There's much talk and worry these days about the world's technological haves and have-nots. At the epicentre of this hand-wringing is the expanding chasm between those with and without access to the Internet, mobile phones, personal computers, and other newfangled computer and communications gear. What's worrisome about this gap is that it is distancing the world's poorest people by greater degrees than ever before from its more well-off citizens.
As troubling as this fissure in the world seems at first blush, much of the ongoing debate about how to bridge it is distracting attention toward wrong challenges and opportunities. A primary problem with the debate is that 'Digital Divide' means different things to different people in different places at different times and for different purposes.
Defining the Digital Divide
The picture that typically comes to mind when the Digital Divide is mentioned is one of schoolchildren from some downtrodden place sitting jaws agape and mesmerised, and learning in heretofore unfathomed new ways in front of personal computer terminals. To others, though, the term conjures up images of the ubiquitous availability of all kinds of new and exciting information appliances. Still others have copped the term to symbolise what stands between the world as it exists now and one in which youth is empowered, gender rights are enhanced, environmental responsibility is practised on a widespread basis, and all other sorts of social ills are remedied.
All of that having been said, 'Digital Divide' is a clever shorthand term, one politicos of all stripes can't resist dropping to oversimplify and show their command of and concern about complex issues.
'Hollow' information appliances
While it is essential that the transformative potential of information technology be tapped as thoroughly and broadly as possible, what the world suffers from, primarily, is not a shortage of personal computers, mobile phone handsets, Blackberries, iPods, and other glamorous network-connecting information appliances. What the world suffers from is a paucity of public communications networks into which to plug these abundantly available devices and render them more valuable than stand-alone curiosities and gadgets. First and foremost, the Digital Divide is an infrastructure divide. There are simply not enough connections and access points - phone jacks, for all intents and purposes - in the world for everyone to connect their voice, video, and computing devices.
To laymen and physicists alike, it's awesomely phenomenal how tiny and powerful computing and communications devices have become since the invention of the transistor in 1948. When one thinks about it, however, he or she realises that these so-called information appliances, tiny and powerful as they may be, are relatively hollow shells in the absence of public networks - such as interconnected telecommunications systems - to which to connect them and interact with others.
The infrastructure divide
That the world suffers mainly from an infrastructure divide is dramatically evidenced by the numbers. Nearly four-fifths of the world's population, give or take a few percentage points, lack access to dependable, reliable, and affordable public communications networks, whether it's to make a phone call, log on to an Internet web site, send a fax, fire off an e-mail message, post a blog entry, or engage in some serious podcasting.
So, if the Digital Divide is anything, it is first an infrastructure divide. It has next to nothing to do with a shortage of information appliances and almost everything to do with the unglamorous, gritty, silt-encrusted, and costly mélange of wires, conduits, poles, switches, and other assorted gear that make up the underbelly - or nervous system - of the much-touted 'information society.'
Even more important than this infrastructure divide, of course, are the economic divides and disparities in levels of social well-being that separate the people of the world. Attacking the infrastructure divide - or, to put a more compelling spin on it, the properly defined Digital Divide - has a great deal to do with remedying these divides.
Conventional wisdom a curse
A cursory survey of various reports of international and intergovernmental institutions such as The World Bank, the International Telecommunications Union, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, and various United Nations agencies reveals to even the most casual observer that where there are high levels of national economic activity there are commensurately high levels of access to public communications infrastructure facilities, be they ones for plain old hard-wired telephone service, wireless communications, or those that make possible the Internet.
The data shows just as compellingly that where there are low levels of economic activity there are comparably low levels of access to such infrastructure. Experts refer to these measures of access to phone, wireless, and Internet lines as tele-density.
The conundrum left lingering by a review of such data, of course, is this: Does wealth drive high levels of tele-density? Or do high levels of tele-density drive wealth? If, in fact, the accessibility of individuals to public communications networks does generate wealth, then enhancing such access should be of paramount concern to national leaders.
If, however, tele-density is no more than a reflection of underlying wealth, then enhancing access to public networks is probably not as deserving of the attention of public policy makers as some would like it to be. Conventional wisdom is that rich people buy phone, cable TV, satellite, Internet access, and other communications services because they can afford to. This view is wrong.
First of all, nothing squares as perfectly with national economic activity - as measured by such things as per capita GDP and income - as does teledensity. Not infant mortality, longevity, access to health care, educational achievement, or any other barometer of social well-being.
Second, sustainable social development starts with economic development. It doesn't work the other way around. And it is access to networked communications and computing capabilities that triggers economic growth, which is the lifeblood of sustainable social development and well-being.
Third, conventional wisdom confuses means and ends. Access to public communications networks is a means to larger development ends. Those in the world with such access enjoy not only higher levels of income, but are armed with the tools to acquire knowledge and work with it toward higher levels of social well-being. The well-worn parable about giving one man a fish and feeding him for a day and giving another the know-how and tools with which to become a fisherman and feeding him for a lifetime is probably as applicable in this situation as any other with which international development professionals deal.
Political commitment required
If national leaders, singularly or in unison, are going to effectively address the digital divide they must first adopt an unswerving conviction that access to advanced communications networks is not a stand-alone socio-economic benchmark. Second, they've got to be just as utterly convinced that a high level of such access is a sine qua non of economic development and growth. And they've got to be convinced that economic growth is the engine of sustainable improvements in living conditions.If these convictions are present, then there will be a commensurate dedication to promulgating laws and regulations that render national environments as inviting as they can be of the awesome amounts of private investment - not just the money but also the required technological and skilled human resources - needed to deploy, run, and modernise public communications infrastructure.
The hallmarks of these convictions and commitments will be factors such as these:
- regulators out from under the thumbs of political ministries, incumbent national telecommunications service providers, and other special interests;
- streamlined and clear rules of the road for new providers of communications services;
- transparent, predictable, readily accessible, and fair dispute-settlement mechanisms;eliminated or reduced restrictions on foreign investment;
- reduced taxes; and
- eliminated tariffs and duties on imported communications and information technology gear.
While much lip service is paid to the importance of modern communications systems, seldom does the rhetoric match reality. Consider the nation of Turkey, for instance. There, as of late 2005 at least, individuals must pay a 50% new-subscriber tax when they sign up for mobile communications services. Atop this they must pay an ongoing 18% sales tax. And on top of this they must pay an ongoing 25% percent communications tax. Clearly - the rhetoric of its leaders notwithstanding - this is not a society whose leaders are convinced of the economic benefits of expanded access to modern information and communications technology tools. Lest this sound smug coming from an American, readers should be reminded of the situation in the United States, where nary a politician exists who does not commend the value, virtue, and promise of expanded access to new communications and information capabilities. Yet only taxes on tobacco and alcohol - so-called sin taxes - exceed those imposed on transactions involving communications services.
In too many parts of the world, obviously, the NATO principle 'No-Action-Talk-Only' prevails. If the worldwide Digital Divide, properly defined, is going to be bridged, public policy makers are going to have to recognise and be convinced of the following:
- the Digital Divide is mainly an infrastructure divide;
- there is an inextricable link between access to public communications networks and national economic growth;
- sustainable social development hinges on national economic growth; and
- what is required are national public policies that are as inviting as they can possibly be of the private investment needed to build out and modernise needed public communications infrastructure.
About the GIIC
The Global Information Infrastructure Commission is a confederation of chief executives and other officers of business firms engaged in the development, manufacture, deployment, operation, modernization, financing, and use of services and products based upon information and communications technologies. These executives head enterprises headquartered throughout the world and, as GIIC commissioners, are convinced that ICT-based capabilities have given rise to a rapidly evolving new era, denoted most frequently as an 'information society,' and widely regarded as one that transcends borders and is an increasingly powerful force in all societies. As such, they acknowledge and are dedicated, through the instrumentality of the GIIC, to fulfilling the essential role that must be played by the private sector (by virtue of its technological, human, and financial resources) to foster development of an information society that is sustainable, equitable, and enhances the economic and social well-being of people everywhere. Toward these ends, the GIIC mission is to: (1) advocate the promulgation, adoption, and enforcement of responsive public policies; (2) convene forums within which to address public policy challenges and different approaches thereto; (3) collaborate with other sectors of society; (4) conduct formal studies; and (4) publish and in other ways share and disseminate the conclusions of its deliberations and research.
About the author
Robert G.,Rogers is Executive Director, Global Information Infrastructure Commission. For the past nineteen years Mr Rogers has dealt with legislative, regulatory and other public policy initiatives driving the communications and information technology industries. He has held positions of Director, Regulatory Affairs, Northern Telecom; Deputy Attorney-General, State of Delaware; Public Affairs Representative, Du Pont Company, Public Policy Counsel, Siemens Corporation. Mr Rogers holds degrees from the University of North Dakota the Delaware Law School and Widener University. He is a Member of the Bar, Delaware, Pennsylvania and District of Columbia.