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Monday, May 21, 2001

Digital divide wider than rich-poor gap
By Radhakrishna Rao

RAPID strides and stunning refinements in information and communications technologies are at the root of the ongoing digital revolution that has changed the way we live and perceive things as never envisaged before. Undoubtedly, all-pervading, multi-faceted digital revolution symbolising an effective convergence of technologies has helped boost trade and commerce, improve the standards of health and literacy besides widening the circle of democracy and empowering the individual. Yet, like the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century, the digital revolution of the 21st century, while accelerating the pace of economic growth and social development, has thrown up a "digital divide", that has separated those with access to the Internet and information technology and those without.

With every passing day, this yawning gap seems to be widening with serious social and economic consequences for the "digitally deprived" section of the humanity.

Of course, there is a realisation on the part of the Third World countries with poor access to the power of the "Net and connectivity" that the Internet holds huge potentials for the developing countries to expand business, create new jobs, improve social services and bring diverse groups closer. But the lack of funds, poor growth of technologies, faulty policies and a general apathy for change and innovations have all conspired to slow down the efforts towards spreading the "Internet culture".


The seriousness of the digital divide is highlighted by the fact that more than half of the 300 million persons accessing the Net are in the USA. What is more, there are more Net users in New York city than in the entire African continent. In 1999, excluding South Africa, only one African in 9000 had access to the Internet while around the world the average is one person in 40. The digital divide is also conspicuous in the well-networked parts of the developing world. For instance, a study by the International Data Corporation (IDC) reveals that while Bangalore — the Silicon Valley and the cyber hub of India — has the highest PC penetration in India, over 85 per cent of its estimated population of 8-million is computer illiterate.

Of course, efforts are being made in many parts of the Third World to minimise the impact of the digital divide. In India, cyber ‘dhabas’ that help farmers access a variety of information are mushrooming in many parts of the Hindi-speaking belt of the country. In Malayasia mobile vehicles fitted with the Internet hook-up facilities provide Net connectivity to rural areas. In Peru, Internet community centres have made the Net accessibility quite affordable to the poorest of the poor. In Africa, rural telecentres set up with the help of IDRC (International Development Research Council), an Ottawar based NGO, are providing Internet and telecom services to the community at "dirt cheap rates".

These efforts that constitute a drop in the ocean of the "digital divide", need to be supplemented by vigorous and multi-faceted efforts on the parts of the Third World countries aimed at igniting technologies through radical policy reforms and swift ground-level action.

While the networked technologies are a great leveller of economic and social structures, they also have the potential to exacerbate the digital divide — the gap between the end of e-commerce development in the industrialised countries and that in the countries and organisations standing on sidelines of the global e-commerce revolution. Countries left out of the e-commerce loop could experience the cost of severe economic isolation in the highly competitive environment.

Recent findings by the Computer Economics, an e-business advisory group, suggests the digital divide could hamper the ability of the developing countries to be a part of the ongoing process in developed economies of assuming the possibility of redefining the existing rules for global commerce.