PRISM - American Society for Engineering Education - Logo - OCTOBER 2004 - VOLUME 14, NUMBER 2
East Side Story - Illustration by Stuart Bradford

By Thomas K. Grose


When Carmen Boje was earning her master's in electronics and telecommunications engineering in the mid-80s at the Polytechnic University of Bucharest, in Romania, her thesis was a study of the efficiency of data transmission, using the Mathematical Queues Theory and computer simulation. Trouble was, there was only one outdated, slow mainframe computer available for her to use, and—speaking of queues—she had to line up for hours to use it. Of course, that was well before the PC revolution was fully underway. But fast forward to 1992. Boje was an assistant lecturer at her alma mater, teaching a course in Microcomputer Hardware, Software, and Troubleshooting. Not the easiest thing to do, given the circumstances. "There was only one PC—in the dean's office—for the use of the entire faculty," she laments. No wonder Boje soon fled to Italy and, eventually, to the United States.

Today, she's an assistant professor in the computer technology department at Indiana University/Purdue University Indianapolis. Back at the Bucharest Polytechnic, however, things have not greatly improved in the dozen years since Boje made her exit. One of her former professors, Nicolae-George Dragulanescu, reports that while there are now more PCs available to academics, they are woefully out of date. "At Romanian state-funded universities . . . the best existing computing platforms are still based on Pentium I (processors)."

The sad cyber-situation on Romania's campuses is a microcosm of society there. The "digital divide" is very real in Romania, and, indeed, in much of Eastern Europe and the countries of the former Soviet Union. Fully 63 percent of Americans are now online. But in Romania, the figure is a mere 10 percent. Of the 47 million people living in Ukraine, just 900,000 have Internet access. A year-old report by the technology consulting firm IDC said 17 percent of the populations of Central and Eastern Europe use the Internet at least once a month; that amount should crawl to 27 percent by 2006. The only real bright spots, it said, were Estonia and Slovenia, which have Internet penetration rates comparable to Western Europe. Digital divide is a term coined a decade ago to illustrate the gap between information technology "haves" and "have-nots." On an international level, it reflects the IT divisions between industrialized countries and developing countries. By the end of next year, it's anticipated that 1 billion people will be online, worldwide. But the vast majority of them will live in the developed world.

Nowhere is the gap's fault line more obvious than in Europe, where it tends to follow the path of the old Iron Curtain that divided the open and (mostly) market-driven countries of the West from those in the East that were Soviet-dominated and closed, with centrally-planned economies. In an American Society for Engineering Education conference report last year, Boje and Dragulanescu explained how ill-starred efforts to plan and coordinate the economies of Soviet Bloc countries during the 1960s and ‘70s ensured the failure of its computer industry. The socialist countries were also harmed by a West-imposed embargo that banned the export of technologies that might have military use. Where computer manufacturing was allowed, they write, it was devoted "mostly to large computer systems—like mainframes and minicomputers—whose access and use could be easier monitored, controlled, and restricted by the authorities."

The hangover from that era is still causing those countries headaches. Their ongoing transformation to market economies has been slow and painful. That not only explains their high rates of poverty but their lack of IT equipment and their inefficient, outdated and expensive telecommunications systems. "A main problem (in Eastern Europe) is access. Services are bad and prices are remarkably high," explains Tom Neimeyer, director of the Internet Access and Training Program at the International Research & Exchanges Board (IREX). Many countries have moribund telecom companies that tend to be monopolies, some still state-owned. And even many of the Internet service providers (ISPs) are state-run. Cost is a key issue. Notes Dragulanescu: "In a country like Romania, where people earn only $50 to $200 a month, maintaining a home computer, as well a home dial-up Internet connection is seen as a luxury."

The developed world has good reason to want to see the divide narrowed. The Internet is a potentially useful tool to promote open and democratic governments, civil liberties, education, literacy and economic growth—all of which leads to increased stability in a wobbly world. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security hails the Internet as a means to foster security by increasing literacy and easing poverty, thus removing incentives for disenchantment and revolt. To be sure, the heart of Europe is not a tinderbox of Middle-Eastern proportions. That said, however, it was the scene of a rather nasty war within the last decade.


Bridging the divide is essentially about overcoming poverty. "The danger is that countries in the developing world fall further and further behind," says Andy Carvin, coordinator of the Digital Divide Network at the Education Development Center in Boston. According to the Digital Partnership, a business-backed British nonprofit that works to bring used computers to developing countries, "Access to the Internet and computers does not in itself solve poverty. But it provides an essential and transforming means, if complemented by good content and technical assistance."

There is no one-size-fits-all solution, however. Notes Carvin: What's good in one country may not work in another. Certainly among governments, industrialized and developing, there's no consensus on what to do. That hasn't stopped philanthropic organizations like IREX, Digital Partnership, and the Open Society Institute, funded by billionaire businessman George Soros, from getting involved. Many efforts revolve around refurbishing old hardware donated by corporations and shipping it to poorer countries. Digital Partnership says it's likely that more than 600 million PCs in developed countries will be decommissioned over the next five years. Those machines have little value to the companies but could be of great use in poor areas. Many large IT companies, including Hewlett-Packard, Dell, and Microsoft, endorse these giveaway programs. Carvin says they're betting that free equipment helps build financially stronger, computer-literate societies in developing countries. "They see it as a way of opening new markets."

What won't work, however, is merely delivering truckloads of old PCs to countries in need. Indeed, Carvin says, "some countries are raising concerns about becoming dumping grounds for obsolete computers" because of environmental worries. That's why groups like IREX and Digital Partnership work to train recipients on how to use and maintain the equipment. They also focus on putting the computers into public institutions—schools, libraries, universities, community centers, post offices—where they can be shared. But even if a growing number of people in these countries gains access to Internet-connected computers, the cost of using them can be prohibitive, thanks to frayed, outmoded, and high-priced telecom infrastructures. Short-term solutions require resourcefulness. In Azerbaijan, universities have pooled resources to defray the costs of buying bandwidth. The team approach works because the schools don't use big amounts of bandwidth at the same time. Ultimately, however, it's hoped growing public demand will force competition, and services will improve as costs fall.

Language is a problem, as well, given that English is the lingua franca of the Internet. Roughly two thirds of Web content is in English. Says Carvin: "That's an issue, especially in countries whose language is not spoken widely outside the country," which is most of Eastern Europe. "There is not a lot of critical mass of content in those countries." That's one reason why IREX trains locals in the building of Web pages in their local language. A mitigating factor, however, is the multilingual nature of many Eastern Europeans. "Youths are the most active group of users and many of them speak English," Neimeyer says. And many people of all ages in former Soviet Bloc countries speak Russian, and the amount of Russian online content is growing.

Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union countries are better situated than developing countries in other parts of the world to find solutions, Many former Soviet Bloc nations are set to eventually join the European Union and the North American Treaty Organization (NATO). And increased integration with the West can only help.

They also tend to have young, well-educated populations, and younger people are quick adopters of technology. Meanwhile, Professor Dragulanescu continues to curse the scarcity of modern computers at his school. For him and his colleagues, the digital revolution remains agonizingly slow in coming.

Thomas K. Grose is a freelance writer based in Great Britain.


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East Side Story - By Thomas K. Grose
True Grit - By Mary Lord
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Branching Out - By Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp
On Campus: Leadership Loud and Clear - By Robert Gardner
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LAST WORD: Paper or Plastic? - By Mary Kasarda


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