Our policies and alliances bring broadband meaningfully to the “forgotten five billion.”
By Craig Warren Smith, Founder, Digital Divide Institute
What does the term Digital Divide means?
“Digital Divide” refers to the gap between those who can benefit from digital technology and those who cannot. ”Closing the Digital Divide” therefore means more than just giving the poor the same technologies already received by the rich. Closing the Divide involves restructuring the telecommunications sectors in each nation so that broadband’s benefits can flow to the masses, not just the elite urban sectors of emerging markets.
It took digital-divide researchers a whole decade to figure out that the real issue is not so much about access to digital technology but about the benefits derived from access. Examining the situation more closely, it turns out that upper-to-middle classes have high-quality access to digital technology because the “80/20 factor” (in which eighty percent of profit is made by serving the most affluent 20%) causes technology designers to work hard at creating “solutions” specifically for the affluent. The low-income masses were ignored because corporate strategists (till now) assumed that designing apps for them will not be profitable. The result is that even where the poor are provided access to digital technology, they receive mere “localized” versions of products and services intended for the rich.
In other words, inappropriate access could actually harm the poor. In effect, extending unmeaningful access to digital technologies to the rural sector of emerging markets could actually widen the digital divide.
Consider, for the example, cyber cafe’. Years ago, many pointed to their spread into the rural sector as an example, demonstrating that the digital divide was shrinking. When a local youth in a Cambodia village ignores his school work and instead spends his evenings playing violent videogames with his peers, he is not really benefiting from digital technology. Gaming technology that has been designed for youth from wealthy families may actually add to the causes of poverty and accelerate the exodus of the rural poor into cities already bursting at the seams. For data on problem of internet addiction go here.
The new view is that closing the digital divide will be most effectively achieved through a two-pronged approach, one that is direct and the other that is indirect: The direct approach will be for governments and businesses to work together to change the incentives that shape digital markets. The indirect approach will be for them to team up on new strategic alliances funded by public-private partnerships for rural health care, quality education, etc. Through these two approaches, the low-income masses may be able to reap many of the same benefits as the wealthy.
Making APEC Meaningful:
For the first time, conditions exist for a massively integrated Pacific region that could drive world growth well through the 21st century. That theme, of course, is at the top of the agenda when APEC’s 21 prime ministers and Presidents gather in Bali Oct 5-7, hosted by the Indonesian President. Dressed in festive Balinese costumes for their photo op, these leaders may cheerily proclaim themselves equal partners in a connected economy which “lifts all boats.” Nonsense. Under current conditions, an invisible divide makes regional integration politically unthinkable: the broadband gap.
Meaningful Broadband can bring equity and fairness to nations where gaps between rich and poor are rapidly growing.