Least developed countries need low-cost computers, expert tells UN meeting

[news release] Mobile phones were not the solution to the problems of least developed countries, an information and communication technologies (ICT) expert said today at a United Nations meeting in Kuala Lumpur that brought together 150 participants from around the world.”You cannot improve the well-being of citizens with just telephony,” said Tunisia Telecom President Ahmed Mahjoub at the UN Global Forum on Access and Connectivity, adding that least developed countries needed low-cost computers as well. He said WiMAX, a technology that provided wireless data over long distances, was a good solution: it was cheaper than copper wire, was quicker to deploy and provided broad bandwidth for Internet access.Mauritania was a good example of a successful policy, Mr. Mahjoub said. The country five years ago only had 17,000 fixed-line telephone subscribers. Mauritania had privatized its public telephone company and allowed two private companies to enter. Not only had the number of mobile subscribers greatly increased, but new state-of the art technologies and new investment had poured into the country.”There is no digital divide – it is an economic divide pure and simple,” said Cliff Missen Director of the Iowa-based eGranary Digital Library. “To improve access and connectivity we have to improve the economy.””We are Internet-centred and broadband-obsessed,” he said, adding that universities in Ghana paid $20,000 a month for five megabytes – the annual salary of a professor. Compact disks were equally effective for education, and “we have to look at low-cost, effective training.””It is an Internet-centric proposition that you have to be on the Internet to get information, that you must be able to connect at any time,” he said. “It is a proposition not applicable in the developing world, and an unnecessary one when it comes to a doctor’s or to a nurse’s training.”While the world was waiting for the convergence between computers and television, said Richard Fuchs of Canada’s International Development Research Centre, a divergence was increasing between high-end ICT users and mobile phones users in poor countries. Social investment was required to meet the need of low-end users. Governments had to choose whether to provide the best possible services to the high-end users or adopt policies that brought down overall costs.The idea that “telephony is the poor man’s information society” should be challenged, said Parminder Jeet Singh of IT for Change, an Indian non-governmental organization (NGO). It was doubtful that the private sector would extend the Internet as it had done for mobile phones. What was needed was a rights-based approach, which did not exclude markets. But if the markets did not ensure access, everyone’s right to access should be ensured, as it was a public interest issue.Mobile phones are going to connect the least developed countries, said Isabelle Mauro of GSM Association, the trade organization representing 740 mobile operators in some 200 countries. A priority was to provide voice services to small communities, focusing on data transmission.Each additional 10 per cent of mobile phone penetration resulted in a 1.2 per cent increase in a country’s gross domestic product, she said. In the past 12 months Africa had connected 70 million people via wireless phone, yet handsets in many developing countries were still taxed as luxury goods.Kamran Elahiah, chairman of the venture capital firm Global Catalyst Partners, cited a project his company had done for refugee camps of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) at the Rwandan-Tanzanian border. At very small cost, the project had established an Internet telecentre powered by biofuel – the result of animal waste brought by local farmers. As a result, refugees were now using the telecentre 24 hours a day, lining up for its services.Jim Lynch of TechSoup, a San Francisco-based non-profit organization, said TechSoup collected discarded personal computers around the world, fixed them, installed new software and distributed them to schools, non-profits and low-income families around the world. “It is a big job,” he said, adding that there were some 150-200 million discarded computers in the world. One problem was that no major organization was creating human capacity, he said.Forty-three panellists – including four ICT ministers – addressed the two-day Global Forum, which examined access and connectivity in Asia and the Pacific, in island States and in least developed countries, as well as innovative funding for ICT for development.The results of the Forum, organized by the UN Global Alliance for ICT and Development, will be fed into the ICT 2008 Conference, to be held in Lyon on 25-27 November, and the second Global Conference on Financing for Development, to be held in Doha from 29 November to 2 December.

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