The Global Digital Divide

Digital divides cut many different ways. As the G-8 industrial nations, meeting in Okinawa this week, discuss how to bridge the technology chasm with developing countries, they'll probably also have an eye on gaps among themselves.

The most obvious is the giant US lead in what might be called traditional Internet access through phone land lines. The American investment in this kind of information infrastructure, and the number of Americans connected to the Web, far outstrips comparable figures for Europe and Japan.

Flat local phone rates, a rarity elsewhere, is another key to US dominance in e-commerce conducted through desktops and laptops.

But the other G-8 partners are hardly standing still (leaving Russia aside, in its own limbo between developed and developing). The next wave of the Internet is likely to be wireless access, and on that front it's the Europeans and the Japanese who have a lead. Their use of cellphones that dial up the Web is exploding. And they have an advantage over Americans when it comes to cellphone rates.

Who'll win this competition? Probably all sides, since both wired Internet access (with its large-screen presentation of data) and wireless (convenience and portability) have advantages that aren't going to fade soon.

But the prospective losers, billions of them, are people in parts of the world with weak e-delivery systems or no access to necessary technology.

The G-8's focus on the 95 percent of the world's people who've never been online is badly needed. In the whole of Africa, for instance, only 2.7 million have used the Internet. North America and Europe have hundreds of millions of Web users.

Japan has taken the lead with an plan to invest $15 billion to help developing countries get started with information technology. The other industrialized countries should follow suit. But investments in electrical service and in computer hardware and software aren't all that's required.

Countries also need governmental policies that encourage Internet use. Even the developed nations are still finding their way in that regard. The rest of the world has to be brought along.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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