Organization Seeks To Bridge The ‘Digital Divide’

A new advocacy group is working to find ways to bring much-needed Internet access to the developing world.
By @FrederickReese |
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    Recently, the call to expand Internet coverage globally has driven many to seek new solutions toward spreading the technology. One novel attempt toward achieving this is being undertaken by the Alliance for Affordable Internet (A4AI), a newly created group that aims to “drive down artificially high Internet prices in developing countries. By advocating for open, competitive and innovative broadband markets, A4AI aims to help access prices fall to below 5 percent of monthly income worldwide.”

    By reaching this goal, the A4IA “can help connect the two-thirds of the world that is presently not connected to the Internet and make universal access a reality.”

    The need for this is clear: while in the developed world broadband access costs average 1.7 percent of monthly income, it can be as high as 30.1 percent in the developing world, according to A4AI.

    An example of this need is Yacouba Sawadogo, a farmer in the Sahel. As reported on Mashable, as Sawadogo’s family fled the droughts of the 1980s — droughts that left more than 400,000 dead in Northern Ethiopia alone — toward more suitable land, Sawadogo stayed. Through his initiative and innovation, he was able to develop farming techniques that not only made his orchard thrive, but started to restore the land.

    Throughout the Sahel — the desert-savannah transition zone that runs across the southern portion of the Sahara — thousands of farmers are trying to challenge the unrelenting environment with little success. Sharing Sawadogo’s strategy and secrets would mean the improved livelihood of the millions of Sahel residents beset by periodic famines and ever-increasing droughts. Unfortunately, this knowledge has been passed on, so far, only by word-of-mouth.

    For the Sahel farmers and countless others throughout the developing world, the answer is Internet access. While 90 percent of the world population has access to a mobile phone network and as of 2010, there were a total of 5.3 billion mobile phone subscriptions globally, there were only roughly two billion people with Internet access. Internet access is typically too expensive to be practical in the largely illiterate third world.

    “Imagine a world where you spent 30% of your monthly income on basic Internet service,” wrote Jennifer Haroon, access principal for Google. “Could you pay? What might you have to give up? For billions of people, these costs—and questions—are an unaffordable reality that stop them from accessing the Web.”


    Bringing the Internet to the people

    Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web protocol and founder of the World Wide Web Foundation, said in a statement:

    “The reason for the Alliance is simple – the majority of the world’s people are still not online, usually because they can’t afford to be. In Mozambique, for example, a recent study showed that using just 1GB of data can cost well over two months’ wages for the average citizen.

    “The result of high prices is a digital divide that slows progress in vital areas such as health, education and science. Yet with the advent of affordable smartphones, new undersea cables and innovations in wireless spectrum usage, there is simply no good reason for the digital divide to continue. The real bottleneck now is anti-competitive policies that keep prices unaffordable. The Alliance is about removing that barrier and helping as many as possible get online at reasonable cost.”

    A4AI calls for a set of policies and regulatory best practices to help facilitate the growth of Internet access in the third world — including “a competitive market structure, with limited or no national government ownership of end user service providers,” “transparent disclosure of pricing and service options to end buyers,” removing “barriers to crossing national borders with network infrastructure and traffic,” advocating for “consumer interests including both immediate service and sustainability,” targeting “public infrastructure investment to market failures, through consultation with market players and other stakeholders” and ensuring that “subsidized infrastructure is competitively and transparently procured and offers access or capacity to all market players in a non-discriminatory way, so as to achieve end user affordability.”

    With a litany of backers — including Google, Microsoft, Cisco, Facebook, the U.S. State Department and the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development — this plan is far richer resource-wise than other plans to bring the Internet to the developing world. But it may prove no less idealistic.

    For example, in May, Google announced its plan to expand Internet access to billions from sub-Saharan Africa to Southeast Asia via the use of low-cost cell phones and signal-transmitting, high-altitude blimps.

    Facebook, likewise, launched an initiative in August to make Internet access via smartphones cheaper in the developing world by improving mobile networks, developing phone apps that are more resource-efficient in connecting to the Internet and establishing operators to efficiently offer service to those that needs it the most. Facebook — along with Ericsson, MediaTek, Nokia, Opera, Qualcomm and Samsung — founded, a “global partnership with the goal of making internet access available to the next 5 billion people.”

    “Everything Facebook has done has been about giving all people around the world the power to connect,” said Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. “There are huge barriers in developing countries to connecting and joining the knowledge economy. brings together a global partnership that will work to overcome these challenges, including making internet access available to those who cannot currently afford it.”


    The world, changed virtually

    Due to the high penetration of mobile phone use in the developing world (68 percent, at the end of 2010), many experts speculate that Internet access to the developing world and deeper social changes would come from mobile phone deployment. For example, the deployment of M-PESA, a mobile money-transfer service, to Kenya offered access to banking services in a region where reliable banking was traditionally reserved for the wealthy.

    “We estimate that M-PESA had reached nearly 40 percent of the adult population after a little more than 2 years of operation, and that now, approaching only the fourth anniversary of its launch, is used by more than two-thirds of households,” concluded William Jack and Tavneet Suri, authors of an exploratory paper on M-PESA. According to Jack and Suri, the service is now used by “an ever-broadening cross-section of the population. While it has always been used by a non-negligible share of those with lower economic means, it has quickly expanded its reach into these groups, and is now used by households with a wider range of economic, demographic, and educational characteristics.”

    “Especially among poorer segments of the population, remittances and transfers received (and sent) via M-PESA are less visible than those transmitted by other means, such as delivery by a friend or relative,” continued Jack and Suri. “Granted this information advantage, recipients could be in a position to keep more of the funds they receive.”

    Services, such as Obopay and Moka, have enabled third-world residents to engage in the world economy by providing accurate and cheap English translators, mobile payment processing and access to learning and educational services. The BBC World Service Trust, for example, offers mobile-capable three-minute English lessons to more than 300,000 Bangladesh residents at the approximate cost of a cup of tea per lesson.


    The “digital divide”

    At question is the “digital divide,” the separation between those who have access to the Internet and those who don’t. As society evolves, more and more information and services will be solely available online, leaving those who don’t have Internet access outside of the new flow of information.

    But what should be noted in all of this is that the “digital divide” exists in the United States, too. According to Pew Research, 64 percent of African-Americans and 53 percent of Spanish-speaking Americans have broadband access, compared with 74 percent of White Americans. Thirty-seven percent of Americans without a high school diploma have broadband access, compared with around 90 percent of all college graduates.

    What is being formed is a global “digital underclass,” an entire population of people excluded from access to information and services that would empower and improve their lives. While A4AI and other Internet access programs are helping to alleviate the problem, there is a need to look at the deeper roots beneath this divide — such as illiteracy, lack of technology training and the poverty and hunger concerns that would convince a person that Internet access is not immediately essential — and finding ways to address them.

    “Nearly two out of every three people don’t have access to the Internet — this is a massive challenge that can’t easily be solved by a single solution or player,” said Haroon. “The world needs technical innovation and vision to bring more people online, but we also need a strong policy foundation that allows new ideas to flourish. By working alongside Alliance partners, we can help lay the groundwork needed to drive innovation and bring the power of the Internet to more people.”

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