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Tech Titans Take On Global Digital Divide

Tech Titans Take On Global Digital Divide

The Internet used to be seen as a luxury for the well-heeled, but it has become indispensable for many. Still, there are hundreds of millions of people in developing countries who are not yet online. Many of them have more pressing problems, such as poverty and hunger, but the Alliance for Affordable Internet Access maintains that Internet access can be of remarkable help in tackling those issues.

By Richard Adhikari E-Commerce Times ECT News Network
10/08/13 5:00 AM PT

A coalition of companies, foundations and governmental bodies has launched the Alliance for Affordable Internet Access to create the conditions for open, competitive and innovative broadband markets in developing nations.

The alliance "will undertake a blend of international advocacy and research, coupled with on-the-ground work," starting in three pioneer countries, Sonia Jorge, its executive director, told the E-Commerce Times.

Increasing Internet penetration rates "can bring economic benefits -- but research shows that the social benefits in areas such as health, education and gender equity can be remarkable," Jorge said.

The goal is to bring down the cost of Internet access to no more than 5 percent of the annual income of citizens in developing nations.

What A4AI Will Do

The alliance will bring together in-country stakeholders to identify obstacles and ways to tackle them, as well as help to drive implementation, Jorge said.

It was not clear whether the stakeholders would be corporations in the communication sector, governments, or other representatives of the local communities.

The A4AI will develop advocacy and policy proposals in conjunction with stakeholders in each country.

It will also "continue to press at international level on these issues," and its work will be informed by original research, remarked Jorge.

Members include Google, Facebook, Cisco, the Ford Foundation, the World Wide Web Foundation, the Software & Information Industry Association, and the United States Agency for International Development.

Initiatives Under Way

Google's Project Loon uses hot air balloons equipped with wireless transmitters to provide Internet access to underserved communities.

Announcing that connectivity is a human right, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg in August launched Internet.org, together with Samsung, Qualcomm, Nokia, Opera and MediaTek, to provide Internet access to everyone on the planet.

Meanwhile, both Cisco and Ford are trying to set the standard for connected cars. Further, Cisco is seeking to provide the backbone for what it calls the Internet of Everything," so developing nations can provide a rich market for these companies.

With the U.S. National Security Agency's having penetrated the communications of both Americans and foreign countries, the involvement of USAID could provide fertile ground for clandestine surveillance.

We're All Friends Here

"A4AI and Internet.org are two separate organizations that share a common goal of making Internet access available to more people around the world," Facebook spokesperson Derick Mains told the E-Commerce Times.

A4AI "has a clear focus on policy and regulatory issues surrounding access, while Internet.org is focused on identifying technical innovations and new business models that can help drive down the cost of data," Mains added. "Wherever possible, we will collaborate to maximize impact."

Sweet Dreams Are Made of These

Four years of broadband growth have created jobs and seen Internet penetration rise to more than 80 percent, according to the Obama administration. In 2011, 77 percent of Internet users aged 25 or more reported relying on the Web for personal communications; 66 percent for general information; and about half for financial services and entertainment.

That said, World Food Programme statistics show that 842 million people worldwide do not have enough to eat, and 827 million of them live in developing nations.

It's not clear how access to the Web can trump the need for food and shelter.

In the U.S., more than 46 million people were living in poverty in 2012, according to Hunger in America statistics.

Technology is only part of the solution to development challenges," said Jorge, "and must be seen in the context of the broader development framework."

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