Home Global-ICTGlobal-ICT 2008 The digital divide – dividing the effort

The digital divide – dividing the effort

by david.nunes
Author's PictureIssue:Global-ICT 2008
Article no.:6
Topic:The digital divide – dividing the effort
Author:Emil Nikolov
Title:President & CEO
Organisation:Nexcom Telecommunications
PDF size:189KB

About author

Emil Nikolov is the President and CEO of Nexcom Telecommunications; he has more than 13 years of experience in building and managing telecommunications companies in Central Europe, Eastern Europe and Africa. Mr Nikolov co-founded Nexcom Telecommunications LLC, a US holding company that owns and operates alternative competitive telcos throughout Central and Eastern Europe and a commercial national WiMAX network in Eastern Europe (Bulgaria). Mr Nikolov started Eyebill a telecom billing software company and Hermesphone, a telecom operator providing retail telecom service to Eastern European minorities in the US, UK and Canada. Mr Nikolov recently started Clearstream Holdings Limited, which currently owns WiMAX spectrum in seven countries in Europe, Africa and Asia. Mr Nikolov is a frequent featured speaker at various WiMAX telecom shows and events.

Article abstract

Technology has always made a difference. In today’s world, access to information and communication technology determines, in great part, who succeeds and who does not, but some five billion people still do not have this access. The goal of giving 50 per cent of the world’s population access to ICTs and connect universities, libraries, schools and people in the remotest regions by 2015 will be difficult to achieve without the unstinting cooperation of the public sector, NGOs, businesses and individuals.

Full Article

We live in an era of enormous technological achievements and an accelerating digital revolution, where the flow of information is as essential for our survival as water, air and food. The digital revolution creates unlimited new possibilities, new products, technological innovations, distribution channels and an entirely new type of communication. Digital technologies create not only new products, but also entirely new industries, new demands, new supplies, new types of consumers and new business relations. Access to information and communication technologies (ICTs) is essential for economic growth, productivity, employment and, especially, sustainable economic and social development on a global scale. The power of the Internet grows stronger day after day and its potential looks inexhaustible. ICT is a self-propelling, self-replicating and self-sustainable driver of welfare and development. Yet, to reach its full potential a critical mass has to be accumulated. ICTs already reinforce economic growth in developed countries where access to the Internet propels economies and improves social welfare. Promoting the Knowledge Economy that depends upon ICTs is a proven means to boost economic performance, social well-being, and improves the quality of life for people worldwide. However, many people still do not benefit from ICTs because of the ‘digital divide’ – the concentration of access to these technologies is in developed countries, and the privileged few in developing countries. Over five billion people worldwide don’t have access to the Internet and, consequently, are deprived of essential tools for their economic, social and personal development. The goals set by the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) are ambitious and important, but unfortunately will be difficult to achieve, according to plan, by 2015. No player alone can possibly give 50 per cent of the world’s population access to ICTs and connect universities, libraries, schools and people in the remotest regions. The public sector, NGOs, businesses and individuals face a common challenge to bridge the digital divide – a feat only achievable through joint effort. Many barriers remain and must be overcome. Two of the most pressing global issues in this respect are the availability and affordability of broadband Internet and phone services. There are, for example, about 800 thousand villages in the world, 30 per cent of all villages worldwide, without any access to ICTs. There already is some good news – mobile and fixed telephone subscribers are steadily increasing, as are the number of personal computers and the number of Internet users. Fifty per cent of the world’s population will soon be mobile subscribers and the WSIS goal for mobile telephony will be met, at least statistically. But is it really? The mobile use penetration in developed countries is up to three times higher than in developing countries. Despite the robust growth of mobile subscribers, the gap is still there. The gap is shrinking, but not quickly enough. Access to information and communication technologies, 2006 Internet users per 100 inhabitants Fixed telephone lines per 100 inhabitants Mobile cell users per 100 inhabitants countries 60 52 92 countries 11 14 33 Divide 5 times 4 times 3 times Source: ITU The digital divide and social inequality go hand in hand. People in poorest countries, where survival is the main business, tend to think little about ICTs. Nevertheless, without access to ICTs they will have little chance for a better life. Without ICTs, most are condemned to a life of lost opportunities for growth, of limited competitiveness and low income. Developing economies face a tremendous task overcoming the existing barriers to access. Access to reliable, stable, phone and Internet service calls for a physical or wireless telecommunication infrastructure. To provide potential users with fixed, mobile or broadband connectivity greater investment in infrastructure and coverage is a must. Yet, this infrastructure is often too expensive for most developing nations. This is when international cooperation is most needed. Developing economies can utilize the less costly and more efficient technologies that now exist to build connectivity. By leapfrogging to the latest, most efficient, technologies they can learn from the failures of early adopters and catch up more quickly. Worldwide Interoperability for Microwave Access (WiMAX) is one of the technologies that can help developing regions advance rapidly. It serves for wireless voice, data and video transfer over long distance; it is a powerful, cost-effective, way to provide communications in remote regions and villages without adequate infrastructure. WiMAX perfectly matches the needs of low-income, less developed, countries. WiMAX is especially appropriate in developing areas where other technologies fail and where phone or broadband penetration is low. WiMAX networks can reach up to 10-15 km and deliver broadband service of up to 70 Mbps. The investment needed to build WiMAX networks is significantly lower compared to competing technologies; they can quickly reach end users at lower cost because they do not need a cable infrastructure. The vast discrepancy in ICT access between rural and urban areas can be more easily diminished or even eliminated if WiMAX is used to provide affordable phone and broadband services. According to WiMAX Forum forecasts “aggressive WiMAX growth will take place in countries such as Brazil, China, India and Russia, and in regions of the Americas, Middle East/Africa, eastern Europe and developing Asia Pacific”. WiMAX users by region (millions) 2007-2012 Source: WiMAX Forum Obviously, the technology is here, but who can implement it? Should it be a public or a private initiative? The answer to this question must take into account the motives behind public or private actions. Governments have a major role in creating a suitable business and regulatory environment that encourages competition among operators. National leaders should use their right to allocate frequencies to drive competition, and they should protect investors with an effective and transparent regulatory, judicial and fiscal environment. Once businesses feel comfortable with the regulatory environment, the market will play its role and companies will invest in extending their operations into new regions and niches. Providers currently offer their services predominantly within urban, densely populated areas and rich regions. As competition among carriers in these areas increases, prices fall, and the margins of service providers are threatened. Carriers, then, will often move their focus from urban to rural areas for the sake of their own financial interest and provide great benefit to the populations of these regions. Thus, if technology, regulations and market conditions are appropriate, the possibility of growth and profits will lead to major investments in ICTs for rural and underserved regions. Yet, realistically, companies will only act in a socially responsible manner when governments and other public bodies are also acting responsibly. It is not a question of who will invest in building the relevant infrastructure. It is a question of creating an appropriate environment where each player has proper incentives to fulfill their obligations. Here is a shortlist: • governments must enact rules and mechanisms that encourage companies to act and promote investments, etc; • schools need to educate the population about the use of ICTs and their contribution to personal welfare. This will change consumption patterns and stimulate economic and social growth; • universities improve the scientific environment and contribute to improved R&D and stimulate innovation. Businesses are ever ready to take advantage of the useable, marketable scientific output of universities and science parks. Constant innovation and improvement is essential for the survival and prosperity of companies faced with severe competition, demanding users, and changing environment; • operators, to meet their stakeholders’ expectations and demands, need to deploy innovative products, use more efficient new technologies, build cost-effective infrastructure, ensure wide coverage, provide affordable customer premises equipment and increase their reach to consumers; and • the responsibility of NGOs is to hold all parties accountable and help individuals take part in the process. Companies, universities, NGOs and governments each have a role to play in reducing the digital divide. To build a mass of ICT users sufficient to fuel the motor of economic growth, each of these entities should focus on fulfilling their individual tasks – working jointly towards a common goal, but with strictly defined individual responsibilities. When players fail to perform their roles, others have to bear the costs and this limits the accessibility and affordability of ICTs. Only when all the players meet their obligations will developing economies reap the benefits of ICT-driven economic development.

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