During my years in Paraguay the communications systems have seen many changes. From almost nothing when I first came here to now entering the digital age.
They now are far better than I could ever had imagined they would be when I first arrived.
Back in 2002 I arrived in Paraguay from a Britain that had very much already moved into the internet age.
I came with my internet enabled British phone in my pocket. That however was never going to work in Paraguay. For one thing the two country’s phone networks run on different wavebands. So even had something like roaming been available my phone would not have worked. Putting in a local SIM card would have been quite pointless.
And so in one step I went from a fully connected land to one that in terms of telecommunications at least was defiantly off the grid.
Since coming to Paraguay I have been based in the countryside outside the small town of Piribebuy. Accordingly my recollections reflect the reality of the countryside and what I saw around me. The situation has always been somewhat different in the towns and especially in Asuncion. Not however living there I cannot truly give an account of how the communications revolution has played out there.
When I first came to my little bit of countryside back in late 2002 there was quite simply no internet. In fact there was not even the opportunity to make a phone call.
The cables that had been previously put up to connect the land lines in Paraguay rarely extended beyond town boundaries. There had quite simply never been the call for telephones in every house across Paraguay. In addition with the population outside the towns being scattered thinly across the land it would never have been cost effective to install lines running out to every settlement.
The costs of any such project would have needed to be covered somehow. And the people it would have connected would have barely had the funds to cover the cost of their phone lines. Even if these had been heavily subsidised.
That then was why as things stood there was no connections of any sort when I arrived. Anyone who did need to make a phone call was quite used to travelling into town to do so.
I had to do the same. If I had wished to make a call I would have needed to catch the early morning bus into Piribebuy. Then once there I could use one of the phone booths in the local office of the national phone company.
To try and connect to the internet required the same trip. Although the chance of success was far lower than that of being able to make a phone call.
Once a week I would catch that 7 O’Clock bus into Piribebuy to try and do just that. In town there was one internet cafe with three or four computers. Few people in town used things like email back then so the computers were always free.
The connection was never fast, but if working was sufficient to check and reply to emails. ‘If working’ being the key phrase there.
On arrival in town I had to hope that the computer in the internet cafe were working. It seemed to be as likely that they would be off for a lack of connection to the internet as that they would be on. And of course with no phones there was no way of phoning ahead to check that they had on that day a connection with the internet.
Finding them not working was not uncommon. I would then be left to wait three hours for a bus back home before trying again the next week.
Understandably in my first years in Paraguay my connections with the wider world were few and far between.
Back at home there was however in emergencies one way of making a phone call. About 3 Km further down the track was a shop that had a pay phone. I don’t know how that connected but satellite was a possibility. It was though a long walk on a hot day and very expensive so in all my time here I never used it.
That was how things remained for a couple of years until mobile phones started to appear. At first just the most basic phones, selling at a premium price.
Initially those to would only function within the towns and cities, but little by little phone masts started to creep across the land. As they did more and more places were reached by the telephone network.
My first phone in Paraguay was the most basic of Nokia ones. As though a phone line was still a luxury buying it was rather complicated. It involved passports, references and the filling out of several forms which had to be sent off to Asuncion to be authorised before I was allowed a phone number on their return.
Now in town I could make and receive phone calls. At that point things were still rather different in the countryside.
The phone masts were continuing to go up but there were many holes on the map to fill.
For me at home there was still no hope of making a phone call. If I did want to make one I had to wade across a river and then climb to the highest point in the nearby hills. From there if luck was with me and the stars were aligned I could get a weak signal for long enough to make a short phone call.
As the phone masts spread the need to go hiking up hills to speak to someone diminished. However coverage was still very patchy and to compensate everyone had their own little tricks for getting a signal. Some would settle on one certain spot to stand to get connected. Others would hang phones in socks from trees and others try to work out through which gap in the hills a straight line could be drawn to a mast.
Obviously every method was more in hope than certainty. For the moment though few people had phones, so there was space for everyone to have their own theories.
It was a while before the internet found its way beyond the internet cafes. When it did arrive it came in the form of simple internet enabled phones. Far more primitive than the Smartphones that were starting to be seen elsewhere. However it was quite something to be able to check the news or weather, even if the system was at the time unable to do little more.
By then the task of connecting up Paraguay was well underway. Each of the phone companies was steadily increasing their number of masts and area of coverage. They however worked independently with each having good, average or no service in different areas.
Before buying a phone and the SIM card to run it one needed to think about where they would be spending most of their time and then making enquiries as to which phone company provided the best service locally.
Also at this time the internet started to run just about fast enough to do the basics on a PC.
I got from one of the phone companies a plug in modem. Although the connection was still a bit hit and miss with a bit of patience I was at last able to get the internet running well enough on my laptop to do simple things like emails.
These days I can simply turn my Smartphone into a WiFi hub and use it to run 4G internet on the laptop.
Things really have changed a lot since I first arrived in Paraguay.
Since then in slow and steady steps things have continued to move forward. Now I can make a phone call at anytime from anywhere and most days the internet runs fast enough to stream video.
There have also been parallel changes with television. That for years was analogue being picked up by the wildest mixture of antennae. Everything from tall expensive metal constructions to tied to the tops of bamboo poles.
Those now have all gone and television is digital. No more just sticking up an antenna, now a dish and a contract is required.
Additionally where land lines never reached mobile phones have. There are few people these days who do not have their own Smartphone. Many would struggle without them even if all know how to do is chat via their various Apps.
But as Paraguay has jumped straight into the digital age it is hardly surprising that few have as yet discovered the power and potential of the devices in their hands.
With time their potential as gateways to knowledge and as work tools will be discovered.