Why Internet sucks in Bolivia

Bolivia’s terribly undeveloped internet infrastructure is said to be among the worst in Latin America. Sky high prices make home connections out of reach for majority of the impoverished population. In fact, only 5.4% of Bolivian homes are online compared to the South American average of 42%. To compensate, Internet cafes are ubiquitous and offer an affordable rate of around US$0.30 per hour. Unfortunately however, public connections are painfully slow and you’ll likely be sitting next to a group of screaming teenage gamers.

A lobby group called Mas y Mejor Internet Para Bolivia (More and Better Internet for Bolivia) has put together a chart which compares costs and connection speeds with our neighbours. It’s in Spanish so I’ll explain the gist of it.

precios-entel-1ro-abril-sudamerica-600x494

They compared the cheapest Internet Service Provider (ISP) from each country in South America and calculated the average cost of a 1MB connection. Bolivia comes in as the most expensive by a long shot at an average of US$29 per 1MB per month. They then compare the average cost per 1MB connection to the minimum wage (right hand column). As you can see, Bolivia is getting royally screwed in this respect, paying 17% of a minimum wage just to have basic home internet. This would be the equivalent of an Australian paying $425 per month for a lousy 1MB connection. No wonder so many people here go to internet cafes.

Unfortunately, the reality is actually much worse. Entel’s ADSL plan (which is used in the chart) is so popular for its low price that it’s literally currently not available anywhere in La Paz. When I asked about availability an Entel employee told me to “come back next year”. So in reality, the prices shown in the chart are only available to a lucky few. What’s actually available costs substantially more.

So why is ADSL so difficult to come by? Bolivia´s Vice President, Alvaro Garcia Linera, explained that because Bolivia is landlocked the country must rent access to the international fiber optics grid from Chile at an inflated price. He says his government is negotiating more cost effective cable connections through Argentina, Peru, and Brazil but this new infrastructure will take some time to develop. He estimates that things should get faster and cheaper within a year, although this is probably wildly optimistic.

Because ADSL is so limited, most people are forced to rely on mobile internet plans such as Wimax or 4G. In early 2014, Entel were the first to introduce a 4G LTE package including a wireless router which they advertised as cutting edge, despite the fact the technology had been available for years all over the world. At just under $30 per month for a 1MB connection, it was excellent value by Bolivian standards. However, word quickly got out and so many people signed up that their systems became heavily saturated (overloaded). During peak hours there is often no point going online at all.

Another major problem when trying to find an ISP is that there are no regulations governing minimum connection speeds. It’s legal to advertise a connection as 1MB if it can occasionally reach that speed, even if in reality it usually hovers around 56k (dial up speed). Disturbingly, there are ISP’s out there that still actually offer dial-up connections.

Other ISP’s such as Tigo or Viva offer wireless plans that are a lot more reliable. Far fewer people use them due to their significantly higher price which subsequently reduces network saturation.

If you’ve bothered to read this far you’re probably researching ISP’s for yourself so I’ll list the best options. There are other plans apart from these mentioned so click on the links for more info.

  • Viva Wimax, 1MB= US$37 per month, unlimited* (I’ve heard mixed reviews).
  • Tigo USB Modem 4GLTE= US$28 with 8GB limit (fast but watch the limit).
  • Tigo Wimax, 1MB= $140(!!), unlimited*.
  • Tigo HFC, 1MB= $23 per month (A new package that looks great on paper but is currently limited to Zona Sur, Sopocachi and parts of Ciudad Satilette).
  • Entel ADSL, 1MB= US$28 per month, unlimited* (the best option hands down but currently has no availability city wide).
  • Entel 4GLTE, 1MB= US$28 per month, unlimited* (good on paper but heavily saturated, especially during peak hours).
  • AXS ADSL, 1MB= $US40 per month, unlimited* (great premium option but limited coverage).
  • Vuela Wimax 1MB= US$28 per month with 10GB limit (a very good option but watch your DL limit).
  • Cotel ADSL 1MB = US$20 per month, limits apply (great new ADSL option, seems slower than AXS’ ADSL, but excellent overall value for money. Their website has not been updated to reflect new prices).

*unlimited plans tend to half your connection speed after a set cap, i.e. 75GB.

A lot of people here buy internet for their mobile devices and use them to create a wireless hotspot to share with their family. This costs around US$20 for 3GB for 30 days. I use Entel and their 3G is fast enough for my mobile phone needs. If this is your primary source of internet, be aware that it’s very easy to chew through your download limit.

UPDATE 2016: This year COTEL have drastically dropped their ADSL rates. Our 2MB connection costs 240BS per month and is miles ahead of the wireless 4G LTE or WiMax connections we’ve tried in the past. It’s worth noting that ADSL requires an installed home phone line, which many Bolivian apartments lack.

AXS have always substantially dropped their ADSL rates (perhaps Garcia was telling the truth!)

Those living in Cochabamba should check out COMTECA, who have also dropped their ADSL rates.

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25 Responses to Why Internet sucks in Bolivia

  1. Mauricio says:

    Good review actually I use axs 2mb and I pay around 45$ I think it is the best option but not everyone can access to this service in my country. And the government doesn’t do anything for this…

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  2. Pingback: What happens with the internet service in Bolivia? A great analysis | Bolivian Thoughts in an Emerging World

  3. Geddy says:

    But why does the Internet suck so bad here? Most of us complain, but in reality it seems out of our control to do anything about it. I tend to think Bolivia is about 10 years behind the developed world in technology issues. So, ten years ago this wouldn’t have seemed so bad in many parts of the world, especially South America. Is it the lack of national priority and the government would rather spend money on things like basic infrastructure? Is it corruption (an easy blame for every ailment in Bolivia)? Is it lack of technical skill to properly implement a first class Internet system? Is it because Bolivia is landlocked and therefore doesn’t have access to ocean fiber cables? Is it because the political leadership has so many other problems to deal with that Internet infrastructure just doesn’t make the list of issues that need attention? I tend to think the latter. A president of indigenous origin in a country that is predominantly poor and indigenous must focus on the most pressing issues for his people. I would say those are better health infrastructure, better educational opportunities, and better roads. The Internet is mainly something that the elites want to see improved, and that is not a big concern for the president.

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    • I’d tend to agree with the latter point as well. The government has more pressing issues to attend to and there just aren’t enough people with enough money to warrant larger investments from private industry.

      At least prices and speeds seem to be improving. I read some old articles from Mas y Mejor Internet from just a few years back where they offered connections less than half the speed for twice as much as they do now.

      A lot more people are getting online these days too, probably due to the growing middle class created by the commodities boom. This article from La Razon shows some impressive statistics – http://www.la-razon.com/index.php?_url=/economia/acceso-internet-crece-nuevos-usuarios_0_2103989668.html

      Lack of access to fiber cables is another valid point. One reader wrote to me saying they saw an interview with the Vice President who explained that currently they are renting access to cables from Chile for an exorbitant price. He said the government was working to develop more cost effective cable networks with Peru, Brazil or Argentina.

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  4. When I came to Bolivia I was shocked by prices. Especially being previously told that it’s the cheapest country in South America!

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  5. andres says:

    I can afford relatively good speeds (10Mbps) on Tigo but the quality of service is a pain: lots of jitter, ping times are slow and service downtime occurs quite a lot. I honestly can’t rely on Tigo for online gaming. The only good thing is that no service provider impose bandwidth cap, which would suck with these slow speeds. Internet in Bolivia will hopefully improved if the economy improves too.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Sabrina says:

    Really interesting article, thanks for sharing all that information. Do any of you have an idea how it is with apps like Viber on the kind of internet speed that is available in Bolivia, esp. in La Paz?

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  7. Dan Maslowski says:

    So any suggestions if we were hoping to come and work remotely for a month next March? We were hoping for La Paz. I need to remote into work and use VOIP. Cost isn’t that big of an issue since its only for a month, but I’m not sure the logistics of getting it set up if we rent a furnished apt. Any ideas?

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    • Most apartments in La Paz use Wimax or LTE which potentially have very fast speeds but suffer severely from saturation during peak (working) hours. If you need to Voip a lot look for a place that has ADSL with a company like AXS or ENTEL. Best bet is Sopocachi or Zona Sur. Tigo has a HFC plan on offer that covers most of Zona Sur and looks pretty good but I don’t know anyone personally who uses it to vouch for speeds. Many landlords will tell you they have great internet when in fact it’s terrible so look for something you can test or get out of if need be.

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  8. danmaslowski says:

    Wow, thanks for the suggestions. We drove through zona sur when we we there this month. Any suggestions for a short term rental?

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  9. roganjordan says:

    Thanks so much this is super helpful! This probably sounds really stupid, but you would buy these devices once in country, correct? I guess I’m just a bit concerned as I don’t speak Spanish very well..
    I’m also planning to be in a rather remote area in the Beni region, wonder if any of those options will even work there..
    Thanks again!

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    • Which devices do you speak of? Mobile phones and tablets etc? If so, yes you can buy them here, but expect to pay a little more than USA/Europe. The article is based on what’s available in La Paz city. In Beni, options are much more limited. You should be able to find something though it depends how remote you will be.

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  10. Thank you for the informative article. Could you please provide some proof link for the statement that, according to lvaro Garcia Linera, Bolivia “must rent access to the international fiber optics grid from Chile at an inflated price”? Thank you in advance.

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  11. Miguel says:

    Any updates this 2017?

    Like

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