Beyond the digital divide

OECD Forum, 15th May, 2001: Digital Opportunities and the Digital Divide; moderator: Hisanori Isomura
OECD Observer

The problem of the digital divide is very real, but the Internet can also help repair social damage and bridge the gap between rich and poor, France Telecom chief executive Michel Bon said on Tuesday, May 15. Online, human interaction takes place in an anonymous, image-less environment free of the socio-economic labelling that frequently occurs with face to face contact, Mr. Bon told a session on digital opportunities and the digital divide at the OECD’s Forum 2001. That is why his company has launched an initiative to bring free and lower-cost Internet access to lower-income areas in France.

Panelists agreed that both government initiatives and private sector participation would be needed to provide universal Internet access and the improved education necessary to function well in the knowledge economy. In confronting the social and professional challenges of information and communications technology (ICT), Mr. Bon said, it has also become necessary to educate the politicians who initiate programs on a government level.

Joshua Brenkel, senior vice president of Hewlett Packard emphasised the benefits of globalisation in bringing ICT to developing nations. “Whenever foreign companies come to the third world, they bring ICT with them,” he said. In order to bring the Internet to everyone, however, infrastructure would have to improve while access methods would have to evolve into smaller, more compatible and affordable devices.

Nearly half of Korea’s citizens are now online, largely thanks to private and public co-operation, said Dae Whang Chang, chairman of the World Knowledge Forum Committee and president of Maeil Newspaper and TV. The government has instituted free Internet access for all students until the 12th grade, and for all involved in the subsequent mandatory two-year military service. There has also been generous government support for programs to give computers to middle- and lower-income families. Meanwhile, a market-oriented method has allowed for a high level of Internet cafés and an extremely low access cost to users.

David Dunn, managing partner at Bozman Partners Ltd., emphasised the need for a type of “prepaid Internet access,” pointing to the rapid growth in telecoms in the third world through prepaid access cards and mobile phones. “Most of the world isn’t equipped with a credit card to access the goods and services of the Internet,” he said, and a new payment method would allow for more rapid growth in the developing world.

Denis Gilhooly, Director of ICT for Development at the UN Development Programme, called for a more international and global effort to combat “not the digital divide, but the same social and economic divide that has always existed between the developed and non-developed world.” Faster liberalisation would help bring higher investment in ICT infrastructure in the third world, but efforts in the non-developed world would have to be designed to allow for market failures.

Amadou Cheikh Kanouté, regional director for Consumers International in Senegal, agreed with this point, asking for the creation of a super-national body to intervene when markets fail. He said that public-private partnerships and tax incentives were excellent for increasing connectivity, and insisted that while the digital divide was enormous in Africa, fair access to a more transparent marketplace would encourage participation there. Mr Fantini, an Italian delegate from the AEEG student association, asked how developing countries could avoid repeating the errors that had left industrialised countries with “poisoned” food and air and water pollution. Mr. Kanouté responded that we must be careful to look at development from a different perspective that is not just figure-oriented.

Neil Anderson from Union Network International said the panellists had not dealt satisfactorily with the question of affordable access to new technology. He said they seemed to be suggesting that third generation mobile phones are the answer, but mobile phones are far more expensive for the user than fixed line phones.

©OECD Observer May 2001

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