Friday, September 12, 2008

Addressing the Digital Divide

The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development's (OECD)Understanding the Digital Divide (2001) describes that 'digital divide' refers to the gap between individuals, households, businesses and geographic areas at different socio-economic levels with regard both to their opportunities to access Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs), and to their use of the Internet for a wide variety of activities. The 'digital divide' thus reflects various differences among and within countries. The 'digital divide' among households appears to depend primarily on two variables, income and education. Other variables, such as household size and type, age, gender, racial and linguistic backgrounds and location also plays crucial role in determining the size and character of 'digital divide'. According to Mehra et al (2007), 'digital divide' encompasses both physical access to technology, hardware and more broadly, the resources and skills needed to effectively participate as digital citizen.

Problem of leapfrogging

It is argued that the debate over future 'digital divide' would be moving away from inequality in basic 'quantity' and 'access' to ICTs to differences in the 'quality' of the user experience and 'capacity'. However, there is also the need to observe and contemplate whether the present global knowledge economy allows countries from lower and middle-income groups to leapfrog in terms of growth and development simply on the basis of technological advancements. Such a technocentric approach to development have always welcomed criticisms from social scientists and academicians since diffusion of technology in a non-discriminatory and participatory manner depends on varieties of factors including institutions and regulations. The existing 'global order', the 'nature' of the things, and the institutions do not appear conducive enough for technology to serve the needs of the very poor, the destitute or the most vulnerable. Some have even contested that the present nature of 'digital divide' appear similar to what was seen during the days of industrial revolution in the West. Although the industrial revolution started in the West but it was dependent on colonial relations and exploitation. If 'dependency theory' is logical enough to be believed, then one can argue that the countries from lower and middle-income groups may face problems and obstacles in leapfrogging.

Current state of affairs

The earliest International Telecommunication Union (ITU) statistics on telecommunications (published in 1871, recording data on telegraph operations since 1849) show the divide between the Member States of the Union, mainly within Western Europe at that time. The International Telecommunication Union's World Information Society Report 2007 provide some idea about digital divide in various kinds of economies i.e. Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development plus (OECD+), least developed countries (LDCs ) and developing (and also World Bank categories of high, upper-middle, lower-middle and low-income states), and trends over the decade from 1995-2000 (2000-2005 for broadband). The gap in fixed lines between OECD+ and developing economies (measured by the ratio between average penetration rates) has reduced from 9.8 in 1995 to 3.3 in 2005. The absolute difference has also reduced (in terms of total percentage points between the averages), falling from 40.4 percent in 1995 to 33.5 in 2005. The gap between developing and least developed countries (LDCs) has actually widened for fixed lines, from 13.8 to 20.2. In mobile telecommunications, the ratio between OECD+ and developing economies has been practically eradicated, falling from 33.1 to 3.1. Least developed countries (LDCs) have done well in mobile, growing their subscriber base by a phenomenal 93 percent per year over 1995-2005. Mobile phones are the most evenly distributed and fixed broadband connections the least. Two economies—India and Vietnam accounted for 94.0 percent of all in low income countries, while China accounted for 87 percent of broadband subscribers in the lower middle income group. In 1997, the lower 80 percent of the world's population situated mainly in developing countries accounted for only around 5 percent of Internet users. Mobiles are the most equally distributed ICT, with a Gini coefficient (a measure to capture inequality) of 0.27 at the end of 2005. Although the ratio of broadband subscribers in OECD+ economies to developing economies has collapsed from 434 to 11.5, the absolute gap measured in percentage points has grown almost tenfold between 2000 and 2005. By the end of 2008, more than half the world's population is expected to have access to a mobile phone.

The International Telecommunication Union's World Information Society Report (2007) says that the impact of mobile phones in reducing the 'digital divide' is more remarkable in Africa, where their number has grown from just 15 million in 2000 to over 160 million by the end of the 2006. In terms of broadband subscribers, high-income economies account for nearly three-quarters of total broadband subscribers worldwide. Lower-middle income economies accounted for 20 percent (with China alone accounting for 87 percent of these or some 15 percent of the global total). Low income countries accounted for less than one percent of total global broadband subscribers, with India and Vietnam accounting for all of these.

The International Telecommunication Union's World Information Society Report 2007 says that low-income countries are less likely to have infrastructure-based competition in their broadband markets, where as many high-income countries enjoy competitive markets with alternative products in cable modems and DSL. In the wholesome market, low-income countries suffer from lack of supply, mainly due to barriers in cost. Due to the small size of the Internet market in developing countries, negotiation cannot take place on economies of scale in bulk purchases of international bandwidth. Table 1 shows that the United States (83.1 million) has the highest number of Internet subscribers in 2005, to be followed by China (73.1 million) and Japan (30.1 million). However, in India, the total number of Internet subscribers in 2005 was 6.1 million, which is far below that of the US and China.


Activists who want to bridge the 'digital divide' think that moving towards open content, free software and open access would close the gap between the 'information haves' and the 'information have nots'. There are projects like One Laptop per Child and 50X15 offer in order to close the digital divide. The other participants who are concerned about 'digital divide' are the United Nations Global Alliance for ICT and Development ( and the Digital Alliance Foundation. Indices like Digital Opportunity Index (DOI), e-Readiness Index (ERI) etc. have been prepared so as to capture the extent of 'digital divide'. For some like Athanasios I Bozinis (2007), 'digital divide' resulted in the creation of a technological ruling class and the division of the countries' citizens into two basic categories: the 'electronic aristocracy' that is able to access the services of the electronic democracy (including electronic governance) and the electronic 'have not's'. It is very difficult at this current juncture to guess how the 'digital divide' can be closed, what would be the shape and size of the future 'information society', given the growing complexities in the 'networked' world, and how ICTs can help in poverty reduction and reducing inequality. But, with the advent of the Web 2.0 and Open movement, there is some hope of useful decentralised interventions for bridging the 'digital divide'. The National Alliance for Mission 2007 is another effort to bridge the 'digital divide' and improve e-Governance in rural India. Nowadays, public-private partnerships (PPP) too are seen as a tool for technology transfer from developed to developing and underdeveloped regions.

Mehra, Bharat, Merkel, Cecelia and Bishop, Ann P (2004): 'The Internet for Empowerment of Minority and Marginalized Users', New Media and Society 6: 781-802.
The Emerging Digital Economy II, US Department of Commerce, June 1999, accessed from
International Telecommunication Union's World Information Society Report 2007

Bozinis, Athanasios I (2007): 'Internet Politics and Digital Divide Issues: The Rising of a New Electronic Aritocrats and Electronic Meticians', Journal of Social Sciences 3 (1): 24-26, 2006, ISSN 1549-3652, Science Publications.

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