February 9, 2011
The International Digital Divide
The developed nations must invest in information and communications technologies (ICT) in the developing world not only the close the so-called digital divide but to encourage sustainable economic development and to create new markets for international commerce.
Many observers have suggested that the gap between those with access to ICT and those without it is growing. But, all world citizens should have the opportunity to benefit from open access to ICT. The benefits are obvious to those given access in terms of education and opportunity, but ICT availability in developing nations also fosters economic opportunities for all. In particular, internet access has the potential to foster economic development in sectors as diverse as tourism, agriculture and handicrafts.While the concept of a global digital divide is intuitively understood by academics, politicians and public policymakers, there is little empirical data that considers the gap between the "haves" and the "have nots" at a level beyond measures of gross domestic product (GDP) per capita and its effect on the spread of ICT across a nation.
D. Steven White and colleagues at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth have now developed a contemporary map of the global digital divide, which they say provides a baseline measure of the investment in ICTs needed on a per country basis in order to close the gap as it currently exists. However, they point out that because ICT is constantly changing and developing, each new technology can widen the global digital divide so it is important that any investment takes into account the diffusion of new ICT technologies.
The researchers used a model-based cluster analysis to determine cohorts of countries based on three variables: personal computers per 100 population, internet users per 100 population and internet bandwidth per person. The results indicate that the global digital divide consists of four tiers rather than the simplistic two of the rich-poor, have-have nots.
All of the developed countries lie within the first tier. However, there are some surprises within that tier, not least that 18 countries outperform the USA based internet access and bandwidth available. In the top tier are Jamaica, Antiqua, Estonia, Hungary, Slovak Republic, Aruba, Barbados, Brunei, Chile, Latvia, Lithuania, Qatar, Slovenia and the United Arab Emirates, which contradicts the notion that GDP per capita is the main predictor of internet access. Surprisingly, Columbia and Uruguay are at the top of the second tier but Brazil, Russia and China are at the bottom of that cluster. Perhaps not surprising is that African nations account for the majority of the members of the lowest tier, indicating the disadvantage for the continent as a whole in terms of lack of computer use, internet access, and bandwidth.
The gap between those at the top of tier 1 and the bottom of tier 4 is vast. There is 63 times more access per capita to personal computers, 42 times more internet users per capita and bandwidth is 25000 times better at the top than the bottom on average.
The old adage remains as true today as was centuries ago: knowledge is power. Unfortunately, the hindrance of knowledge and limits to its access also represents power. As such, in those instances where repressive governments hinder the spread of ICT to their citizens there are political obstacles to be overcome too before the digital divide can be closed.
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