Digitally poor

Northern Ireland Digital Inclusion Board, has been working for four years trying to find ways to make digital technology more available to everyone.  It’s a mighty challenge.  The thresholds many people have to cross are significant; Cost – this kit is not cheap, neither are Connections.  And if you haven’t grown up with the technology, the Confidence to use it is another factor.

I’ve been on the Board since its inception and it is a privilege to work with so many committed and bright people who have the common goal of bringing digital technology to ordinary people in Northern Ireland regardless of age or background.

At a conference in Reuters last year I discovered that people from poor and emerging nations of the world use mobile phones differently to the way we do.  The mobile is for them the PC to us.  Then in an Ofcom review I discovered that we in Northern Ireland use our mobiles differently to the rest of the UK.  We have more "pay as you go", we text more.

But the challenges faced by people here are as nothing to people in developing countries.  This from the Economist:

Internet access depends on equipment: PCs and mobile handsets that can send data, and routers and data-centres to receive and direct it. For the actual access points, poor countries are already teeming with (admittedly congested) mobile networks. Lots of small internet service providers (ISPs) ply their wares in poor countries, but they are basically reselling bandwidth from larger operators. To get online, they must hook onto the global internet backbone (that is, connect to Europe, America or a well-wired Asian country like China, Japan or Singapore—somewhere to rout the traffic globally).

That is where the problem lies. For developing countries, this is difficult and costly. They lack—and therefore must build—optical-fibre lines. Using satellites is unrealistic: there is not enough capacity; the delay times are too long and it is even more expensive than land-based connections (around four times more expensive in the case of Nepal, for example).

A recent OECD report called “Global Opportunities for Internet Access Development,” considers this problem. It blames national telecom-firms with monopolies over the “international gateways” for inflating access costs. It explains the necessity of building out internet exchange points so ISPs can swap traffic nationally or regionally. And it notes that most of the world’s undersea cable capacity is now owned by India and China, not Western countries—this, too, few might have imagined a decade ago.

But the report ignores the bitterest point: the cost and difficulty of laying lines to far-flung places where people have little money means that it is hard to see a commercial venture doing so, or a viable market being created.

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