In another attempt to close the gap between the wired and the unwired, Brazil will install computer kiosks in post offices around the country, where people will be able to log on to the Internet.
Correios, Brazil’s postal agency, hopes to have the kiosks up and running by the end of June, officials said. People will be able to surf the Web and retrieve e-mail.
As a way of encouraging people to use the service, the first 10 minutes will be free. After that, the agency plans to charge what it calls a “popular fee.” Payment will be made using an electronic card purchased from Correios or one of its partners.
Correios plans to have at least one computer in each of Brazil’s 5,366 post offices.
The technical specs — things like computer type and Internet access speed — have yet to be determined. Private companies will bid for the project, so the actual cost of establishing these kiosks remains unclear. Regardless of the cost, however, officials promise that customers will not be gouged.
“Of course we intend to charge a very low price, at least lower than cybercafes,” said Fausto Weiler, Correios’ assessor in the capital city of Brasilia. “Our goal is to open this new world for those who can’t afford to buy a computer, even in the countryside.”
Cybercafes in Brazil generally charge about $2 an hour.
According to Weiler, the kiosk project is only a first step in reducing, and eventually eliminating, the country’s digital divide. Once an easy Web link is established, the plan is to launch another project, called Permanent Electronic Address (PEA), that will supply every Brazilian with a free, private e-mail account.
Meanwhile, the postal service plans to set up its own virtual store to augment an existing website, where people already go to post mail.
At least 1.2 million people are expected to use the post office terminals during the first year of operation, said PEA director Marcelo Matos. By 2004, that number is expected to increase to 4.2 million.
“Besides the social aspect of introducing these people to the digital age, we could also create user communities, exchanging experiences among companies, government and citizens,” Matos said. “The service of sending traditional letters through the Web is also expected to be available at the kiosks.”
The agency intends to offer full e-mail service, too, not some cut-rate program. Customers will be able to attach files, create address books, retrieve mail from other accounts, and keep an agenda and a calendar.
Although it’s not an officially stated policy, the Brazilian government has been cutting costs for some time by providing some bureaucratic services online. For the past few years, a good chunk of money has been invested in electronic government resources. Filing taxes has become especially popular; an estimated 90 percent of those who file do so online, officials say.
So clearly, Brazil is eagerly embracing a digital future. But there have been plenty of problems.
Good intentions aside, previous digital-divide initiatives have failed. A much anticipated popular computer, which turned out to be a box running Linux, was abandoned by the government for reasons never clearly explained.
Wagner Meira Jr., who was involved in that project, thinks he knows why: pressure on the government from big companies like Microsoft and the Brazilian computer industry itself. Unable to see any profit for themselves, “they (opposed) the initiative that could benefit thousands of students and lower-income families,” he said. “Now, it’s all gone.”
There’s no chance of this latest initiative falling through, said Correios’ Weiler. “We’re not depending exclusively on the government or on budgets. We’re going to make this thing work in partnership with private companies, which already have shown interest. It’s just a matter of time to solve technical issues and … equipment.”