NGOs have had relatively easy access to electronic networks in the region since 1992 through the APC regional nodes, initially concentrated in Brazil and Nicaragua. By the end of 1996 the APC had extended the Latin American network to include nodes in Argentina, Mexico, Ecuador, Colombia and Uruguay, and had partnership arrangements with providers in Cuba (dial-up to Canada) and Chile. Perú is the only country in the region that has a solid network that serves NGOs as well as government, business and universities. The Red Científica Peruana (RCP) is friendly toward the APC but is not a formal member of it (for more details on RCP see Soriano, 1996).
The largest APC node in the Latin American region is Brazil’s Alternex, which operates out of a large national NGO in Rio, IBASE, in coordination with the National Research Network RNP. Alternex provides general electronic communication services, "specifically oriented to organizations of civil society and to individuals" (www.ax.apc.org). Alternex began as an experimental network in 1989, but it only gained international recognition in 1992, with its electronic support for the UN Earth Summit.
Together with Alternex, Nicarao was the first to provide electronic communication services to the NGO community in Latin America, from its base at the Regional Coordination for Social and Economic Research (CRIES) in Managua, Nicaragua. Initially linked to the rest of the APC network by dial-up connections to the IGC in California, Nicarao provided services to NGOs all around Central America. Users would pay long distance calls to the provider in Nicaragua, until commercial Internet providers started to be introduced in the neighboring countries, and most of them switched to avoid the long distance phone costs that were added to their service fees. Nicarao established a permanent link with the Internet backbone early in 1996, although there were already at least two other such permanent connections in the country. By the end of 1996 their Home Page was crowded with graphics and awkwardly designed, and it revealed a meager 5,000 hits during the previous nine months. Although other APC servers in the region do not have a counter, this figure appears to be very small, compared to other commercial servers in the region.
The Web sites of the remaining APC members in the region were comparatively small at the end of 1996 and provided very basic information about their services. Laneta, the Mexican APC provider, emphasized that it was strengthening the links between organizations in civil society by providing services primarily to NGOs and UN agencies (www.laneta.apc.org), and Ecuador’s Ecuanex defined itself as a non-profit institution working to serve the nation’s civil society (www.ecuanex.apc.org). Argentina’s Wamani provider was labeled as experimental, and all its internal links lead to a web-construction site (www.wamani.apc.org). On the other hand, Uruguay’s Chasque web server was not even linked on the general APC directory, and it provided a few basic pages of information about who they are and what they provide: services to promote education, democratization of information, and promotion of participation for social development (www.chasque.apc.org).
The APC in Colombia
COLNODO is the Colombian Association of Non-Governmental Organizations for Communication via E-Mail. It began experimental operation in 1993 and became a formal part of the APC in July 1994. Founded by a group of seven Colombian NGOs as a non-profit association to provide low-cost electronic communication services to NGOs, COLNODO has constituted itself as the electronic communication service provider of choice for NGOs in the country.
Like other APC members in the region, it initially provided only text-driven connections for e-mail, international fax and electronic conferences, and eventually offered access to some of its members’ specialized databases. In 1996 COLNODO established a permanent Internet connection and started to provide full Internet connectivity, including access to and publication on the World Wide Web. In September 1996 COLNODO had a total of 120 listed members, including 22 individuals and 76 NGOs; the remaining 22 belong to regional offices or branches using separate e-mail addresses. A staff of five operates COLNODO.
The Web site of COLNODO is fairly recent (www.colnodo.apc.org), yet seems to be more developed and elaborate than the APC sites of Argentina, Uruguay, Mexico and Ecuador, even though less so than those of Brazil and Nicaragua. It is the only web site from a Latin American APC node to include a full directory of members published on-line.
In terms of its content, only the seven founding members of COLNODO have institutional web sites, all but one of which are maintained by the general Webmaster. Of these institutional Web sites, only one has more than a general overview of the mission and activities of the respective organization, and includes more comprehensive background information about programs and activities, on-line forms to request further information, and electronic versions of newsletters published by the organization.
The COLNODO Web site provides links to APC electronic conferences and to local databases on different specialized areas; access to both of these services is restricted to members. Moreover, a new site with periodical electronic publications is included, featuring on-line versions of recent issues of two members’ newsletters, plus a daily summary of discussions at a conference recently organized by another member. Two more newsletters are announced for future on-line publication. A section featuring "information useful for action," of interest to NGOs, is organized by topics. Finally, links to Spanish-language and other general search engines are posted.
COLNODO’s web site makes it clear that the full development of Internet tools with this provider is still at an early stage, compared to older APC nodes in the region such as those in Nicaragua and Brazil. Nonetheless, the relative complexity of its Web site is probably irrelevant to most of its national members, who are still using mostly text connections, predominantly for e-mail exchanges. The fact that many services are restricted to members only makes it different from the early experience of Peru’s Scientific Network RCP (Spanish acronym for Red Científica Peruana), which was initially intended to be "a window into the country" and not only "a window out" .
However, the fact that a full directory of members is published and regularly updated provides evidence that COLNODO, unlike other providers in the region, is offering services only to an important group of NGOs in the country, that it is not providing services to businesses, government or academic institutions, and that the proportion of individual subscribers is very small. This makes the group of COLNODO users a very clearly defined community of NGOs in the country, using a network especially set up by and for users like themselves, and slowly consolidating the tools and knowledge required to fully exploit the capabilities of the service. As we will see, the results of this study shed more light on the kinds of uses that NGOs are making of this technology.
The number of NGOs using commercial providers other than COLNODO is today unknown. At the time when COLNODO began to provide services, no other commercial provider was available in the country and Internet access was extremely expensive, restricted to small sectors of private universities and to the state-owned Telecommunications Company and its government clients. During 1995 and 1996, at least 25 commercial service providers began to offer electronic communication services and full Internet connectivity, some of them offering local dial-up access in several cities. Access to the Internet has exploded as a consumer good during 1996, and most commercial providers concentrate on the World Wide Web, "surfing the net," as the main attraction of their service. Commercial providers have started to offer CMC services with lower rates and easier connections than COLNODO.
Electronic networks started to be put in place in Latin America around 1985 to serve a variety of commercial interests. It was not until 1990 that CMC started to be a viable possibility in universities and non-governmental organizations, with early networks actually implemented in the region in 1991 and 1992.
The Association for Progressive Communications (APC), "a global computer communications and information network dedicated to serving non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and citizen activists working for social justice, environmental sustainability and related issues" (www.apc.org), played a key role in providing access to electronic communication to NGOs in the Latin American region when the service was not commercially available or affordable to these groups.
This text is part of a larger study on the uses of computer-mediated communication in Latin America.
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