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Last Updated: Friday, 16 September 2005, 09:40 GMT 10:40 UK
Netting the next five billion
Getting the whole world online must be more of a priority for our leaders, argues technology analyst Bill Thompson.

Image of computer users in Africa
Everyone should have access to global networks
The United Nations (UN) is 60 years old, and 150 world leaders have been in New York to mark the anniversary with a world summit intended to revitalise the organisation after years in which its credibility and status have greatly declined.

Sadly, and despite claims of substantial progress from politicians and their spin doctors, the summit has failed.

There was no agreement on disarmament, no reform of the Security Council and no commitment to aid targets that might help alleviate poverty.

Even the Security Council's condemnation of terrorism was undermined by a failure to agree what "terrorism" actually means.

Digital equality

The disappointment was clearly expressed by the UN's Secretary-General Kofi Annan. "We have not yet achieved the sweeping and fundamental reform that I and many others believe is required," he told delegates.

One area that will inevitably suffer as a result are efforts to improve access to the internet, yet the global digital divide is becoming a major development issue precisely because of the net's success in the developed world.

Education, trading and social contacts increasingly depend on it, and being cut off from the network is now just as damaging to a local economy as trade barriers or tariffs.

Bill Thompson
Without the technologies and the practical solutions to the problems on the ground, the politicians will have nothing to fund

When the UN General Assembly adopted the Millennium Declaration in September 2000, it committed to achieving eight goals by 2015, including the achievement of universal primary education, work to combat HIV/Aids and the eradication of extreme poverty and hunger in the world.

Later, recognising the importance of information and communication technologies in achieving these goals, the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) was convened to consider how to build the framework of an "all-inclusive and equitable" information society.

The first WSIS meeting took place in Geneva in 2003, and it meets again in Tunis later this year. But without a clear mandate from the UN the discussions seem doomed to be ineffectual, filled with well-meaning platitudes but unable to deliver either resources or political change.

Since the politicians are failing us, we need to look elsewhere for breakthroughs that can change people's lives by making it possible for them to get online so that we can let the next five billion users join those of us who already have a connection to the net.

Part of the problem is how we ensure the network reaches everyone, but the problems do not stop there.

Throughout the world there are people working on a whole range of technologies, from fuel cells that can provide a reliable power source for rural networks to the much-publicised $100 computer project led by Nicholas Negroponte at MIT, and all of this work is important.

Ideas welcomed

One of the research bodies funding academic work in the UK, the EPSRC, has offered 1m from its "Ideas Factory" budget to pay for "novel and adventurous approaches" to the challenge of bridging the global digital divide.

Instead of just asking academics to send in bids for some or all of the pot, they are holding a five-day meeting near Bath later in the year, inviting researchers from the widest possible range of disciplines to work together and come up with new ideas and new ways of tackling the problem.

It is called a "sandpit", and according to Cambridge University computer scientist Alan Blackwell, who will be leading the discussion, it is a great way to encourage creativity and generate unexpected approaches and project proposals.

Image of a computer cable
Ideas are needed to connect the "digitally dispossessed"
It is also a good way for researchers in different areas to discover new perspectives, find out what other people are up to and broaden their horizons.

And after five days there should be a fundable research project that can make a difference to the digitally dispossessed.

Initiatives like this are absolutely vital, and I cannot wait to see what they come up with. But we cannot afford to give up on the political process entirely.

Whatever great ideas we have for low-cost computers or new energy supplies, bridging the global digital divide requires us to bridge another divide first - the one between the world's senior politicians and the people who can come up with creative and affordable solutions to practical problems.

We must not forget that high-level action is capable of delivering resources at a level that university researchers, voluntary organisations or even businesses can only dream of - $50bn of aid for the area affected by Hurricane Katrina shows what can be done once the political will is there.

Without the technologies and the practical solutions to the problems on the ground, the politicians will have nothing to fund.

While five days of debate, discussion and, inevitably, disagreement in Bath for 1m of funding may not seem like it is going to change the world, we may be surprised by what emerges when a bunch of clever people are given a chance to think out loud.

And then we can try to make the politicians listen to what they say.

Bill Thompson is a regular commentator on the BBC World Service programme Go Digital

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