be supported by loans from public banks,” Zanatta says. “By supporting investment under lower interest rates, they can offer lower prices as well.”

Even after major internet companies arrived in the favela, Carvalho remained with Godnet, which now provides fibre optic connection – the fastest type of connection available in Brazil. Thanks to the upgrade, he started taking an online course: “I started studying at Univesp, which is a distance-learning public college. If I still had the slow connection, I wouldn’t be able to watch the videos.”

• This article was published in conjunction with Énois Agência de Jornalismo, an agency based in São Paulo that trains young journalists from underprivileged communities to report and publish

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