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Internet-Access For All - WCIT2006 in Austin

Posted by johnreynolds on May 1, 2006 at 6:08 AM PDT

One big focus of Austin's WCIT2006 is to develop strategies to bridge the digital divide between "Us" (people who are able to read this blog) and "Them" (people who can't access the Internet).

I am an affluent middle-class, well-educated white-guy who lives in a big city in the USA... In a world of "haves" and "have-nots" I am definitely one of the "haves". I don't just surf the Internet's ocean; I swim in it, dive beneath the waves and explore the depths. Internet connectivity is pervasive in my world (desktop, laptop, PDA, mobile phone, public kiosks, etc.) and I feel lost without a good Wi-Fi signal.

Contrast my world with that of the large percentage of the worlds population who have yet to make a phone call. We really do live on different planets... and it's very hard for us to communicate.

Communication is the point. A low cost device that is within the reach of most people is important, but the communication infrastructure is the real problem. A computer by itself is not relevant to most people. A computer (communication device) connected to the Internet is relevant to almost everyone... AMD's Personal Internet Communicator (PIC) acknowledges this fact in its very name (without an Internet connection, it's just a nice looking brick).

The technical aspects of a bridge across the digital divide are challenging, but we're really good at solving technical problems. Given the dropping costs of hardware and the expanding presence of wireless networks, the goal of AMD's Hector Ruiz to provide Internet access to half the world by 2015 seems technically doable.

The cultural aspects of a bridge across the digital divide may prove to be the bigger challenge... bridges between cultures can be disruptive and even destructive.

Two close friends of mine moved to the Caribbean island of Nevis in the early 1990s to help build and open a Four Seasons resort. Nevis is a near perfect tropical paradise... a wonderful climate, fertile soil, and some of the friendliest and most beautiful people that you will ever meet. In such a climate, people's needs are simple, and the majority of Nevisians live in very modest dwellings... many don't have indoor plumbing and most are very small.

When my friends first moved to Nevis, few of the natives felt poor. A few "rich foreigners" had plantation houses, but the majority of the people lived pretty much the same. If you had a roof over your head and enough to eat, you were "middle class".

Then came the Television.

When Nevisians gained access to the outside world (via TV) they seemed poor by comparison; perhaps even poverty stricken. The effect on the culture was not devastating, but it was disruptive... and the level of "general happiness" dropped palpably for a few years.

Internet access has a profound impact on sheltered societies: Everyone can talk to everyone and nothing stays secret for long. This blurring of borders leads us to a whole new set of tricky cultural issues to contend with... Governments and businesses need to craft policies to prepare their citizens to become active players in the new digital economy (or they are likely to become victims of it).

WCIT2006 has assembled an impressive list of speakers to debate and discuss both the technical and cultural issues posed by the digital divide.

On Wednesday morning a panel will tackle questions related to the "global impact of digital access". The panel includes Steve Rohler (Accenture), John Gage (Sun Microsystems), James Goodnight (SAS), Teresa Peters (Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation), and Yeongi Son (Korean Agency for Digital Opportunity).

On Wednesday afternoon another panel will tackle the "impact of digital access on education throughout the world". This panel includes David S. Byer (National Coalition for Technology), Veronica Kgabo (Diepsloot School, South Africa), Guillermo H. Le Fosse (Competir, Mexico), Lorie Roth (California State University), and Dan Updegrove (University of Texas).

WCIT2006 is just a four day convention, so don't expect miraculous pronouncements that transform the world... But it should be very interesting to hear what everyone has to say.


(cross-posted at The Thoughtful Programmer)