Elon University

Digital inclusion: Working toward getting the next billion people online … and the billions to follow

November 13, 2007
By Janna Quitney Anderson, Director of Imagining the Internet and Assistant Professor of Communications, Elon University

Audience Members IGF 2007Rio de Janeiro, Brazil – For every one of us connecting to the worldwide web there are five others who are not yet using the Internet. These are people who live in remote areas, people who can’t afford it and people who have other priorities – many of them struggling just to stay alive.

While many of us can’t imagine our lives without the Internet more than 80 percent of the world is not online. For those who are able to utilize it, affordable access to the Internet and training in its use and benefits can be important and empowering.

The Digital Opportunity Index produced by the International Telecommunication Union shows that the U.S. and Canada, much of Europe, Japan, South Korea and Australia have the highest percentages of their populations online, while least-developed regions of the world such as Africa and large parts of Asia and South America are the low-access zones.

We know that being connected to the Internet brings people knowledge, and knowledge is power. The world can be bettered by Digital Inclusion – a movement to bridge the Digital Divide. That’s one of the reasons that people from around the world have gathered in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, at the second annual Internet Governance Forum, facilitated by the United Nations. This is a place where people from civil society, business, government and non-governmental organizations can learn from one another, make global connections and share information that will shape the way the Internet expands. And one of the biggest topics here is the conference theme known as “access.”

Many initiatives are under way today to make the Internet available and affordable to more people. What are the factors that are keeping people offline?

The most obvious reasons many people around the world can’t connect are cost and infrastructure. The world’s major Internet backbones of connection, the fiber networks that tie together regional and national networks, have their roots in the most-developed countries. If you live an area where telecommunications companies or governments have not made infrastructure investments, access is a problem.

Rahman Speaking IGF 2007I participated in a Tuesday IGF discussion of access to remote areas of the world. Among the panelists was Hakikur Rahman, the founding chair of the Internet Society of Bangladesh and the leader of grassroots IT development for the past 20 years in under-served areas of his nation. He brings a passion for the possibilities of the Internet to his work to connect his people. “We built our own network, introduced a school program, provided training,” he explained. “But we face challenges, including the government. Licensing is a very big problem in our country. The government is reluctant to issue licenses to operate telecenters. Recently we have had to argue more.”

The world is becoming more wired, but it takes time and money. Current projects are running fiberoptic cables to provide reliable data connections for the first time to 22 eastern, central and southern African countries, and some people in remote areas are served by satellite delivery of their Internet connection. Other islands, mountainous areas and deserts will have to wait longer. Wiring the world is a huge job.

Even if you could run the cables to all areas does it make economic sense to do so? Companies often have no prospect of signing up enough customers in poor, sparsely populated rural areas to cover their costs. Where it might not make sense for a corporation to make the investment for Internet connectivity in some areas there are calls for governments to step in and provide help just as the U.S. government subsidized the telephone and electric companies that ran services to rural areas in the early 1900s.

But for many nations this is controversial. Faced with challenges of inadequate roads, water and electricity systems and only rudimentary health and education systems how can developing data networks be a priority? Those who believe in the power of the Internet argue that access to the free flow of information can be a catalyst to improving the quality of life.

There is evidence that even community access to a single Internet connection can make a difference. Imagine the power that a single Internet kiosk can have in a poor, rural community, providing information about such things as farming techniques, government aid or basic healthcare. This is taking place in remote areas of Brazil and Colombia, where Comsat International is working with governments to bring computers to thousands of locations. “There’s a big effort to stimulate these people to create home pages to develop some type of business,” explained Comsat’s Guilherme Saraiva. “People have video servers, file sharing, discussion groups. Business-learning projects are growing a lot in this region, because a lot of people want to get educated and they do not have teachers available.”

Emerging technologies may help knock down the barriers to access and sweep aside many of the infrastructure and cost questions. The One Laptop Per Child initiative has inspired the development of an Internet-ready computer that costs under $200. It comes with software and a hand-crank for power generation in remote locations.

Panel Discussion IGF 2007Many see the phone as the future of the internet in remote locations. Mobile telephones that are being developed to include e-mail and internet capabilities can be a valuable alternative to computers because they can provide essential access in remote areas at a low cost. At the Tuesday IGF session, Gunnar Hökmark, a member of the European Parliament representing Sweden, acknowledged its power. “We are today moving from 2 billion people with mobile phones to – rather rapidly within a few years’ time – 3 billion,” he said. “It is giving an advantage to rural and distant areas.”

The United Nations Millennium Villages Project is implementing a plan to provide cell phones to 79 villages in 10 African countries. The program is based on a 2005 study that showed providing just 10 mobile phones per 100 people could significantly improve economic output and boost the economy. About 400,000 people will be provided with access to mobile communication and the Internet through this initiative.

When people at the Internet Governance Forum discuss access, they are also discussing cross-border regulations of Internet connections, the costs of extending the Internet and who will pay for it while keeping access affordable national policies regarding people’s fair and equitable access to the internet.

The session I spoke in drew at least 100 people from all over the world, and many briefly shared observations without sharing their identities, including the following points:

  • Most of the 800 million illiterate people in the world live in remote areas. These people are also least likely to be willing to be recruited to learning about using computers. They have to be educated about how being connected can improve their lives.
  • Cost of connection is important. People in remote areas don’t want expensive broadband connections – 64K will do just fine. Keep costs down when reaching out.
  • If you don’t have a plan to handle the growth of a remote network, sustainability won’t happen. There has to be energy available for growth.
  • Local content in local languages is important to building and sustaining interest in the community and helping a program grow once it is connected.
  • Access to medical expertise is incredibly valuable use of remote connections.
  • We don’t need to count on governments or corporations to fund all of these projects. Once we get established, the people we help to learn and earn can pay us back by investing in our telecenters.
  • There are programs getting off the ground now all over. In Peru and the Dominican Republic, everywhere. Many times when you are not living in a rural area you don’t know, but the change is happening, and it is good.
  • The literacy rate in Zimbabwe is 80 percent, but the challenge there is to provide basic infrastructure, power, roads and much more. We need to do these first to bring quality of life to the people and then the Internet is just icing on the cake.

Cerf Speaking Panel IGF 2007Panel participant Vint Cerf, an Internet pioneer who now works with Google, said we can make new connections happen, but there isn’t one best way to build out the Internet all over the world. “It’s different everywhere. You have to do it in a way that is self-sustaining, and you have to make sure there is content that people can use,” he said. “I hope everybody walks out of this room with an idea of how to get more people up online on the Internet, that’s what one of the Millennium Development goals is all about, and that’s what we should be trying to make happen.”

With advanced countries continuing to progress toward third-generation Internet technologies, potentially leaving the least-developed world even further behind, it is more important than ever to look for ways to provide access for all who would benefit.

If we can’t find ways to develop the fullest digital inclusion possible we risk leaving people behind in a global economy that demands connectivity. Efforts are being made, but we all need to work harder to develop digital inclusion.

(Anne Nicholson is a contributing writer for this article.)