The term “Digital Divide” has become popular in recent years, and it highlight the uneven distribution, differences or gaps that exist in opportunities to access and use ICTs amongst diverse population groups, be they individuals, households, businesses or geographical areas. Although progress has been made in reducing the digital divide, mostly due to the efforts of middle-income countries, the least developed countries (LDCs) are falling further behind. Some of the factors contributing to the digital divide include lack of economic resources, limited investment in communications and information infrastructure, adverse geographical conditions, regulatory barriers, low levels of literacy and ICT skills, as well as lack of access to electrical power.
Although Broadband internet subscriptions have increased from less then 20,000 in 2000, to over 400 million in 2009, digital divide is a big issue in Africa. It is the least connected continent (especially the East Coast of Africa), with only 89 million users as of 2009, and 60% of the users concentrated in 4 countries – Egypt, Nigeria, Morrocco and South Africa. But things are changing very quickly in Africa and a lot of progress has been made recently. Seacom laid out the first undersea fiber on the east coast of Africa in July 2009, and the continent is the one of the fastest growing regions in the world when it comes to the mobile-phone market. But internet is still very expensive, due to government regulations, lack of agreements among governments on tariff issues, and flawed ISP models. It will be interesting to see what impact will the new access to Broadband services on the east coast will have on the digital divide of the Continent.
The biggest challenge when it comes to bridging extended ICT connectivity to the rural areas is the high investment cost. The landscape in most rural areas is harsh, the population density and the income-level low. This leads to low returns on investments and hence, the providers are hesitant in investing in the rural areas. Hence, the efforts of governments like Singapore and Malaysia for bridging the digital divide gap should be applauded. In Malaysia, the major challenge is the digital divide between the urban and rural areas. Out of 136 districts that make up the country, 89 have been identified as underserved areas. Most of these districts come overwhelmingly from the East Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak, states which have the lowest population densities in the country. The government initiatives like the
new USP framework provides a mechanism for greater competition and transparency in the effort to
provide universal services through an open process of bidding available to all licensees. The degree of
flexibility given to providers to propose solutions is another commendable characteristic of the framework,
allowing private sector operators to propose a wide range of technology solutions for deployment. It will be interesting to see how these initiatives perform, and it they succeed in achieving universal connectivity in Malaysia.
The developing countries are hungry for information access, and rural areas account for 70% of the population in these countries. And although it is critical that we provide them with access to ICTs, just deploying technology will not solve the issue. Language and literacy concerns combined with the literacy skills required to fully utilize technologies like the internet, remain a big issue. Hence, not just giving access, but improving the adoption of these technologies is crucial for bridging the digital divide.
Broadband and mobile-phone connectivity levels continue to increase for almost all countries. This is make a big impact on international development, especially in the poor nations. Here is a quote from an article (“The Real Digital Divide”) in the Economist a few years back – “The mobile-phone technology has the greatest impact on development – raises long term growth rates, and its impact is twice as big in developing nations than in developed nations”. Very interesting indeed.
I hope the governments (especially in the developing nations) realize the importance of closing the “digital divide” not only for their own economic, social, cultural benefits, but because giving information access to everyone, irrespective of ones economic or social status, is morally the right thing to do.