Page last updated at 12:24 GMT, Friday, 19 March 2010

World wakes up to digital divide

By Jane Wakefield
Technology reporter, BBC News

Villagers using a laptop
Some of the world's poorest nations are getting to grips with technology

The digital divide, like many other economic or social problems, is a global issue.

From the most switched on countries such as Sweden to the poorest nations in Africa there is a widening gap between those with access to technology and those without.

The gap between countries on the same continent is also getting wider.

According to figures from the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) Sweden has a mere 12% of its population offline compared to 56.5% in Greece.

Graph showing most and least connected nations

The scale of a country's digital divide reflects the condition of its economy, says ITU analyst Vanessa Gray.

"In Sweden there is a population that is highly educated and a culture of trying new things whereas in Greece income levels and educational levels are lower," she said.

League tables are important to keep nations on their toes, she thinks.

"Being able to compare gives them the incentive to do better. Governments need to know where they stand and learn from other countries," she says.

Finland, which currently has around 13% of its population offline, is so confident it can solve its digital inclusion problems it has recently declared internet access to be a basic human right.

Its public libraries have moved beyond being places where people can gain their first experiences online to offering laptop doctors who trouble-shoot a wide range of technology issues.

Wi-fi villages

Eastern Europe has traditionally lagged behind its western counterparts in terms of economics but countries such as Hungary are investing heavily in high-speed fibre-optic cables.

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Despite the blue sky thinking on infrastructure, Hungary has no national e-inclusion policy and there are concerns that the networks will be far more sophisticated than citizens' understanding or use of them.

There are some efforts to conquer the problem and a wi-fi village programme is reaching out to those of its population living in rural poverty, 80% of whom are Roma or Gypsies.

So far 115 rural villages have been provided with wi-fi, offering internet access to 2,000 families living below the poverty line. The target for this year is to reach 30,000.

As well as providing the infrastructure, the project also sells recycled PCs to local Roma people for about 80 euros.

The PCs run Linux and users are trained to user Google's web applications such as Gmail and Google Docs.

One villager managed to make contact with an old friend and secured temporary jobs for himself and 20 other villagers on a construction site for a new road.

Others have started e-learning programmes while one resident used his new-found skill to make a movie about Roma culture which is on YouTube and has been watched by 90,000 people.

Barren deserts

When it comes to broadband connectivity, the era of 'if you build it, they will come', is rapidly drawing to a close in industrialised countries,
Sascha Meinrath, New America Foundation

Keeping people that are part of minority communities in touch with their culture is an invaluable service that the internet can perform.

As one of the world's most advanced economies, the US is often held up as a weathervane for the state of the internet. While internet access is high in America in general, use among Native Americans stands at less than 10% according to a study conducted by the New America Foundation (NAF).

Even analogue phone lines only reach one in three families in many tribal communities, while less than 10% of respondents to a major NAF survey had universal mobile phone coverage in their community.

"Tribal homelands have stood like barren deserts in pockets across the technology-rich lands of the United States," says report author Sascha Meinrath.

The NAF study drew together views from more than 120 tribes living in 28 states across America.

It found that connected Native Americans paid substantially more for their internet access but those who are connected, use their connection more widely than the national average.

RezKast, the first Native American YouTube is currently sweeping through the community and the internet has had some more life-changing impacts too.

Five clinics in Leech Lake, a reservation with 16 villages and 4,079 residents, is using telemedicine.

It allows individuals from remote communities to access specialised health care

"This is saving peoples' lives," said network director Frank Reese.

Mr Meinrath thinks the example of the Native Americans can be replicated around the world as long as there is a willingness to teach skills alongside making kit and access available.

"It is incredibly rare that broadband connectivity won't improve the lives of those who use it effectively, in much the same way that books improve the lives of the literate. However, providing books to everyone doesn't help those who cannot read in the first place," he said.

It could be time for a major rethink on how to deal with the digital divide he thinks.

"When it comes to broadband connectivity, the era of 'if you build it, they will come', is rapidly drawing to a close in industrialised countries," he said.

"Now we need to begin far more holistic interventions to reach those remaining offline. And if some folks claim to simply not want to be online, that's their choice - though I view it as akin to pridefully claiming that you don't read books."

map of world showing offline population



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