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Bridging the Digital Divide
Prof. Gary Chapman, Director of 21st Century Project, University Of Texas
Roberto Spiezio (seong)     Print Article 
Published 2006-07-15 14:52 (KST)   
VODVideo of Session 9 / OhmyNews

Gary Chapman speaks during Session 9 of the OMNI Forum, July 14.
©2006 Nam S.Y.
The Digital Divide -- the gap between affluent and developing countries in terms of access and use of technologies like the Internet and computers -- is one of the most urgent problems of our time.

It is part of a broader need to bridge the gap between developed and developing countries and is relevant to the entire global community.

Developing countries, and poor communities within developed nations, are unable to rely on strong financial resources to acquire the often-expensive technologies they need.

Technology guru Gary Chapman is director of the 21st Century Project at the University of Texas, in Austin, and an experienced technical writer. This smiling and cordial man, who has been adding the Italian language to his already remarkable range of skills, has devoted himself to this crucial challenge.

The Status of the Internet Nowadays

There are one billion Internet users in the world, but this is just one-sixth of the world's population.

It is interesting to note, said Chapman, that the percentage of Internet users has dramatically increased where the Internet was hardest to find in the past. In the Middle East and Africa the growth rates are around 200 percent and China is expected to have nearly 160 million broadband users by 2007.

Demand and Supply

In light of the booming demand for Internet access, how do we assure the supply? How do we expand the Internet to involve the rest of the world's population? How do we get over the obstacle of limited resources in developing countries?

Chapman has suggested that technology is flexible and can be adapted and contextualized to suit the needs -- and of course the financial resources -- of developing communities.

The model of the Internet's expansion in cities ranges from cybercafes to community tech centers, from PC rooms, well known in Asia, to innovative solutions, like Brazil's "Computador de Uno Reale." This costs $0.4 and consists of a CD that acts as a cyber ID. When inserted into any computer connected to the Internet, the CD allows users to retrieve their applications, data, and desktops as if it were their own machine.

In rural areas, there are other challenges to face before Internet use can be expanded. Some of the approaches could include the use of satellites to broadcast Internet data, solar powered PC's, VoIP (Voice over IP), which is considered a major driver of demand, and the very interesting "store-and-forward" technologies, such as the so-called Asynchronous Data Mule.

ADM is a contemporary version of the good ol' postman for remote villages without access to telecommunications. It allows for the exchange of Internet data through wireless devices mounted on vehicles.

The Internet and the Developing World

It is clear that without access to computers communities can not use the Internet. Despite the dramatic drop in prices over the years, computers are still expensive for people in developing countries. This means that new solutions have to be found.

Chapman mentioned Nicholas Negroponte's laptop PC, which costs $100 and includes a hand crank for emergency power supply.

He also mentioned a new solution from the American company AMD, called PIC -- a solar energy powered computer that currently costs $180, but is expected to have an estimated price of around $50 in a few years.

The adoption of open-source software for the Internet, like Linux-based operating system Ubuntu and the Firefox Web browser, are also seen by Chapman as important contributions to expanding the Internet in developing countries. This kind of software has become very sophisticated and more reliable, being more secure its proprietary counterparts, and available at zero cost to the user.

Complementary Factors

A number of additional factors need to be considered in order to expand the use of the Internet and other new technologies in developing countries.

These range from the development of a telecommunications infrastructure to the reliability and availability of electricity, from social relations and the political context of a country -- where leaders should hopefully be sensitive to the importance of the development and adoption of new technologies -- to the cost of the technology actually used, to name but a few.

Eliminating the Digital Divide may be a utopian ideal since it is influenced by many social, political, climatic, and economic factors. However, the attempt to reduce it has only just begun.
©2006 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Roberto Spiezio

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