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With most of Latin Americas Internet customers yet to log on, and so much of the region's virtual world yet to be built, the shape of the cyberspace to come is anybody's guess. Who will end up as the dominant players? What models will succeed? How fast will growth take place?
The people who will battle over these issues are the Internet pioneers of Latin America. If nothing else, they are an eclectic bunch. They range from a former advertising executive to a college dropout to the former head of a US cosmetics company's Latin American operations. What they have in common is money -- most of the early players are now armed with wads of cash -- and what they share is a vision for a vibrant virtual community that today is the world's fastest-growing.
There are between seven million and nine million Internet users in Latin America, depending on who is doing the counting, and that figure is predicted to skyrocket in the next few years. The most widely accepted forecast comes from research firm International Data Corp., which conservatively predicts more than 19 million users by the year 2003. Nazca Saatchi & Saatchi, however, estimates there will be as many as 35 million Internet users by 2003. Despite the huge difference between the numbers, analysts are unanimous on one thing: steady, rapid growth.
The biggest barrier to rapid growth--cost--is now falling. Access to the Internet is no longer prohibitively expensive, with some firms beginning to offer free ISP service. Computer prices are also dropping, while financing is becoming easier. In some countries consumers are being offered PC/Internet packages that cut prices even more.
Adding gasoline to the flames is the sudden rush to invest in Internet companies. Plenty of money is being dumped into the marketplace. Terra Networks, Telefoncia's Internet arm, recently raised more than US$500 million in an IPO. The same is apparently planned for the AOL-Cisneros Group venture with a US$500 million stock offering on the heels of the largest merger in US history between Time Warner and America Online.
There are plenty of smaller players raising big sums as well. Argentina's El Sitio just debuted in New York with a US$132 million stock offering. Financial services portal Patagon.com recently picked up more than US$50 million in venture capital. Tokyo's Softbank, which has billions of dollars invested in Internet companies worldwide, has set up a US$100 million venture capital fund for Latin America.
This is an exciting time for IT in the region. What we are witnessing is a revolution as the "new economy" works its way into Latin America. In the next few pages we feature some of the executives who will most influence these changes.
Fernando Espuelas has been called everything from the Simon Bolivar of the Internet to the Bill Gates of Latin America. One title is without question: The First.
MARKET LEADER. Visionary. Leader of the New Millenium. Any way you cut it, StarMedia Chairman and CEO Fernando Espuelas enjoys an enviable position. As the first pan-regional Internet company, and the first Latin American Internet company to go public, StarMedia has the mythical designation of "first mover'
When it comes to competition, Espuelas considers only AOL, Yahoo and Telefonica to be opponents. "There are a lot of companies that have emerged in the wake of StarMedia with ambitions to do things in our market," he says. "There is success and people want to be a part of that success, but it's important to differentiate between what is real and the lottery dreams of other people."
Espuelas, the former head of marketing for AT&T's …