Electronic parts and the assemblage of “informal” infrastructures

Published on November 6th, 2019

Written by Fabian Prieto-Ñañez. Postdoctoral Associate in the Department of Science, Technology and Society at Virginia Tech.

Figure 1. Technicians working on dismantling the satellite dish of Cimavision. March 2019. Photo Credit. Lyda Deaza.

On March 28, 2019, the community television station CABLECIMA TV1  moved from their original site to a new house in the San Luis neighborhood in Bogota, Colombia. Big satellite dishes, which served to capture international signals for local distribution, were dismantled and transported to its new location. Multiple devices manufactured in the 1990s also emerged as proof of a designed infrastructure that lasted for at least 25 years. Although moving to a new space reflected a change in the neighborhood dynamics, this was far from being the only transformation of the local channel. Under an increasing expansion of Internet and television services in Colombia, the multinational Claro finally reached San Luis. Located in the outskirts of the Capital, CABLECIMA TV and its community television channel CIMAVISION1 served for several years as the only provider of television channels for the community. As audiovisual content had moved to the internet, the solution proposed by the station management was to turn CABLECIMA TV into ALTINET, an Internet service provider.  

As the transition from analog to digital has defined a new path for television modernization in countries like Colombia,2 my research has focused on community television experiences in Colombia. I am interested in the long history of how these television stations emerged, and in how people assembled local stations by working with imported and locally produced electronic and non-electronic parts. In my larger study, I explore the technologies behind satellite earth stations, and the different pathways for designing local solutions in urban and rural communities in countries like Colombia. There, community television emerged after a process of formalizing informal television stations. Before this process of formalization, television tended to be linked with the illegal circulation of technologies and signals; since the 1980s community television in Colombia has been shaped by use of amateur satellite dishes, which created a new way of accessing television, in the US in particular.3

Figure 2. Image of high-income apartments in Bogota, Colombia in 1986. Source. Revista Semana

However, focusing on the different strategies used to make media accessible for low-income populations, requires consideration of the ways small companies had produced local solutions, from printed materials, outdoor lighting systems, specialized audio systems, to customized mobile phone experiences, and car adaptations.4 The emergence of a variety of small companies resulted in an intense circulation of specialized parts, which also supported to the local production of entertainment technologies and media distribution systems that connected global and local tastes and desires. To label these practices as “piracy” is to dismiss innovations that happen at the borders of technology use, where technicians repurpose machines or devices designed for one use for other uses, or offer a different organization of parts, which for a normalizing eye, could be considered an problematic aberration.5

Figure 3. Amplifiers used in Cimavision. The first manufactured in Canada, and the second, in Bogota, Colombia. Photo Credit. Lyda Deaza.

Both the circulation of signals and the equipment to capture them reflect a particular economy, which usually is labeled as piracy.6 The global circulation of goods enters at this stage as one instance of what some researchers had called globalization from below.7 While contemporary references to media access often refer to the production of devices in China,8 my long-term study suggests these exchanges of spare parts, devices, knowledge, and people are grounded in historical experiences of global trade. In the case of Latin America and the Caribbean, cities like Miami and Panama served as local hubs for entrepreneurs who started to build satellite dishes all across the footprint areas of US satellite broadcasting services. After scrambling satellite signals became the technique for enclosing “American culture,” users pointed their dishes to other satellites, especially those from Mexico, Venezuela, Brazil, and Peru, expanding the media menu for Colombian viewers.

Figure 4. Advertisement of descramblers in Mexico in the 1980s. Source. Coop’s Satellite Digest. March 1987.

In the Colombian case, access to technology intersected with class distinctions in a particular way. While, initially, these services targeted consumers in high and middle-income populations. Later, businesses started to sell satellite services/earth stations all around the country. Entrepreneurs as well as technicians, who understood how to design satellite receivers, expanded television access to neighborhoods on the outskirts of in big cities, and towns in rural areas with bad national television reception. For this reason, the expansion and current presence of big satellite dishes allow us to explore process of maintenance of supposedly obsolete infrastructures, a labor that include not only technical knowledge but also legal skills. In Colombia, where technological knowledge historically had established a clear distinction between engineers and technicians, these local technical experimentations with globalized electronic parts challenged and extended how the technologies operate. As in the concept of Jugaad in India, or Gambiarra in Brazil, quick fixes emerged as common practices that both reproduce social orders and subvert them at different levels.9

As discussions about the politics of such local infrastructures often address the decentralization of a national television system or the anticipation of local innovation by entrepreneurs, these conditions also raise questions about the legal and accepted uses of technologies in different historical and spatial contexts.10 Ideas of disruption, in which technologies are ahead of legal systems, not only refers to global startups, but also to other government-supported innovations. However, in the case of the Big Satellite dishes, as copyright expanded globally particularly since the 1990s, the Colombian government passed legislation that made these partial solutions, not only obsolete but also illegal.

Figure 5. An abandoned Earth Station in a public park in Bogota. Photo by author.

In this perspective, the study of localized technological practices reveals what several scholars, speaking of global south infrastructures, have labeled as improvisation. As these cases allude both to their constant breakdown and the presence of “backup services” to overcome them, norms from infrastructure can be considerably different11, making “infrastructural improvisation and repair too overwhelming and visible to be ignored”12 However, such visibility operates within cultural and legal frameworks that can not be ignored. As Liliana Gil Sousa has explored in Brazil, while scholars have discussed improvisation as a cultural characteristic, “less attention has been paid to how improvisation is materially and discursively produced, and the contextual values it carries.13 By observing the link of imported parts, local knowledge and technical skills and people’s taste for particular media, as seen in the case of satellite earth stations, my research explore such contextual values and the role they played in creating alternative access to infrastructures in Latin America.


1 CIMAVISION. “Youtube Channel,” accessed 10/28/2019, https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC9_MPzf2R-gdaKbJ597uI7w.

2 RTVC. “Televisión Digital Terrestre,” accessed 10/28/2019, https://www.rtvc.gov.co/proyectos/television-digital-terrestre.

3 Parks, Lisa. “Technostruggles and the Satellite Dish. A Populist Approach to Infrastructure.” In Cultural Technologies: The Shaping of Culture in Media and Society, edited by Göran Bolin, 64-84. New York: Routledge, 2012.

4 Lippman, Alexandra. “Listening across Borders: Migration, Dedications, and Voice in Cumbia Sonidera.” Tapuya: Latin American Science, Technology and Society 1, no. 1 (2018): 201-15. Angel Unfried, “Rocolas,” in Ensamblando heteroglosias, ed. Olga Restrepo Forero (Bogotá, Colombia: Universidad Nacional de Colombia, 2013).

Medina, Eden. “Memories of the Yagán: The Chilean Automobile for the People.” Technosphere Magazine, April 2017.

5 Hernán Thomas, Sur-desarrollo: Producción de tecnología en países subdesarrollados (Centro Editor de América Latin, Buenos Aires, 1995, 1995).

6 Brian Larkin, “Pirate Infrastructures,” in Structures of participation in digital culture, ed. Joe Karaganis (New York: Social Science Research Council, 2007).

7 Rosana Pinheiro-Machado, “China-Paraguai-Brasil : uma rota para pensar a economia informal,” Revista Brasileira de Ciências Sociais 23 (2008).

8 Jonathan Franklin, “The Insidious Device Revolutionizing Piracy in Latin America,” Americas Quarterly, 2019, https://www.americasquarterly.org/content/streaming-wars-english.

9 Amit S. Rai, Jugaad time. Ecologies of everyday hacking in India (Durham: Duke University Press, 2019); Ricardo Rosas, “The Gambiarra: Considerations on a Recombinatory Technology,” in Digital media and democracy: Tactics in Hard Times (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2010).

10 Kavita Philip, “What is a technological author? The pirate function and intellectual property,” Postcolonial Studies: Culture, Politics, Economy 8, no. 2 (2005 2005).

11 Paul Edwards, “Infrastructure as modernity: Force, Time and Social Organization in the History of Sociotechnical Systems,” in Modernity and Technology, ed. Thomas J. Misa, Philip Brey, and Andrew Feenberg (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2003)

12 Stephen Graham and Nigel Thrift, “Out of Order:Understanding Repair and Maintenance,” Theory, Culture & Society 24, no. 3 (2007).

13 Liliana Gil Sousa, “Desafios de um Estudo Empírico sobre Improviso e Tecnologia” (Os desafios metodologicos nos estudos CTS: experimentações etnograficoas, UNICAMP, Sao Paulo, 2019).


Fabian Prieto-Ñañez is a postdoctoral associate in the Science, Technology and Society department at Virginia Tech. His research explores technologies histories in Latin American and the Caribbean, by emphasizing local designs, entrepreneurs and small businesses. His doctoral dissertation explored the uses of big satellite dishes in Colombia, and the emergence of community television stations as an alternative in the 1990s.