Divided over the device

08 Jan 2007

The ITU global trade show has come and gone from Asia - the first and presumably the last attempt by the Geneva-based group to hold an event away from home.

The Hong Kong government stumped up some $9 million to defray ITU' s 'administration costs' for 2006. It seems no one but the generous burghers of Geneva were willing to pony up for the 2009 gig.

It's always been one of the quaint paradoxes of the ITU that while it has always talked a good game on tele-development, it operates the most expensive events in the telecom industry.

Nice work if you can get it.

Forgive the tedious shoptalk but this is a way of leading into the theme of the digital divide, the closing of which is one of the great missions of the ITU.

Personally, I'm not convinced there is a problem. Yes, billions of people lack a phone or Internet connection, but this is not a problem without solution. That's because we know the answer: it's the mobile phone. Anyone who thinks the divide is about computers or the Net just doesn't, as they say, get it.

It's not about the device. It's about the purpose.

The mobile phone is the thing, not just because it can cost $25, but because it uses minimal power and because it works for people who can't read or write.

100 million laptops

The world's six billion people own 2.5 billion mobile phones, but just a billion of us are online. For getting basic connectivity, the mobile has no equal.

Neither the ITU nor any other government agency can claim credit for the mobile revolution that gripped east Asia in the 90s and is now sweeping Africa, the Middle East and the sub-continent.
We are fast approaching the time when basic voice is both available and affordable for virtually everybody on the planet. The day cannot be far off when anyone who either doesn't own a phone or lacks affordable access to a village phone has bigger issues than merely getting connected.
While it's the mobile that will bridge the divide, that doesn't mean the PC has no role to play in human development.

One of the highlights of the ITU conference sessions was MIT professor Nicholas Negroponte holding forth on his $100 laptop project. I've been dismissive of this in the past, seeing it as a boutique project driven by a kind of fetishism of technology.

I stand corrected. For one, it's not boutique, at least not in ambition. Negroponte is planning 100 million units; that compares with a sum of 47 million laptops that shipped last year.

He has three working laptops that he showed off for the first time in Hong Kong last month.

But Negroponte stresses that the real point is the potential for learning.

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