Universal Access and the Developing World

"Universal access should also be defined realistically. It is said that 50% of the world's population has never made a phone call. Not every farmer on the Yucatan peninsula or family in the Appalachian Mountains needs access to the Internet. However, if the local clinic or agricultural office has Internet access, it can make the world of difference to the entire population served by people with the requisite skills to use and disseminate useful information immediately."   (Markle Foundation, May 1998)

 

Universal access to the Internet is still too often thought of as a national issue. The problem is focused upon vertically, in terms of providing access to different strata of the local population. The importance of providing it horizontally and equally, across the developed and developing world, is less focused upon.


The concept of `universal' connotes all-encompassing. Internet is geographically independent, allowing global virtual communities to form around any issue. One of the core elements of a global economy is the ability to communicate and access information effectively. The Internet has become a de facto standard. In a real sense, the paradigm for economic success has changed for nations in the midst of developing their economies. It's no longer enough to simply convert raw materials to manufactured products. One must be a part of the information society and have an effective on-ramp to the Information superhighway to truly be part of the global economy. Resources that might have taken months to collect using traditional communication mediums like phone, fax and mail can now be cultivated by a combination of a couple of hours of Internet searching and a few well-directed E-mails. The Internet provides two-way benefits for the developing world. It creates a means of accelerating development through knowledge acquisition. It also provides others interested in fostering relations with a developing country some valuable background information, contacts and a better understanding of a society and culture they might not otherwise have access to.


Most challenges in any field of endeavor like medicine or education consist of two core components which carry equal weight: lack of resources and lack of information. While providing all the medical supplies necessary to a country in Eastern Europe or Africa might bankrupt the economy of even a developed country, using the Internet to provide information related to health can be done at a fraction of the cost while providing significant benefits. I knew a surgeon in Mongolia who regularly communicates with doctors around the globe, sending digital images of patient cases for diagnosis and helping others diagnose rare cases found in other parts of the world. Similarly, I know of many countries in Eastern Europe whose high school kids regularly communicate with other kids all over the world on collaborative educational projects. It doesn't require costly fixed infrastructure projects like laying communication cables across a country over many years to achieve this. Rather these implementations very often consist of wireless technologies like microwave, satellite, Wi-Fi, spread spectrum or ham radio technology which are relatively easy to implement and effective in conveying Internet traffic.


Universal access should also be defined realistically. It is said that 50% of the world's population has never made a phone call. Not every farmer on the Yucatan peninsula or family in the Appalachian Mountains needs access to the Internet. Moreover issues of basic literacy need to be addressed before discussing universal access to the Internet. However, if the local clinic or agricultural office has Internet access, it can make the world of difference to the entire population served by people with the requisite skills to use and disseminate useful information immediately. Internet public access centers also play an important role in this equation providing access, training and support in locations where people with ability but no end user equipment can go to make use of this resource.


Universal access should not be seen as a national, but a global priority. We have the means of accomplishing it with today's technologies, a better definition of universal access, and an understanding of the benefits it accrues.

- Jonathan Peizer -