Extending the Net

The "digital divide" separating low- and high-income Americans pales next to the gap separating developing countries from the industrialized West and Japan. The information highway doesn't easily reach to villages in Southeast Asia or urban neighborhoods in Sub-Saharan Africa.

This is a digital chasm. It will have to close if the 98 percent of humanity currently without Internet access isn't to be left behind in the rush toward a globalized economy.

Technical know-how, financial backing, and electrical infrastructure are unequally spread across the globe. But with a little boost, Internet use could develop a momentum of its own even in areas poor in these resources. The World Bank, teamed with Softbank, a Japanese e-commerce powerhouse, is counting on that.

They plan to plow $200 million into Internet-based businesses in developing countries. Initially, investments will concentrate on a dozen or so countries (as yet unnamed) that have some existing infrastructure and relatively liberal economic policies. If success is achieved in these countries, the project will spread to others. The goal is to reach as many as 100 developing countries within a few years.

It won't be easy. Questions abound, such as:

*How do you get around the infrastructure problem? World Bank planners expect local officials and entrepreneurs to recognize the opportunity and start upgrading phone and electrical service. Even more, they're banking on technology's march. Wireless technology could eliminate the need to string lines.

*Do credible ideas for Internet businesses exist in poorer countries? Don't underestimate local ingenuity. World Bank officials like to cite an Ethiopian goat merchant who realized the Internet would allow him to sell his animals to countrymen who had immigrated to America. Among his customers are Ethiopian cab drivers in New York City, who use their US earnings to buy goats for friends and family back home, where the animals are highly prized.

*And what about political resistance to widespread Internet use? Governments with authoritarian tendencies are leery of this wide-open medium. But most are interested in prosperity, and e-commerce could be a key ingredient. If they balk, opportunities like the World Bank-Softbank project will pass them by.

*Can Internet businesses take root in places where there's minimal access to the Net? Demand for and access to the Internet is likely to increase as a few businesses take off, showing what's possible.

Like much in today's e-driven economic scene, this scheme to spread the benefits of the Internet steps onto uncharted ground. But its motive is solid: No portion of humanity should be written off as the world puts new technology to productive use.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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