The digital divide

Research maps disparity in global access to information and communication technology

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On June 21, 2007, a consortium of telecom companies from various African nations and the United States began work on a $600-million project to run a submarine fibre optic cable from Marseilles down to South Africa – the first of its kind in East Africa. Completed in 2009, the cable now provides 1.28 terabits per second (Tbits/s) bandwidth to Djibouti, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda, and Mozambique. Though this is groundbreaking, huge disparities still exist globally. For example,  Montreal’s total bandwidth capacity is estimated at 7.44 Tbits/s for a population one tenth of the size.

With the ever-increasing importance of technology in the development of key sectors such as education and business, the global digital divide, the popular term for the difference in access to information and communication technologies (ICTs), is one of the most pressing issues facing developing countries. Its effect is further compounded by the prohibitively high costs of implementing the required infrastructure for technological development, leaving most nations dependent on small satellite terminals which suffer from extremely high latency.

Though the digital divide is a recognized phenomenon, there have been very few efforts to quantify the gap, as there still isn’t a clear definition of what constitutes a country’s technological standing. In a paper published in the International Journal of Business Information Systems, Steven White, professor of Marketing and International Business at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth, set out to do exactly that. Using previous research as a basis, White mapped out the global figures for computers per 100 people, internet users per 100 people, and international internet bandwidth per capita.

Using data from 172 countries, White segmented states by using a multi-stage cluster analysis to establish four tiers. Tier one represented the nations with the highest access to ICTs, and each tier was further segmented into clusters. Though the difference between the top and bottom tiers wasn’t that surprising, the study revealed strong progress being made by some developing countries. For instance, tier one includes countries such as Chile and Jamaica. Jamaica is in the second cluster, ahead of Canada (located in the second cluster), and the United States in the third.