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Argentina's wired city

Buenos Aires has become a destination for IT companies, a place with Wi-Fi on every corner.

Argentina has significantly more internet servers per capita than neighboring countries. Here Ignacio Jardon edits a video he took in Buenos Aires, October 3, 2008. (Enrique Marcarian/Reuters)

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina — In Jorge Luis Borges' “The Aleph” — arguably the Argentine writer's most celebrated work of fiction — the author imagines a Buenos Aires basement, home to a magical globe in which all things in the universe are seen at once. The Aleph is a microcosm in which all macrocosms are contained, a portal to infinite knowledge and vision.

Borges might have been more prescient than he knew. Many critics have read the story as a premonition of the internet. And now Buenos Aires, Borges' stomping ground, is fulfilling his prophecy to become a sort of Aleph in Latin America. It's become a destination for information technology companies big and small and an incubator for start-ups, a place with Wi-Fi on every corner and homegrown networks popping up in between.

One need only take a stroll down a Buenos Aires street to smell the connectivity. The Wi-Fi logo, signaling a wireless internet connection, is everywhere: in the windows of coffeeshops and bars, the glass doors of hotel lobbies and gymnasiums — even on hair salons — and virtually all of the connections are free. There is Wi-Fi at gas stations, and Wi-Fi in the subway (and it actually works).

At the Obelisk, the Washington-esque monument marking the center of the city, a recent Wi-Fi sniff found 19 stray signals — and those are just the ones that made it across the 10 lanes of traffic on each side of one of the world's widest boulevards. And it's not just in Buenos Aires. Argentina's next-largest town, Rosario, wants to cover every city block with free wireless internet, using a combination of Wi-Fi and long-range WiMax technologies. The mayor bragged last year that he expected Rosario to become a “digital city” before San Francisco, Calif.

The Wikimedia Foundation — which runs Wikipedia, the website that perhaps best instantiates the panorama of Borges's Aleph — validated Argentina as a world tech hub last month when it chose Buenos Aires as the site of its annual Wikimania conference. The top brass and Wikipedians from all over the world took in the atmosphere of innovation in Argentina, which is home to the only official Wikimedia bureau on the continent.

“We have a country that is not afraid of technology, so as soon as internet started becoming available people jumped into it,” said Mariano Amartino, general manager of Hipertextual, the largest blog network in Latin America. “We as Argentine people love these new concepts.”

Amartino says that during the first information technology boom in the 1990s, 68 percent of all Spanish-speaking startups came from Argentina. This is still one of the only countries in Latin America with a tech company on the NASDAQ: Mercado Libre, the region's answer to eBay.

Not all of the tech companies in Argentina are homegrown. Drawn by the tech-friendly atmosphere and low operating costs after the peso collapsed in 2001, large foreign companies have flocked to make Argentina a home away from home. Microsoft has a regional office here, and so does Google.