Gary Chapman, professor at UT Austin and director of the 21st Century Project, closes the conference with a speech on “Citizen Journalism and the Digital Divide”, a topic near and dear to my heart. He starts by explaining that “digital divide” is a term that’s falling out of favor, and that people are reorienting towards the more positive “digital opportunity”, a phrase that stresses inclusion, not exclusion.
We’ve just passed 1 billion internet users. It’s the first communication technology to reach 1 billion users all through the same medium (more or less.) It’s reached every nation other than North Korea, which has chosen not to connect to the Internet. People in the US are now spending more time on the Internet than watching TV. But the internet is growing fastest in places where access is most sparse, like the Middle East and Africa, where it’s growing at 200% a year – growth is slowing in industrialized nations, where the market is saturated. Growth is striking in India and China, the two markets people are most interested in. Broadband is increasing at 900% a year in China, a truly astonishing rate.
In urban markets, solutions being offered for the Internet access include cybercafes, Community Technology Centers, PC Bangs (super cyber-cafes that have up to 1,000 machines in a single building), Yahoo! Tarjeta Prepago (prepaid cards for 100 pesos, which opens a Yahoo! account and gives them an email address for use on business cards), and Brazil’s Computador de Uno Reale (a CD Rom which costs 1 real – about $0.40 – and allows users to have a personalized desktop at a cybercafe.)
VOIP is a major driver for internet access in rural areas, especially in Africa. Satellite connectivity, and asyncronous connectivity – “data mules” – are also important. The Arid Lands information network uses Worldspace satellite radio to deliver information from Sudan to Mozambique to PCs powered with special radio reciever cards. MP3 files can be downloaded, then transmitted over traditional radio, potentially reaching nomadic tribes and people in very rural areas. Because power is a major problem in Africa and other areas, hand-cranked devices like the Freeplay radio and the hand-cranked Motorola phone are possibilities.
Chapman is enthusiastic about store-and-forward technologies which use physical transport – trucks, motorcycles – and wireless connections to bring bits from rural areas to connected villages. (He shows an example from Cambodia – I’m most familiar with DakNet in India.)
He shows Negroponte’s “$100 Laptop” and the AMD Personal Internet Communicator, which he prices at $180. Chapman works with the PIC in Uganda, and notes that it runs on 10% of the power required by a traditional PC, can run on a car battery or a solar panel, and has a 10 gig harddrive. (The power consumption – and price – don’t include display technology.) Using PICs at a refugee camp for Katrina refugees, Chapman plugged 50 PICs into a single power cable, something you can’t do with a normal PC. The price on the PIC is supposed to come down to $50.
The mobile phone is becoming a universal phenomenon – the mobile industry predicts sales of a billion devices this year. Chapman shows off the Simputer – one of the major failures of handheld experimentation – and blames the failure on the falling cost of PC hardware. Another option is thin clients, like Inveneo’s solar powered Internet station, which include mesh connectivity and provide VOIP infrastructure.
Global warming, he suggests, has made hydropower less reliable in many African nations, leading to regular power cuts in major cities. The need for flocks to follow scarce water pulls children away from schools – if you’ve installed computers in a school and the population moves away, it’s hard for them to use that resource. So climate change affects power and digital divide issues in the developing world.
Chapman points out that devices like AMD’s PIC are targetted to people with some income – $1000 to $7000 a year, decidedly middle-class by developing world standards. This is a large and growing market, and one that businesses are beginning to address. Wireless connectivity – and the potential of Wimax – represents a major advance in bridging divides. If Wimax meets its promise of allowing use within 20 miles of a router, this will make creating wireless networks orders of magnitude easier. And free online tools from Google – email, spreadsheets, word processors – and open source tools like Ubuntu are making it easier for people to take advantage of the machines and connectivity they have.
Making the point that people in the US can learn from the developing world, Chapman points to the SEAEAT blog that emerged in response to the Boxing Day Tsunami – the model of the blog, he argues, was replicated in the US in the aftermath of Katrina.
Effective bridging of digital divides will rely on several factors:
– Falling hardware costs
– New devices – interesting that major technology companies are focusing on these markets
– Improved connectivity
– Improved literacy
– Appropriate applications – “the key that opens the door” – what is it that gets people online?
– Government leadership