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The New Missing Link: The Digital Divide

The good news is that much has been achieved since the publication of the Maitland Commission's famous Missing Link report. Measured in conventional terms, such as teledensity or percentage of households with a telephone, there has been a substantial narrowing of the gap. Africa now has more than twice as many main telephone connections as Tokyo and 85 percent of today's world population share 45 percent of all telephone lines (see Figure 1). In comparison, in 1984, 90 percent of the world's people used only ten percent of all telephone lines.

The bad news is that the mismatch between the technology-rich and the technology-poor seems to be a step ahead and while we are still filling the gap of the 1980s, the Information and Communication Technology (ICT) wave of the 1990s risks digging new holes behind our back. The two major market trends that have characterized the last decade - the growth of mobile communications and the development of the Internet - were not foreseen in the Maitland report. However, the figures show that the situation is not as bad as it was twenty years ago. Figure 1 demonstrates that access to ICTs is asymmetrical. Eighty-five percent of today's population represents some 35 percent of mobile users and make up only 25 percent of the world's total Internet users.

TThere are important similarities between the missing link, which described the difference in access to basic telephone services between developed and developing countries and today's digital divide. The most important one is that both concepts acknowledge a direct correlation between access to telecommunications, economic wealth, and social development.

On the other hand, the technologies that the digital divide is all about have a bigger potential than those promoted twenty years ago. The Internet, more than any other technological tool, has the potential to allow developing countries to leap-frog into the information age. If information is power, then the Internet must be the easiest way of empowering those that have traditionally been left behind. The Internet opens the door to e-education and e-health, important variables in the development equation. E-government fosters transparency and promises to become an important remedy to corruption. It is obvious that while the Internet is not an all-powerful solution, the development sector's hopes in its potential are high. The UNDP's website, for example, introduces the Human Development Report 2001 with the following words: "Technology networks are transforming the traditional map of development, expanding people's horizons and creating the potential to realize in a decade progress that required generations in the past."

ICTs pay in another way. ICT spending, which includes spending on telecommunication and PC products and services, equipment and salaries contributes to economic growth and development. In the European Union (EU), for example, IT accounts for 5 percent of the total GDP and the IT sector employs over 4 million people. Business to Business (B2B) e-commerce in the European Union is expected to be worth US$ 1.27 trillion in 2004 and account for 12.7 percent of the region's GDP.

Education, Literacy and Language

The Missing Link is primarily an infrastructure problem since it is about access to telephones lines. People do not need special training or a certain level of education to use a telephone so once the line is installed, the missing link problem has been solved. Today's technologies, however, are far more complex and demanding and infrastructure is only part of the problem. Even a high speed Internet connection cannot guarantee that people will be able to make use of the Internet and it is important to distinguish between access and use. In other words, the complexity of the Internet forces us to distinguish between quantitative and qualitative barriers or factors.

Quantitative barriers include a country's GDP per capita, the infrastructure (which includes telephone lines, mobile phones and PCs) and Internet access prices. These are things we can easily identify and quantify.

Qualitative barriers, on the other hand, are less obvious because they are not directly linked to the Internet market but call for a more profound look at a country's culture and social structure. Because the language, the literacy rate and the users' need for specific content as such have nothing to do with the telecom market, it is also easier to miss these factors.

We could also say that, whereas the quantitative factors represent the supply side, the qualitative factors tell us more about the users, that is, the demand side. We know that supply and demand have to go, and also grow, hand in hand. If we want to increase the number of Internet users, then we have to know where the biggest potential to develop lies. Are the potential users there but is the infrastructure missing or is the access price too high? Or should we rather develop the need/ambition to use the Internet? While it is obvious that illiteracy is a barrier to Internet use, it is often not enough to be able to read and write. In southeast Asia, for example, Internet penetration does not match the relatively high level of literacy. It is interesting to note, however, that Internet penetration is similar to daily newspaper penetration. This suggests that the Internet is used by people not with basic but with higher educational levels (see Figure 2). Similarly, Internet user profiles suggest that the average Internet user speaks more than one language (or is English mother tongue) and has a relatively high degree of education.

Language is a very important factor. While the telephone can be used by anyone speaking any language, the Internet's 'multilingualism' is still limited. What is striking is the breakdown of Internet use by language and the fact that those who do not speak English tend to have a much lower level of usage.

Figure 3 shows that almost half of Singaporean adults that are literate in English are on-line, compared to around one third of those that do not speak English. It also pays to be literate in more than one language. Around 55 per cent of Singaporeans who understand English and Chinese are online, compared to 38 per cent of those who are literate in either Chinese or English but not both. Most remarkably, there are hardly any Internet users amongst those who speak only Chinese or only Malay. The Thai Internet user profile shows similar results. While language is and will remain a barrier in many parts of the world, the Internet is likely to be dominated by a few languages, not exclusively English. A country like China, for example, has over 22 million Internet users and a great interest in developing Chinese language content. A survey in February 2001 showed that "Chinese Internet users are most likely to be male, aged between 18 and 24, and have a bachelor's degree"

The same survey showed that almost 76 percent of these users access Chinese language web sites. The dividing line then is likely to be between those who are educated and speak either English or one of the other languages represented on the Internet and those who don't.

To increase 'global interconnectivity' and spread the benefits of the digital revolution we must recognize that the digital divide, apart from being an infrastructure problem, is about education, language and awareness. It is as much a knowledge divide as an infrastructure divide.



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Updated : 2002-03-11