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Low-cost Internet next step in closing digital divide, officials tell UN-backed forum

Low-cost Internet next step in closing digital divide, officials tell UN-backed forum

Bringing down the costs of Internet access could set off the same wave of connectivity that has made mobile phone usage commonplace in developing countries, said innovators and corporate leaders from some of the world’s leading technology firms meeting today in northern California with government leaders, activists and United Nations officials.

For instance, telecom deregulation and skyrocketing cell phone use in Nigeria have produced “spin-offs of spirituality and spin-offs of profit” in that country, Titi Akinsanmi of SchoolnetAfrica Project told the meeting of the UN Global Alliance for Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) for Development, explaining that subscribers are devising value-added information services that fill social and religious needs.

In 2004 alone, Africa added some 15 million new mobile phone subscribers, a figure which has more than doubled since 1999, according to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU).

But making available low-cost computers and cheap Internet depends on a complex chain of on-the-ground realities, of which technological innovation is only one component, Intel Corporation Chairman Craig Barrett pointed out. Among these are strong connection to international Internet, domestic connections and service providers, and content in local languages which meet local needs, said Mr. Barrett, who serves as Chairman of the Alliance’s Steering Committee.

A sound regulatory system that encourages fair competition and innovative business models is also a pre-requisite, said ITU Secretary-General Hamadoun Touré, an Alliance Steering Committee member.

With its budget of virtually zero, the Global Alliance is a “low-bureaucracy organization,” Mr. Barrett told some 100 Silicon Valley technology executives, venture capitalists, academics and media members. Its aim is “to improve entrepreneurship, education, health care and government services,” said Mr. Barrett, who travelled last fall to 10 developing countries to explore how technology was being used in rural areas.

Today’s exchange of ideas and experiences covered issues such as bringing broadband to Africa, building a volunteer cyber corps and linking venture capital to development. Also on the agenda were talks on crafting local content, encouraging the spread of telecentres, and mining technological innovations for development payoffs. The Silicon Valley meeting was jointly organized by the Global Alliance and Intel Corporation.

Founded in 2006, the Global Alliance brings together private, public sector and civil society organizations to collaborate on multi-faceted mechanisms to spread the digital revolution worldwide.

The Alliance’s next meeting on 26 March at UN Headquarters in New York will feature assistive technologies for persons with disabilities. In May, there will be a global forum on youth and ICT for development in Geneva, Switzerland.