Uwe Afemann

The Internet is spreading more quickly than any medium before. But most of the world’s population have so far missed out on the development. And it looks as though there is no prospect of overcoming the “digital divide” between the quantities of information technology available in industrialized countries and in developing countries. Even the use of new technologies such as mobile telephones in developing countries only gives the rich urban population access to global sources of information. Rural areas, especially in Africa and South Asia, will have to wait a very long time before they are connected. Uwe Afemann is on the staff of the Computer Centre of the University of Osnabrück. The article is a reprint from the journal “Entwicklung und Zusammenarbeit” (Development and Cooperation), Vol. 42 No. 4, April 2001, published by the Deutsche Stiftung für internationale Entwicklung (German Foundation for International Development, DSE).

Looking for a Connection

Most of the World’s Population Has to Do Without the New Media

“Everyone, everywhere should be enabled to participate in and no one should be excluded from the benefits of the global information society.” This ambitious goal was set by the heads of state and government of the seven largest industrialized countries and Russia (the G8) at their summit meeting in summer 2000 in Okinawa, Japan (www.g8kyushu-okinawa.go.jp/). The “Okinawa Charter on the Global Information Society” calls on bilateral and multilateral donors, together with the private sector of the economy, to close, or at least to narrow, the “digital divide” between North and South. This would be a Herculean task, and hugely expensive, as will be evident from what follows.

Who Has Access to the Internet?

The Internet is spreading more quickly than any medium before. Shortly after it was launched in 1981, there were only 213 servers worldwide. The number has now risen to nearly 80 million. But while the number of servers at first doubled every year, the rate of growth has slowed recently. Only in Latin America did the number more than double in 1999 (136% growth), followed by North America (74%), Asia (61%) and then Europe (30%). Africa showed comparatively little growth, only 18%.

Over 85% of all Internet servers are to be found in the G7 states, in which 11% of the world’s population live. By contrast, the most populous countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America – China, India, Nigeria and Brazil – where 43% of the world’s population live, have between them only 0.75% of all servers, the Brazilian share accounting for 0.62%. In most developing countries, full Internet connections with all potential services such as e-mail and the world wide web (www) are available only in the major cities. Outside these, provision is generally restricted to e-mail connections.

In November 2000, 378 million people worldwide, i.e. 6% of the world’s population, were connected to the Internet (see chart). Fifty-four per cent of North Americans had access to the Internet, and 22% of Germans, but only 1.3% of Chinese and 0.4% of 800 million Africans. And out of just over three million Africans with Internet access, 1.8 million are in South Africa alone. In the other African countries, only one person in 10,000, or 0.01% of the population has, on average, access to the worldwide data network.

According to the 1999 “Human Development Report” published by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP, www.undp.org), around 93% of Internet users worldwide belong to the richest 20% of the world’s population, while the poorest 20% account for just 0.2%.

For connection to the Internet, one has to have a telephone line, a computer with a modem and electric current. In poor countries, especially in rural areas, it is exceptional for just one of these requirements to be met, let alone all three.

The Technical Scale of the Digital Divide

Hence, 80% of the world’s population do not even have a telephone connection, and in 49 countries, 35 of which are in Africa, there is less than one telephone per 100 inhabitants. The average telephone density in the developing countries is 5.2 per 100 inhabitants, while that in the industrialized countries is 54 per 100 inhabitants. There are also huge differences between the developing regions: Latin America already has a telephone density of 10.2, while the figure in the Middle East and North Africa is 6.5, and in the Far East and the Pacific it is 4.1. South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa bring up the rear, with telephone densities of only 1.4 each. And around 90% of all telephone connections in sub-Saharan Africa are in South Africa.

There is also a strong urban-rural division within the developing countries. The largest numbers of telephone connections are in the cities, most of them in the capitals. In Africa, 50% of all connections are in the capital cities, where only around 10% of the population live. In South Asia, where the majority of people (as a proportion of the total population) live in rural areas, there is the widest gap between urban and ­rural telephone density, with a ratio of 7 to 1 (see Table 1).

The situation is made worse by the generally poor standard of the telephone lines, since access to the Internet via a telephone line is only possible if the line is of high quality. One way of measuring the quality of a telephone network is the annual number of breakdowns per 100 connections. According to 1999 data published by the Economic Commission for Africa (ECA, www.uneca.org), the relevant figure is 7 for the industrialized countries, 22 for the entire world, and 116 for sub-­Saharan Africa.

The vast majority of computers are also to be found in the countries of the North, two thirds of them in the G7 states alone. According to the most recent data available from the International Telecommunications Union (ITU, www.itu.int), 51% of the population possessed a computer in the United States in 1999, 14.6% in Europe (including the countries in transition), 2.5% in Asia and 0.88% in Africa. And in India, a country which is frequently cited as a model of a poor country benefiting from the new media, only a tiny minority, 0.33% of the total population, had a computer in 1999.

The third requirement for an Internet connection – an adequate supply of electricity – is also seldom met in developing countries. More often, the supply is erratic, with frequent power cuts in the cities and a total absence of electricity in rural areas. One in three people in the world survive without electricity: in Africa, 70% of the rural population have no access to electricity, in the Indian States of Bihar and West Bengal, only 15 in every 100 houses are connected to the electricity supply; and in the rich industrialized countries, consumption of electricity per head is more than ten times the average for all the developing countries taken together, and more than 100 times the average for the least developed countries.

Table 1

Region Ratio of urban Proportion to rural of urban telephonedensity population
High-income states1/177.8%
Eastern Europe & Central Asia2/166.6%
Latin America & Caribbean2/174.2%
Sub-Saharan Africa3/132.4%
Middle East & North Africa5.5/155.6%
South Asia5.5/134.6%
Eastern Asia & Pacific7/128.9%

Sources: World Bank, UNDP

Mobile Radio – the Alternative?

In the discussion of how the digital divide between North and South can be overcome most quickly, it is constantly argued that poor countries should miss out the lengthy and expensive process of setting up or expanding a fixed network and should jump straight to mobile telephones. And in fact, the number of mobile phone users in many developing countries is growing considerably faster than in the industrialized countries. In Africa, for example, the number doubled between 1998 and 1999, while it grew in Germany by just under 69%, in Denmark by just over 36%, and the United States by only just over 24%. In relation to the number of fixed-line connections, mobile phones in many poor countries have already acquired an importance similar to that in the industrialized countries. However, this rapid expansion in developing countries is largely restricted to the major cities. A mobile phone network also needs an expensive technical infrastructure: in Germany, there are 40,000 transmitting stations passing on mobile phone signals. In the light of this number, while it would be technically feasible to provide near-national terrestrial coverage for mobile phones in a country such as Congo-Kinshasa, it hardly seems practicable because of the investment required. It is therefore no surprise that the gap between the density of mobile phones in the industrialized and developing countries is just as wide as it is in the case of fixed-line connections, ranging from one mobile phone per 100 inhabitants in Africa to over 65 in Finland.

Mobile telephony is therefore not (yet) suitable for Internet connections that are able to provide a full range of services, because the transmission rate of 9.6 kilobits per second (kbps) is too slow. (A conventional analogue telephone line can transmit at up to 56 kbps.) But besides mobile phones, there are other ways of transmitting data by radio. Radio stations able to transmit within a radius of four to five kilometres at a data transmission rate of between 2 and 10 megabits per second (mbps) cost around US$ 1500, and up to US$ 3500 for a radius of 20 km. Connections with a transmission rate of between 1.2 and 56 kbps in the VHF band (very high frequency) require an investment of between US$ 500 and 1000, and are therefore comparable in cost with a conventional telephone connection. Short-wave connections with a data transmission rate of at most 2.4 kpbs (and thus usable at best for e-mail) cost around US$ 7000 to 8000 per station. Depending on the geographical conditions, these can cover distances of up to 70 km.

If larger amounts of data have to be transmitted, or greater distances covered, then a satellite link is required, either via Geostationary (GEO) or Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellites. Geostationary satellites do not travel around the globe but move at a height of about 33,000 km in concert with the Earth’s rotation, thus always serving the same area, from which they are accessible at any time. A transmitting and receiving station for a GEO satellite costs approximately US$ 30,000. The monthly charges for a 128 kbps link amount to between US$ 3000 and 5000. Specially trained staff are required to operate such a station.

LEO satellites revolve around the Earth at a height of some 8000 km and are accessible from the area over which they are flying for about 15 minutes at a time. Links via individual LEO satellites are therefore only used for e-mail transmissions, so that a LEO satellite functions as a flying mailbox, so to speak. In 1997, a transmitting and receiving station cost between US$ 4500 and 6000. The American NGO Volunteers in Technical Assistance (VITA) uses this technology for its work in ­remote areas.

In Africa, for example in the Great Lakes area, in the Horn of Africa, in Angola and in Mozambique, organizations such as the World Food Programme (WFP, www.wfp.org), the United Nations Children’s Organization (UNICEF, www.unicef.org) and the British aid organization Oxfam (www.oxfam.org) use high frequency (HF) waves to transmit Internet data. In the Great Lakes area, there are currently 55 HF stations retransmitting e-mail messages to their destinations. The cost per station is US$ 10,000, but this does not include either a computer or a printer. Retransmission of data is not automatic, so that trained staff are required to operate each station. The speed of transmission is ­also very low.

Further development of this mail system via VHF and UHF (ultra high frequency) has brought the cost down to US$ 1000. A transmission speed of 19.2 kbps is also now feasible, and VHF and UHF can cover distances of between 50 and 60 km.

In Goma, Congo-Kinshasa, the Ugandan Internet provider Bushnet (www.bushnet.net) offers a service transmitting e-mail messages via HF modems to Kampala in Uganda, and from there to the rest of the world. The charge, over US$ 2 per A4 page, is still very high, but it does at least mean that messages can be sent.

What Would it Cost to Link up Just Under Half of the World’s Population?

This survey has shown that wireless communication is still far from offering developing countries a cheap alternative to fixed networks. What it would cost to provide an information technology infrastructure of average world standard in Nigeria, India, China and Brazil, where around 43% of the world’s population live, with 15 fixed telephone connections per 100 inhabitants and a similar number of computers, is shown in Table 2.

This costing exercise is based on investment costs of US$ 1000 per telephone connection in urban and US$ 5000 in rural areas – and according to data from ITU, these figures are probably too low. The cost of a computer with a modem is set at US$ 1500, and it should be borne in mind that high duty is payable on luxury goods in many developing countries. According to UNDP data, the average wage-earner in Bangladesh would need to spend eight times his or her annual salary in order to buy a computer, while a US wage-earner would spend ­only one month’s salary. The costing does not take into account the potential costs of laying on an electricity supply.

Indian engineers have devised an intriguing and relatively inexpensive way of gaining access to the Internet. They intend to use the cable network running alongside the Indian railways to transmit data. Since a railway station and a village occur every eight kilometres, on average, the costs of such a national system could be greatly reduced. A pilot project has already been launched in South India. Two problems worry the Indians, however: the first is that the electricity supply in rural ­areas is very poor, and the second is the lack of purchasing power among potential Internet users. They simply do not have the money to buy computers. Nor would they presumably have the money to pay the ­running costs for an Internet connection, which are naturally far higher in developing countries, in comparison with disposable income, than in the industrialized countries, ranging from 1.2% of income per head in the United States to almost 70% in Mozambique and 118% in Sierra Leone.

Table 2

State Nigeria India China Brazil 
Inhabitants (millions)106.4982.21,255.7165.92,510,2
Internet users (thousands)100450016,9008,65030,150
Telephones per 1000 inhabitants42270121 
PCs per 1000 ­inhabitants63930 
Proportion of world pop.1.83%16.88%21.58%2.85%43.13%
Proportion of Internet users worldwide0.03%1.19%4.48%2.29%7.98%
Urban pop.42.2%27.7%32.7%80.2% 
Investment needed in telephony in US$ billions514893719 
Investment needed in PCs in US$ billions2321726630 
Total investment needed in US$ billions74706636381454
Foreign debt in US$ billions (1998)30,37598,232154,599232,004 
GDP in US$ billions41.1430959778.2 

Sources: UNDP, NUA (www.nua.ie)

Public Telecentres in Place of Individual Internet Access?

The figures for the information technology infrastructure in developing countries, and the sums which would be needed to improve this infrastructure appreciably, show the breadth of the digital divide between North and South and the efforts that will be needed to overcome it. The sums required cannot be raised from the public funds available, and despite the growing involvement of many telecommunications, hardware and software companies in developing countries, it is inconceivable that the private sector will be willing to invest in areas and in regions which will need to be subsidized for an indeterminate period. UNDP therefore proposes a tax on e-mails as a new source of funds: if one US cent were collecte for every 100 e-mails, US$ 70 billion would be raised each year, according to UNDP, and this is money that could be used to invest in the information sector in developing countries. The representatives of international NGOs had already made a similar suggestion at a conference in New Delhi in 1994.

One cheaper alternative to individual access to the new media might be public access: “cybercafés”, “telecentres” and “cabinas públicas” have been set up in many developing countries in recent years. The UN Secretariat General regards such institutions as a way for the poor also to gain access to the Internet and other media, and as the only viable alternative to the individual access that predominates in the industrialized countries. The American National Telephone Cooperative Association (NTCA, www.ntca.org), which brings together rural telecommunications companies and cooperatives, estimates the cost of setting up a telecentre at between US$ 40,000 and 100,000, and the cost for a simple telephone shop at between US$ 3000 and 10,000. NTCA estimates the running costs at between US$ 35,000 and 75,000 per year.

The Panos Institute in London (www.oneworld.org/panos), however, warns against too much excitement about telecentres: “As with almost any development concerning the Internet, it is simply too early to assess the impact of these initiatives. However, there is little sign of telecentres being extended to areas where they cannot at least cover their own costs – and in most developing countries this means the urban wealthy areas.”