The Information Age/The Digital Divide

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What is the digital divide and why is it important?[edit | edit source]

The digital divide separates the information rich and the information poor. The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development defines the digital divide as the difference between individuals, households, businesses and geographic areas with regard to (a) their opportunities to access ICTs and (b) their use of the Internet for a wide variety of activities. It is the gap between those who have real access to information and communications technology and who are able to use it effectively, and those who don’t have such access. [65]

Lack of access to ICT goods and services poses social and economic disadvantages. More and more, developing countries are recognizing that they cannot compete in the new global market unless they take advantage of the ICT revolution. Countries that do not undertake measures to enhance their ICT infrastructure risk not just being marginalized but also being completely bypassed in the new global order. The experience of a number of countries, like Singapore, Malaysia and Korea, demonstrate that bold actions in bringing their countries into the digital age pay off.

Box 11. Internet Access Under African Skies by Noah Elkin

In absolute terms, the number of internet users in Africa is abysmally low. The entire continent has a user population that is approximately half that of Canada, even though its population is nearly 20 times as large. Penetration rates are likewise miniscule—currently, less than 1% of Africa’s population uses the internet, while penetration rates top 50% in North America. As a result, Africa, with the exception of South Africa and some of the more developed North African countries, barely appears on the radar in most global internet studies.

This may not be the case in the future. According to a recent report by Mike Jensen, an independent monitor of information and communication technology development in Africa, internet usage has progressed considerably throughout the continent in recent years and shows no sign of slowing down. All countries there enjoy internet access, at least in the capital city, while few countries could make that claim just five years ago. By mid-2002, Jensen had tallied 560 internet service providers (ISPs) across Africa, noting that competition for dial-up subscribers exists in most countries.

However, high fees, a recurring problem in developing countries, keep the subscriber rolls from growing. Jensen’s analysis indicates that the average monthly cost for 20 hours of dial-up account usage (a standard measure used by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development [OECD]), which includes ISP charges and local call fees but not the cost of a renting the telephone line itself, is an astronomical $60 per month. This figure is nearly three times the average monthly rate recorded by the OECD in the US, and, as Jensen notes, exceeds the average per capita income in many African countries.

Those Africans who cannot afford a phone or a computer—in other words, most of the continent’s population—have responded by sharing paid subscriptions (a popular strategy in developing areas), with an estimated three to five people using a single subscription. Residents of urban areas, where the telecommunications infrastructure is typically the most highly developed in any given country, have flocked to public access points such as cybercafés, internet kiosks and community telecenters, where equipment and costs can be shared by a large number of users.

However, these arrangements often leave out the majority of the population, given that the population of most African countries remains overwhelmingly rural. The extant challenge lies in extending the communications infrastructure throughout each country in such a way that the build-out does not make installation and usage costs too onerous for consumers and small businesses to take advantage of it. And entrepreneurs must develop creative business models that are based on shared internet usage, such as community internet centers offering connectivity plus international money transfer, small business assistance and educational services. This is one way of creating a self-sustaining technology base in Africa.

Source: Noah Elkin, “Internet Access Under African Skies,” eMarketer Daily Issue 162 (2002)available from; accessed 21 August 2002.

How do we measure the digital divide?[edit | edit source]

The digital divide is usually measured in terms of citizen/population access to ICT. Among the indicators for measuring access are (1) telephone density (teledensity); (2) personal computer (PC) deployment and penetration; and (3) number of Internet users.

Teledensity is the ratio of population to telephones (traditionally defined as fixed or wired telephone lines). This indicator of the divide must be redefined to include cellular/mobile phone use since in a number of developing countries there are more mobile phones than wired phones. Taylor Nelson Sofres Interactive (TNS) estimates that 57% of the adult population (defined as those between ages 15 and 65) in the Asia-Pacific region have a mobile phone. [66]

Personal computer penetration and deployment has also been used to measure access, since the PC is the most common way of accessing the Internet. However, recently more and more ways of accessing the Internet have been devised. In Japan, people can access the Internet through their mobile phones. Those from developing countries share PCs, usually in an Internet café or in school.

The number of Internet users is also a way of looking at the digital divide. Statistics show that only about 10% of the world’s population is online. Furthermore, most of these Internet users are in the developed Western countries: the US, Canada and Europe account for about 63% of the world’s Internet users. The Asia-Pacific’s share is about 30%. Africa and the Middle East combined account for less than 2% of the universe of Internet users.

Equally disturbing is the fact that the global Internet population is predominantly male.Again, there are marked regional differences in the gender digital divide. In the Asia Pacific, the ratio of Internet users is about 60% men and 40% women. In the US and Canada the gender distribution is more balanced.

Box 12. Asian Women Love E-mail

More and more Asian women are discovering the joys of getting in touch over the internet.

The number of them who used e-mail and internet chat leapt towards the end of last year, according to recent figures by the net measurement company NetValue.

“Towards the end of 2001, women were definitely interested in keeping in touch with people over the internet,” said NetValue President Jack Loo in a statement.

“We saw more female users sending e-cards, sending and receiving e-mail, joining chat rooms, and posting up messages in forums.”

The figures reinforce the commonly held belief that women are better communicators than men, using new technology to share experiences.

Chat takes off

The highest growth was in Hong Kong, where women flocked to use webmail and send electronic greetings cards during the holiday season. Between October and December 2001, the number of Hong Kong women using webmail jumped 104.7%. There was also an increase of just under 80% in those sending e-cards.

There was also considerable growth in Korea, Singapore and Taiwan.

The study also showed that more women were attracted by chatting over the internet, especially in Korea where more than half of all female internet users headed to chat sites.

But Singaporean women are fast catching up, with more than a fourfold jump in number of female chat users at the end of last year.

Women’s voices

…Experts say the internet is tailor-made to help women find their voices, citing the rise of women’s organisations across Asia.

The figures from NetValue also reflect the increasing numbers of women who are going online in Asia.

They now account for more than 40% of internet population in the Asia-Pacific region.

Source: “Asian women love e-mail” (26 February, 2002) in BBC News [home page on-line]; available from; accessed 28 August 2002.

Is lack of access the only problem?[edit | edit source]

It is already received wisdom among those who are working to bridge the digital divide that providing access to technology is only one of many obstacles that must be addressed. Internet access is not enough. The Children’s Partnership argues that content is one aspect of the digital divide that has been neglected. The four content-related barriers to greater Internet uptake across society are: (1) local information barriers; (2) literacy barriers; (3) language barriers; (4) cultural diversity barriers.

Local content is determined by the commercialized nature of the Web. Commercial content providers tend to focus on content that delivers returns to their investments. Thus, Internet users from developing countries, such as farmers, for example, rarely discover information that is relevant to them. Compounding the problem is that non-profit, community-based initiatives to create content face sustainability problems.

Literacy is another concern. Literacy includes not only basic and functional literacy but also technological literacy. Older people who may be literate may find using a computer and accessing the Internet an intimidating experience. A related concern is creating inexpensive content that is accessible to all, including illiterate people. Perhaps this aim will be achieved through voice recognition technologies.

The language barrier compounds the literacy issue. Over 68% of Internet content worldwide is in English. In e-commerce, English is even more dominant, with over 94% of links to pages on secure servers in English. However, although there are currently fewer sites for non-English speakers, the trend is expected to change soon.

How can we bridge the digital divide?[edit | edit source]

Studies have shown that technology diffusion is slow and costly and developing countries “cannot assume that relevant new technologies will flow easily to them across international borders”. [67]

Governments play a vital role in bridging the digital divide. This is particularly true in developing national information infrastructures that will increase Internet access among the population. Specifically, governments should develop a policy and legal regulatory environment conducive to the creation of a robust national information infrastructure, including a regulatory environment that would increase competition and keep prices down. Government should also consider lowering or removing import duties and/or sales taxes on IT goods and services. This would contribute towards increasing PC penetration rates. Finally, governments’ own use of technology to enhance efficiency, effectiveness and transparency (e-government) could stimulate growth in the private ICT sector.

Governments should also encourage alternative access to the Internet. If in the developed world the PC through the telephone or cable networks is the main mode of accessing the Internet, developing countries should seriously consider the use of wireless technologies and devices to connect to the Internet.

Box 13. Mobile Internet for Developing Countries

Mobile communications has exploded in many developing nations. Mobile has often been the first competitor to sluggish government-owned fixed line telephone systems. Instead of waiting for years for a fixed line, and sometimes paying high line installation fees, citizens in many developing countries can now get a mobile connection on demand and need only to pay for the card that activates their handset. Furthermore, because wires do not need to be laid, mobile networks can be installed relatively quickly and are appearing in formerly ‘unwired’ places such as ‘up-country’ Uganda. Another big driver of mobile in developing countries has been the pre-paid card which turns the mobile handset into a portable, personal pay phone. Pre-paid service has allowed millions of users who would not normally financially qualify for subscription-based service to become mobile users.

One of the reasons that wireless Internet seems logical for developing countries is that mobile phones outnumber PCs. In addition, mobile phones are beginning to exceed fixed lines in a growing number of developing countries. Of course, many of those handsets cannot access the Internet but most could be used for SMS (short messaging service), a precursor of Internet use. SMS is exploding in many developing countries. Take the Philippines for example where one of the leading mobile operators is Globe Telecom. At the end of 2000, it had 2.6 million subscribers (of which 86% were pre-paid) generating 25 million SMS messages a month. Revenues from SMS increased almost 500% in 2000 and accounted for 17% of Globe’s wireless revenue.

Is it realistic to expect that the latest mobile Internet applications will also be launched in developing countries? The Congo, one of the poorest countries in the world, was one of the first nations in Africa to get WAP in June 2000. It was introduced by Celtel Congo, which launched its mobile service only in December 1999. A year and half later, Celtel had grown to be the largest telecom operator in the Congo with 14,000 subscribers. Celtel’s WAP users can access content such as local news, exchange rates, travel schedules and overseas WAP sites.

Source: Michael Minges, “Mobile Internet for Developing Countries” in INET 2001 Proceedings; The Internet Society [home page on-line]; available from; accessed 28 August 2002.

Is government’s role limited to developing the physical infrastructure?[edit | edit source]

The problem with focusing too much on providing the infrastructure to enhance access is that the public may have Internet access but will not find anything useful or relevant on the Net anyway. Since governments are the biggest repository of information that is important to citizens, and since information is a public good, governments’ role as a content provider is also critical.

Some governments address the issue of content directly. For instance, the Information Stores (Boutiques d’information), which is operated by the government of Burkina Faso, provides agricultural production and marketing information to rural farmers. The Information Boutiques collect and provide information about judicial matters, facilitate courses and mediate between the local population and services. It was designed to meet the information needs of the rural population of Burkina, who do not have sufficient access to information supporting basic economic, social and political activities.

Is there a role for the private sector in bridging the digital divide?[edit | edit source]

The private sector, through investments and economic activities, plays an important role in bridging the digital divide. The numerous Internet cafes in the developing world are a testament to fact that the drive for profit does not preclude doing social good (in this case making the Internet more accessible). Moreover, the development of new IT businesses contributes to employment and economic growth in general.

A number of global IT companies are also keen on helping to provide people with the necessary skills to succeed in the information age. Oracle’s Oracle Academic Initiative, Sun Microsystems’ Java Competency Center, Cisco Systems’ Cisco Networking Academy, and other similar efforts not only help make their graduates more employable but also upgrade skills in the community. That they also ensure a steady supply of workers for these corporations certainly makes it a win-win-win situation for individuals, communities and corporations.

Corporate social responsibility efforts are also useful in ensuring broader access to ICT goods and services. Microsoft’s international community affairs program aims to bring the benefits of ICT to disadvantaged people in countries where it does business. In China, Microsoft is sponsoring Project Hope, a non-governmental organization (NGO) that aims to create five computer labs or cyberschools. The project will involve teaching computer skills to disadvantaged youth, who will have Internet access and the highest quality teachers and curricula in China. The same is being done in Indonesia, where Microsoft is working with Pact Indonesia to create six computer centers and offer IT skills development for disadvantaged youth.

In the Philippines, Coca-Cola Export Corporation has entered into a joint project with the Foundation for IT Education and Development, a non-profit organization, to operate the ed.venture project, which provides computers and Internet connectivity, training and post-training support services to high schools in the Philippines. By using schools as an entry point to the community, ed.venture and similar projects are laying the foundation for greater community participation in the digital universe.

Box 14. Tuning In to The Village Voice

Under the name Radyo Natin, or Our Radio, MBC has launched more than 400 low-power FM stations since late (2001), with another 400 in the pipeline. This network of tiny radio stations represents an effort by MBC to convince national advertisers that they can reach virtually every consumer in the Philippines at the local level. For the stations’ operators, the money they make will depend on convincing small local businesses to advertise, while also selling blocks of the stations’ airtime to local politicians, religious institutions and others with a desire to reach the community.

Using a combination of low-cost transmitters and satellite-programming muscle developed in Manila as part of its traditional radio network, MBC, the oldest broadcaster in the Philippines, stands poised to revolutionize local radio. For the first time, tiny local stations are able to deliver the latest music and news from Manila in tandem with local-language news and information about the village or the neighborhood. …

The network is so new that it is difficult to say if the local stations will generate consistent profit for the operations. One thing is certain, however: Never before in Asia has a company come up with a formula for such widespread low-power broadcasting. Traditional so-called ‘community’ radio has relied on foundations and funding agencies like the United Nations to set up small stations in remote communities in the developing world. But frequently, when the money from the agency dries up, the stations go off the air. With Radyo Natin, MBC is betting that operators will develop sufficient local-revenue streams to keep the network going and that national advertisers will give the home networks a steady flow of advertising pesos to make the venture profitable. …

If all goes as planned, by the end of (2002) MBC will have 1,174 stations in its network, including its 74 traditional big stations, the 100 larger Radyo Natin properties and the 1,000 tiny local stations currently being established.

Source: A. Lin Neumann, “Tuning In to The Village Voice” in Far Eastern Economic Review (August 29, 2002).

What is the role of nongovernment organizations?[edit | edit source]

Non-government organizations (NGOs) play a number of roles in bridging the digital divide. NGOs help define the issue and mobilize resources to bridge the digital divide. The work of the Benton Foundation is an example. This non-profit organization produces and coordinates the Digital Divide Network (DDN), which serves as “a catalyst for developing new, innovative, digital divide strategies and for making current initiatives more strategic, more partner-based, and more outcome-oriented, with less duplication of effort, and more learning from each other’s activities.” [68]

NGOs are also engaged in policy work, helping develop proposals for global action on the digital divide. This is seen in the role of the non-profit organizations in the Digital Opportunity Task Force (DOT Force), a body created by the G8 Summit in July 2000. The DOT Force report, presented at the 2001 Genoa Summit, proposed a nine-point action plan to resolve the digital divide. [69]

NGOs also act as technology providers (in some instances acting as Internet service providers and/or application services providers). An interesting effort along this line is that of Jhai Foundation’s Remote IT Village Project in Laos. [70] Faced with no electricity or telephone wires and harsh conditions, Jhai Foundation is developing the following:

  • A rugged computer and printer that draws less than 20 watts in normal use (less than 70 watts when the printer is operating) and that can survive dirt, heat and immersion in water;
  • A wireless local area network with relay stations based on the 802.11b protocol, that will transmit signals between the villages and a server located at the Phon Hong Hospital for switching to the Internet or the Lao telephone system; and
  • A Lao-language version of the free, Linux-based KDE graphical desktop and Lao-language office tools.

It is expected that Lao villagers in the five pilot areas will use these facilities to make telephone calls within Lao PDR and internationally (using voice-over-Internet technologies), and for the activities that are so important for their start-up enterprises, such as accounting, letter writing and email.

NGOS also play a significant role in bridging the digital divide particularly as content providers and trainers. The Community Learning Centers in Ghana are a case in point.

Box 15. High Tech/Grassroots Education: Community Learning Centers (CLCs) for Skill Building (excerpts) by Mary Fontaine

Since November 1998, three Ghanaian NGOs have been managing and running CLCs in Accra, Kumasi, and Cape Coast. The purpose of the centers is to empower individuals and organizations for local development by providing public access—particularly for low-income populations—to the Internet and other ICTs. In just a little over two years, the centers grew from small, relatively obscure offices to popular establishments with their waiting rooms filled. They served nearly 14,000 clients during the first quarter of 2000 alone, 77 percent of whom took advantage of the training opportunities in typing, word processing, spreadsheets, computer literacy, and Internet orientation that are offered in addition to simple access to computer equipment. That’s over 10,000 individuals who gained increasingly important computer-related skills. Trainees include students, teachers, and researchers as well as business people, staff from NGOs, medical practitioners, artisans, merchants, local officials, and telecommunications workers. Ranging in age from eight to 67, with 85 percent between 18 and 40, the vast majority of clients are males. However, female enrollment has been growing steadily, in part due to the CLCs’ creative outreach campaigns.

… The CLCs in Ghana and Benin are providing practical, hands-on, and affordable training to thousands of people from all walks of life, who are developing skills that simply cannot be acquired anywhere else—even at some of the major universities. Individuals participating in the training perceive it to be highly empowering, due not only to the employment opportunities it opens up but also to the ready access to global information and networking it provides. In the long term, it may have the same empowering effect on low-income communities as a whole. For now, the training programs are clearly meeting a need and helping to satisfy a growing demand that remains otherwise unfulfilled.

Beyond the impact on individuals and communities, the operation of CLCs is having an interesting impact on NGOs as well. Their entry into the telecenter business illustrates a growing trend in the NGO world toward a kind of “social entrepreneurship” that is neither strictly non-profit nor for-profit. Generating revenue to run a business is a relatively new undertaking for most NGOs, especially small, indigenous groups in developing countries. The NGOs in Ghana and Benin deserve credit for their courage in taking the risk on behalf of their constituents—and congratulations for making it work.

Source: Mary Fontaine, “High Tech/Grassroots Education: Community Learning Centers (CLCs) for Skill Building” in TechKnowLogia (July/August 2000), Knowledge Enterpise Inc.; available from; accessed 28 August 2002.

What about international organizations?[edit | edit source]

The digital divide has reached the top of the agenda of numerous international and regional organizations.

The United Nations’ ICT Task Force, for one, aims to find new, creative and quick-acting means for spreading the benefits of the digital revolution and averting the prospect of a two-tiered world information society. [71] The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) has projects to boost Internet connectivity and access in some of the poorest countries in the world. These include the United Nations Information Technology Service (UNITeS), a volunteer corps to train groups in developing countries in the uses and opportunities of the Internet and IT, and the Sustainable Development Networking Program (SDNP), an initiative to kick-start networking in developing countries and help people share information and expertise relevant to sustainable development. The UNDP Asia Pacific Development Information Program (APDIP) aims to promote and establish information technology for social and economic development throughout the region.

The World Bank’s Global Information and Communication Technologies Department (GICT) seeks to accelerate the participation of client countries in the global information economy; to promote private sector investment in developing countries, which will reduce poverty and improve people’s lives; and to promote innovative projects on the use of ICTs for economic and social development, with special emphasis on the needs of the poor in developing countries. The World Bank’s Information for Development Program (infoDev) is a global grant program that promotes innovative projects in the use of ICTs for economic and social development in developing countries. The Development Gateway is a development portal that provides access to information and knowledge on development activities. [72] Through this initiative, the World Bank hopes to make it easier to share experience and knowledge in development, and offers up-to-date information on projects, resources, best practices and expertise on such subjects as poverty, governance, gender, IT, development and environment.

At the regional level, the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum has adopted an e-APEC strategy, which has three pillars: to create an environment for strengthening market structures and institutions; to provide an environment for infrastructure investment and technology development; and to enhance human capacity building and promote entrepreneurship. The e-ASEAN initiative is an effort of the 10 Southeast East Asian states to develop a broad and comprehensive action plan to develop competencies within ASEAN to enable it to flourish in the global information economy.