By Thomas K. Grose
THE DIGITAL DIVIDE IN EUROPE IS
STILL PRETTY WIDE, ALTHOUGH THE SITUATION IS IMPROVING FOR
THE "HAVE-NOTS" IN THE FORMER EASTERN BLOC.
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was only one outdated, slow mainframe computer available for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to academics, they are woefully out of date.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
INDUSTRIALIZED VS. DEVELOPING
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
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
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