The Digital Divide

What Price: the Digital Divide?
by Kimberley Heitman, Electronic Frontiers Australia.

Perth, Australia -- With the rollout of railways, towns without access to rail links declined as neighbouring towns reaped the benefits of cheaper transportation. Now that the Internet has proved its worth as a ubiquitous medium of communication and exchange, it's time to correct the deficiencies in the market-driven rollout of Internet access to date.

At present, access to the Internet requires a stable telecommunications system and an expensive set of hardware. Satellite delivery in remote areas adds to capital costs, making Internet access too expensive for many. The machines available for Internet access are generally high-end computers, with more capacity than is required merely to sustain an Internet connection.

Some innovations in set-top boxes have the capacity to lower barriers for entry - a dedicated Internet device may be considerably cheaper than a full computer system. Using a television set as a monitor and online storage rather than a hard drive can reduce costs, so too can the use of freeware for the operating system and applications. However, even a cost near US$ 200 is beyond the means of the poor, let alone the average person in the Third World.

The announcement by the U.K. Government that 1000 obsolete computers will be offered to the public is laudable, but is a small pilot programme that would not scale to reach all those on the wrong side of the digital divide. The more computers are recycled, the higher the likelihood that service and repair issues may frustrate novice users. In looking at similar schemes in Australia the Internet industry has urged instead that obsolete computers from Government or industry be 're-tooled' rather than 'recycled.'

Expenses such as fitting the computers with a licenced operating system, or censorware, can cause the costs to blow out notwithstanding that the base price is zero.

The digital divide includes the poor, but also includes disabled users. Trapped on the wrong side of the divide are those who cannot use web sites that do not translate text to voice, or where colour-blindness makes the web site's colour choices unreadable. It is appalling that web designers do not fulfil their legal obligations not to discriminate against disabled people. A recent case in Australia is illustrative - a disabled person took the official Olympic Games web site to the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission to force the site owner to change the layout and templates to be more usable by disabled people. While the Commission upheld the complaint, the web site refused to comply, claiming it would take a year and over US$1million to change the site. By contrast, the applicant estimated it would cost US$ 15,000 and less than two weeks to make the site usable.

To tackle the digital divide is not merely a progressive political policy, it is a means of maximising human capital and providing a future for those presently disadvantaged. All of us would know of examples of ways in which a passion for computing or the Net has led to a stellar career for young people, often including young people with a disability or difficulty finding work in other fields. The Internet is a meritocracy that the disabled can excel in, especially freed of the tyranny of first impressions by the anonymity of email and online work.

Since no Government can seriously commit to giving every teenager and adult a complete computer system, or even free Internet access, the use of Government funding must be carefully directed. Setting up community resource centres, or upgrading facilities at public institutions and libraries can go a long way towards providing some Internet access for all, and a testbed for the computing aspirations of the have-nots.

Volunteers can achieve much - service clubs and associations can co-operate with educational institutions to provide training and support for computer users. This involves little in the way of Government funding, but does require Government support for the use of educational facilities out of school hours. Otherwise, Internet associations and user groups represent the best source of free information and guidance. In the absence of coordinated Government action it may well fall upon such groups to provide the help and education that should be part of everyone's education. The digital divide is also a function of the generation gap - persons over the age of 30 are unlikely to have received any training on use of the Net outside limited opportunities in a well-wired business. If the whole of society is to embrace the new paradigms of the online economy, the Government needs a strategy to get older novices online too.

However, industry may be able to help with the costs of Internet access by making available cheap Internet packages. In the U.K., with timed local calls, there is little opportunity for a free service to be offered due to telecommunications costs. However, in countries that have unmetered local calls, local Internet groups can work with ISPs to provide cheap accounts using domestic or peered traffic, with web access serviced by proxies. The costs of a full-service Internet connection may be prohibitive, but a timed service using mostly local traffic can be profitable for an ISP at a very cheap price. For example, there are plans for the WA Internet Association to offer access for as little as US$3.60 per month, and this model will work wherever there is unused capacity on fixed-price links. I'll leave it to the imagination of the reader as to how such an outcome could arise in a timed local call environment, but clearly access to the Internet through means other than dial-up telephony would be indicated.

In Australia, the trade union movement has established a cheap hardware/access package for approximately US$5.50 per week - see As always, the people who can't afford to buy something upfront end up paying more. However, a low entry point and full support makes this option attractive to many who haven't been able to afford for their households to be online.

Activists are right to be enthusiastic about the prospects for education, training and a reversal of urbanisation from greater uptake of the Net. We have already seen, with the growth of the anti-globalisation movement online, that the Internet offers unparalleled opportunities for disadvantaged groups to lead policy debates and mobilise support. However, while access to the Net remains a luxury, even in wealthy nations, the potential for dramatic social change is reduced. While there are more Internet users in a single American city than the whole of Africa social disadvantage in the Third World is exacerbated by the digital divide, there is scope for radical policy and determined attempts to redress the imbalance.

In the future, the digital have-nots may cease to regard their isolation from the online economy as a personal failing and instead see it as a symptom of social imbalance. While top-rank network engineers may be enjoying the skills scarcity which makes a trade more lucrative than a profession, this is a sign that education has lagged behind society's need for skilled network staff. Social imbalances in the more traditional trades and professions have been addressed by scholarships, traineeships and Government subsidies for students. It remains to be seen whether the online economy will learn the lessons of the past and work towards spreading the skills and teaching all of the next generation that which will be required for them to participate fully in an online environment.