digital divide


Innovation ousts orthodoxy. Soft-switch has replaced telephone exchange equipment. Undersea optical fiber cables have marginalized satellites in intercontinental and transcontinental connectivity. Terrestrial optical fiber networks – along the highways, railway tracks, power grids and gas pipelines – are replacing microwave radio links. All these physical networks lead to data centers at home and abroad.
Every year, IBM make five tech predictions that it is confident will be realized in the next five years: five in five. Number four this time is the prediction that the Digital Divide will be bridged, thanks to mobile devices. Mobile devices are decreasing the information-accessibility gap in disadvantaged areas. In five years, the gap will be imperceptible as growing communities use mobile technology to provide access to essential information. New solutions and business models from IBM are introducing mobile commerce and remote healthcare, for example.
Jeffrey Sachs is a superstar. His advice contributed to the mess in post-Communist Russia, but that did not hinder him in any way from dispensing advice elsewhere (I met him when came to Sri Lanka in 2002; after I told him what we had done or were doing on telecom, he moved on to dispense advice on other topics). His opinion matters much. He has described the mobile as the single most transformative technology for development. He expands on this statement in an interview on AllAfrica.
We expressed skepticism when the Labor Party first announced it. We are pleased it is being cancelled. The previous Labour government hummed and hawed about this rural-urban “digital divide”. Eventually, in 2009, it proposed levying a 50p tax on every fixed telephone line in the country: the proceeds were to be given to BT to allow it to connect even the remotest hamlets by 2012. The new coalition administration abandoned that plan, ditching the tax and pushing the target date back to 2015.
Politicians are not known for strict adherence to truth, but I personally thought the Minister of Science and Technology Tissa Vitarana being a man of science was cut from different cloth. The first time he stated that the original telecenters set up under e Sri Lanka (Vishva Gnana Kendra or VGKs) were in urban areas and that after the government changed in 2004, the decision was taken to take them to rural areas (renamed as Nenasala), I blamed not him, but the flunkies at the ICT Agency who did not give him the true facts. None of the VGKs were in major urban centers, while some Nenasalas are in the centers of major cities (e.g., one inside the Dalada Maligawa premises and another inside the Natha Devalaya, in the heart of Kandy).