Silver Rights

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Friday, November 25, 2005  

News: Fund seeks to bridge Digital Divide

When I think of the Digital Divide, the image is usually an American one. Students hurriedly taking notes from online content before their 30-minute time allotment runs out at the public library. Someone told to apply for a job in a store online who replies she doesn't have a computer. Poorly dressed people paying for computer access at Kinko's, while those of us who own our laptops use their Ethernet connections free. An international conference is a reminder that in most of the world, the Digital Divide is more brazen.

CNN reports.

(AP) -- An African-led initiative that will use high-speed Internet connections to treat AIDS patients in Burundi and Burkina Faso offers inspiration for those working to bridge the world's digital divide.

Its great promise lies in its linking of technology spending with existing campaigns to extinguish poverty, diseases and illiteracy, averting the need to choose one over the other.

Yet such projects remain few, despite great need. The age-old challenge remains: Who's going to pay for such works?

As world leaders convene in Tunisia on Wednesday for a U.N. summit on extending technology to the poor, the very fund that was to be its legacy still wants for support. Much of The Digital Solidarity Fund's contributions comes from African nations least able to afford it.

The challenge is huge.

Worldwide, just 14 percent of the population is online, compared with 62 percent for the United States and an even higher ratio in some Western European countries, according to the International Telecommunication Union. Less than half the world's people have telephones, even as some in developed countries are so wired they can't seem to get away from ringing phones.

The Digital Solidarity Fund has just $6.4 million in cash and pledges, pocket change compared with the $2.25 billion the United States spends a year on E-rate grants to schools and libraries in the nation's rural and low-income areas. Of the countries contributing to the world fund, all but one — France — are African.

"We still need to raise funds," said Elena Ursache, the fund's project manager. "It's obviously not sufficient to start to do a lot of activities."

Discussion of the Digital Divide in the U.S. has changed from whether people have access to the type of Internet connection available. As recently as 2002, more than 40 percent of Americans did not have home Internet access, usually because they could not afford it. Now, about 70 percent Americans have Internet access at home. Around 35 million homes now have broadband access. But, the low-income are likely to use slow, 56 bps dial-up accounts, which cost about $20 per month. Their more affluent counterparts opt for DSL, cable modems, or increasingly, T1 connections, at speeds at least four times faster than dial-up.

Meanswhile, citizens of developing countries usually lack any Internet access at home, relying on Internet cafes when they are available. Appeals of The Digital Solidarity Fund have failed to attract support so far. That may be because governments in rich countries do not associate high technology with Third World nations. The Fund's policy of linking support for Internet access with health and welfare programs may help. It makes the connection between the ability to send and obtain information efficiently and achieving important societal goals obvious.

Reasonably related

Study statistics for Internet access worldwide here.

posted by J. | 9:00 PM