By some measures, Mexico might have some of the fastest Internet speeds in Latin America. But for Tijuana's ambitious tech entrepreneurs and aspiring professional gamers, it's still painfully slow. They know much faster connections lie just across the border, and feel like Mexico's telecom giants are holding them back.
I spent some time with Gustavo Leyva to find out more about this digital divide. In the super popular online video game League of Legends, he's known as 'h4ckerv2.' And when I say he's known, I mean he's known. His Facebook page has close to 12,000 likes.
Playing as Tryndamere, the Barbarian King, Leyva has competed throughout Mexico, Chile and even Germany. And he's cleaned up nicely, too. He says he made around $7,000 playing League of Legends in the second half of 2013.
Leyva is striving to become a full-time pro. But one formidable foe stands in his way: Internet service in Tijuana. Average connection speeds in Mexico lag behind those in the U.S. and in other countries where pros thrive.
"I actually lived in San Diego," Leyva said. "So, there's like a huge difference. It's the same amount, you know, moneywise, but you don't get the same service or speed."
One way pros make money is by streaming their games so fans can watch. Hundreds of people tune in to see Leyva eviscerate his opponents. But his connection sometimes buckles under all the traffic.
"It doesn't crash, but the quality is super bad," Leyva said. "If I had better quality, I'd probably have more viewers."
Skype Fails And Lost Business Opportunities
But Internet service isn't just an issue for hardcore gamers. It's also a thorn in the side of Tijuana's emerging tech economy. Many of the scrappy start-ups here are based inside the BIT Center. It's a modern-looking complex with huge, open spaces, concrete walls and sleek, colorful furniture.
Claudio Arriola is the director, and he has a start-up of his own. He recalls one of the times when shoddy Internet connections hurt his business.
"That was a Skype conference call between a partner in Merida, Yucatan, and one in Madrid," Arriola said. "There was no way that whole day that we could have a decent Skype call. If it wasn't my Internet, it was the one in Merida. And that was to try to make a proposal for a customer. Well that never happened."
On top of dropped meetings, Arriola said he can't sell his products even in Mexico. His company makes web-based communication tools for small to mid-sized companies. But in Mexico, Arriola said those kinds of companies can't rely on web-based tools... because they can't rely on the web.
"We decided, don't spend too much time involved with the Mexican market," Arriola said. "Until that is solved, let's go after the U.S. market or other countries where they can implement that software-as-a-service product right away without being concerned about having a bad Internet connection."
Arriola says for now, the connection at the BIT Center gets the job done. But he's hoping to have more options soon.
The Richest Man In The World
Historically, most of Mexico's telecom lines have been owned by one man, Carlos Slim, the richest person in the world. But in recent years, the Mexican government has been trying to break up Slim's monopoly.
Still, there are only two providers in Tijuana, and Arriola says both charge too much.
But let's put this in perspective: Mexico hardly is in the dial-up dark ages. They're basically on par with speeds in the United States circa 2007.
"Within the Americas, they're doing fairly well," David Belson of Akamai Technologies said. "Looking at a global assessment, they're kind of middle of the pack."
Akamai monitors global Internet traffic and ranks countries by speed for their quarterly 'State of the Internet' report. Belson says by some measures, Mexico has the fastest Internet amongst all the Latin American countries Akamai surveys. And they've only been getting better.
"Over the last six years, the average connection speed in Mexico has more than tripled. Mexico has actually seen better improvement than the U.S. over that period of time. From my perspective, that's a good sign."
Still, for heavy Internet users who straddle the border, speeds in Mexico can be more than frustrating.
Leyva thinks the difference in speed definitely makes it easier to be an aspiring professional gamer in the United States. For those who only want to check email, watch videos, scroll through Facebook, the difference across the border won't seem very stark. But if — like Leyva — you're looking to do some serious damage online, a slow connection could be your downfall.