A World Divided By A Common Internet

We hear a lot about the digital divide--the gulf between rich and poor--but it's a hard thing to quantify, especially when it comes to the Internet. In a breakthrough study of all 178 nations in the world, released last November, the International Telecommunication Union came up with a set of metrics that finally shows who's bit-rich and who's bit-poor, and why [see map].

The ITU calculated a ranking for each country, which it called the Digital Access Index (DAI), determined by such factors as education, the affordability of Internet access, and the proportion of Internet users with high-speed connections, in addition to the raw availability of bandwidth. On the map, the DAI is represented by height: the taller the bar, the better the nation's Internet access.

Four of the five top-ranked countries are in Scandinavia, with Sweden coming out on top. The first non-Scandinavian country is South Korea (4). The United States ranked 11, one notch below Canada. Japan was 15. Surprisingly, Slovenia tied with France, Italy, and New Zealand at 21. In fact, smaller nations often ranked higher than their larger counterparts: Hong Kong (7), Singapore (14), Luxembourg (15, tie), and even the Seychelles (52) doing better than Russia (63), China (84), and India (119).

The United States may have been penalized by one of the factors used to determine rankings--a quality measurement that considered the total bandwidth connecting a country to other countries, divided by the number of inhabitants.

Because so much of the Internet still physically resides in the United States, there's far less need for international connections than in, say, Denmark (2). However, as time goes by and more and more of the Internet exists outside the United States, Americans may find themselves truly slipping behind if they do not invest in more global connectivity.

Perhaps the most interesting factor was affordability, defined by what it costs to access the Internet as a percentage of a country's gross national income per capita. The measure considered the basic monthly cost of Internet access for an individual line plus any additional cost for 20 hours online (10 peak hours and 10 off-peak hours). Worst in affordability, the Congo, was an astounding 5000 times worse than the best.

Michael Minges, acting head of the ITU's market, economics, and finance unit, and a coauthor of the report, took IEEE Spectrum through a sample calculation for one of the factors--affordability. He used Nigeria, which had a raw score for affordability of 3.54, placing it 165 among nations and contributing to its overall near-bottom ranking of 153 [see feature article, "Surf Africa," elsewhere in this issue].

"According to the World Bank, Nigeria's per capita income in 2002 was US $290," Minges explains. "The Internet tariff there is $42.69 for unlimited monthly access, plus another $42.79 for 20 hours of telephone usage, for a total of $85.48. This is multiplied by the 12 months in the year and then divided by $290. The result is 3.54.

In other words, a year of Internet access of the sort taken for granted by most of the developed world costs more than three-and- a-half times the average Nigerian's total income.

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