Struggling with the Digital Divide: Internet Infrastructure, Content,
Is a progressive Internet environment enough to close the gap
between North and South?
By Madanmohan Rao firstname.lastname@example.org
From improving software and education to boosting handicrafts
and human rights, the Net has a lot to offer to a wide array of
humanity in emerging economies. But without a progressive Internet
environment, cyberspace will continue to exacerbate the digital
divide between North and South, urban and rural, and English-speaking
and non-English-speaking parts of the world.
Given the broad-based nature of the Internet as a communications,
publishing, and transactions platform, policies aimed at bridging
that gap must simultaneously address access, content, and commerce
The eight Cs of success in the Internet economy can be aptly summed
up as connectivity, content, community, commerce, capacity, culture,
cooperation, and capital. Gaps tend to emerge along this entire
spectrum of parameters, and they can be narrowed to a certain
extent by some of the steps recommended below.
The digital gap is most evident at the phase of connectivity:
the lack of affordable access to PCs, Internet devices, modems,
telephone lines, and Internet connections. Steps to reduce this
gap include devising cheaper access devices (such as publicly
accessible kiosks), lowering tariffs on the import of computers
and modems, creating Internet community access centers (with leased
lines and shared devices), and bringing down access prices by
creating a favorable climate of competition among Internet service
The regulatory climate in many of the emerging economies has only
recently welcomed private-sector ISPs, and a key challenge lies
in creating a level playing field between government-owned and
private-sector ISPs in terms of operating licenses, tariffs, cross-subsidies,
and creation of international gateways. A government ISP player
with a monopoly in one area-such as VSAT links, last-mile connectivity,
or international telecoms-should not use this monopoly power to
wipe out an entire industry in another sector.
Work has begun on initiatives to increase Internet diffusion via
kiosks (in Bangladesh), community centers (in Peru), cybercafés
(in Ecuador), and wireless delivery and non-PC devices (in India),
but much innovation and investment are still called for.
The costs of dial-up and leased lines are dropping, but they could
become even more affordable. Organizational adoption of intranets
and extranets (and hence of VPN services by ISPs) is only slowly
emerging. Universal-access issues and peering agreements will
continue to dominate the ISP scenario in many of the emerging
economies in coming years.
Special concerns arise in cross-country wiring for regions with
mountainous terrain, with large arid tracts, or with a high density
of island space.
No peering agreements for forming national Internet exchanges-let
alone regional ones-exist in most of the emerging economies; most
inter-ISP traffic is routed via the U.S., Europe, or East Asia.
Much potential lies in the hands of the public-sector units, such
as the power grid and railway authorities that have existing secure
cable connections across the region. National ISP organizations
also need to form to create greater collective bargaining power
and to pool assets.
Digital gaps between nations arise not just in number and density
of ISPs, hosts connected to the Net, proportion of individual
users online, Internet diffusion ratios, and number of organizations
with leased-line connections. The imbalance also extends to content
in terms of number of Web sites in developing countries, amount
of local language content, and use of online content by key sectors.
According to the International Telecommunications Union, there
were more Internet hosts in Finland than in all of Latin America
and the Caribbean in 1999, there were more hosts in New York than
in all of Africa, and more than 80 percent of Web pages were in
There are at least seven measures of market maturity for online
content in a country (Rao et al., "Internet Content in South Asia:
Opportunities and Realities").
- total number of Web sites about (and published in) the country
- local relevance and usefulness of this content
- local language standardization and usage on the Web
- amount of subnational content (about states, provinces, and cities)
- presence of metacontent such as directories and search engines
- amount of ad revenues that target online audiences via these sites
- presence of third-party services from online traffic auditors,
ad revenue auditors, and market research groups
Emerging economies need to increase activity within each of these
seven dimensions in order to help reduce the content gap. News
media, public health services, government-citizen resources, NGOs,
SMEs, and emergency relief organizations need to make more content
and services available online. World-class hosting infrastructure
must be created in emerging economies so that locally generated
content will be hosted predominantly in the region and not outside
it, thereby saving lucrative foreign exchange revenues and safeguarding
Online and offline forums need to be actively promoted in order
to bring in larger and more diverse sections of communities to
discuss issues of common interest, particularly the issue of how
to creatively tackle the digital divide.
While much attention is focused on Web publishing, e-mail forums
for content distribution and discussion still can play a useful
role-especially in areas where bandwidth is low and the quality
of phone connections is poor. E-mail-based discussion lists are
an underutilized channel in online communications for many of
the emerging economies.
Advanced Internet economies have moved beyond basic Internet infrastructure
to dynamic e-commerce infrastructure in the form of payment gateways,
secure channels, digital certification authorities, overnight
courier services, third-party audit services, and online tracking
To move beyond being mere destinations for e-commerce sales from
U.S. and European sites, emerging economies need to close the
e-commerce gap by effectively building a domestic Internet economy
and promoting online transactional capabilities for the consumer,
business, and government sectors-B2C, B2B, C2C, G2C, and G2B.
This includes the updating of existing business and intellectual
property rights laws to accommodate electronic contracts, online
funds transfer, and stronger consumer fraud protection laws. Malaysia's
cyberbill and India's proposed information technology bill fall
into this category.
To close the digital skills gap, emerging economies need to improve
the capacity of their workforces to play roles in the Internet
age. This includes improving Internet access and educational offerings
in schools and colleges, creating digital libraries for universities,
and promoting professional training institutes.
The Internet should also be strongly promoted in sectors that
already have the capacity to harness it. Key priority areas for
such Internet growth include the software and Web solutions/services
sectors, through which an emerging economy can harness the Net
not just as a tool but also as a market in its own right.
Challenges also arise in closing the technical/legal gap in crucial
capacity areas such as cyberlaw. Legal developments concerning
content classification, regulation, and enforcement in countries
around the world must be tracked. Regional representatives from
industry, academia, and government should try to be present in
forums of the UN, WTO, OECD, G-7, ASEAN, and APEC that deal with
cyberspace content issues such as intellectual property rights,
copyright protection, online privacy, online crimes, and digital
Culture represents probably the biggest challenge in closing the
digital gap. It involves overcoming cultural inhibitions and insecurities
about developing competence for surviving the breakneck speed
of the Internet age.
Closing the culture gap includes getting governments in emerging
economies to stop treating their telecom monopolies like cash
cows and instead, getting government telecom players to invest
in areas like R&D on Internet telephony, so that the technology
is seen as a market opportunity on a global scale and not a threat
on a local scale. It also includes getting career-track diplomats,
bureaucrats, academics, and public-sector employees to take up
Internet training and harness the opportunities as well as the
plentiful challenges that accompany Internet diffusion.
For goals such as making government procedures transparent, a
lot of political will and muscle will be needed. For instance,
certain unscrupulous middlemen tend to get involved in land records
and power connections. Openness and transparency will threaten
them, but the government must display the political will to clean
up these processes via open content publishing.
Most important, closing the cultural gap entails the creation
of a risk-taking culture, in which accepting some initial failures
by entrepreneurs should not be treated as sign of weakness or
a loss of face. High mobility between jobs should also be accepted
as a reflection of the fast pace of skill acquisition.
No single sector can take on the Internet economy by itself; much
cooperation at the national level is needed to overcome the gaps
between government, academia, the private sector, civil society,
and international organizations. This should happen at the state
or provincial, national, and regional levels; it can also extend
to groupings based on culture-such as Latin America-or language,
such as among the five countries in which Tamil is an official
A better characterization would perhaps be the term <I>coopetition:</I>
traditional competitors teaming up to grow the entire Internet
pie instead of fighting over small slices. Activities such as
forming Internet advertising bureaus, national Internet industry
associations, and chapters of the Internet Society fall into this
The highly volatile Internet economy is making it all too evident
that an Internet initiative can best survive if it is economically
self-sustaining. Therefore, government should focus on creating
open investment climates for the incubation, launch, acceleration,
and initial-public-offering phases of an Internet start-up. The
government need not spend excessive funds on incubation projects
of its own; it should create conditions and safeguards conducive
to the movement of domestic and international capital into the
Domestic venture-capital funds and skills must be promoted, or
else the capital gap in many emerging economies may lead to an
excessive and unhealthy dependence on high-technology exchanges
like Nasdaq in the U.S. As for the capital for software investments,
use of freeware and shareware packages and tools should be encouraged
when possible instead of reliance on costly proprietary software
solutions such as in the use of the Linux operating system and
Apache Web server for digital publishing.
International Telecommunications Union (1999). "Challenges to
the Network: Internet for Development."
Rao, Madanmohan; Mehta, Arun; Crishna, Vickram. "Internet Content
in South Asia: Opportunities and Realities." Presented at the
South Asia Internet Workshop, Dhaka, Bangladesh, April 1999.
Rao, Madanmohan; Mehta, Arun; and Crishna, Vickram. "Struggling
with the Digital Divide: Internet Infrastructure, Policies and
Regulations in South Asia." Presented at the South Asia Internet
Workshop, Dhaka, Bangladesh, April 1999.
World Bank. World Development Report. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1998.