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     Volume 8 Issue 74 | June 19, 2009 |

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Digital Divide
Bangladesh's Gordian knot

Mushfiq Wahed

The notion 'Digital Divide' is very common in today's world. The increasing dependence on information and communication technology (ICT) in the developed world and the search for general education in the developing countries is creating the gap. As we all know, in today's world, ICT has a greater impact on social and economical development. So if the benefits of ICT are not provided and arranged properly to all the people, the difference will increase, consequently widening the 'Digital Divide' more and more.

The digital divide is usually measured in terms of people's access to ICTs. Penetration levels of mobile telephones, fixed telephone lines, internet and personal computers are popular measures that are being used to identify the difference. However, a specific country may excel in one factor but lack behind in others and this doesn't lead the country to improve on an overall basis. It is also to be mentioned that, improvement in one specific factor can imply that the country has possibilities to develop on the other factors, hence bridging the gap with the developed world.

It has been seen that after the year 2000, an overall strong movement has started among the countries of the world to become an information society. Policy makers, think tanks even general people of the world have, to some extent, realised the importance of information and communication technology and started taking initiatives for enhancing the movement. The bigger, well developed economies as well as many donor agencies have extended their hands with monetary and logistical support to ensure that the developing countries can also participate in the movement of becoming a global information society, as well as reduce poverty, illiteracy and information deprived, through it. Realising the importance of the ICT, the new political government of Bangladesh has pledged to facilitate, patronise and enhance the movement of ICT for development in order to restructure Bangladesh as 'Digital Bangladesh.'

Becoming an information society is not an easy initiative to get done with, for a country like Bangladesh where the never-ending crisis for education, energy and skill exists. But an immense increment in usage of mobile telephone (which is one of the major components of ICT development) has been seen in the past few years, which indicates the possibility for Bangladesh to lay the foundation of the bridge to reduce the digital divide. However, the achievement doesn't provide a long-term hope, as the usage of other components still lags behind. According to the ICT Development Index 2009 published by International Telecommunication Union, mobile cellular subscription per 100 inhabitants has increased from 0.8 in 2002 to 21.7 in 2007, which is the significant most improvement area as much as of ICT access is concerned. Conversely, if we analyse the other areas, we see, fixed telephone lines per 100 inhabitants has increased from 0.5 in 2002 to 0.8 in 2007, the proportion of households with computers has increased from 0.8 in 2002 to 1.9 in 2007 and the proportion of households with internet has increased from 0.1 in 2002 to 1.3 in 2007. International Internet bandwidth per internet user moreover, has increased from 211 bit/s to 1,284 bit/sec in these five years.

Although there is an overall increment that has been enjoyed throughout the years in various areas of information and communication technologies, the improvement is very minimal in terms of global progression. In fact, despite all these improvements, according to the ICT Development Index, Bangladesh moved down 6 places, from rank 132 in 2002 to rank 138 in 2007. This clearly indicates that there were countries that were ranked below Bangladesh in the 2002 index and they achieved significant improvements to exceed our rank in 2007. The examples include some developing and least developed countries like Pakistan, Gambia, Cote d'Ivoire, Senegal, Madagascar, Mauritania and Benin. The country that expanded most worldwide in ranking is Pakistan, moving up to 19 places, from the rank 146 in 2002 to rank 127 in 2007. Though the rank is still low, the progress has been significant in the past five years because in 2002 there was almost no ICT access and usage in the country, whereas in 2007, 8% households had computers and internet penetration reached 10.7%. This proves that the country has improved in two areas of ICT while Bangladesh improved significantly in one area, which ranked us below Pakistan. So, an overall consistent increase in penetration levels starting from mobile telephones to fixed telephone lines and from internet to personal computers is highly needed to bridge the digital divide.

Analysing the scenario of the ICT sector after 2007, it is clear that the introduction of mobile internet by prominent mobile companies of Bangladesh has reopened another door to the access of information and communication technologies for mass people. As broadband internet connection failed to reach the mass people, this technological movement is considered as 'light in the dark' for people who were deprived from internet because of the infrastructural problem. But will the new media be properly used? The proportion of households with computers is increasing but not in a significant rate because the price of computers is still high for an average income person. Although, the technology can be used through mobile cellular-phones but how many people have the equipped mobile phone set to use the facility to a full extent? In a country like Bangladesh, where such a large proportion of the people is poor how many people can afford the expensive mobile sets which enable internet facilities?

It must also be mentioned that at the end of the year 2009, WiMax technology will be introduced in the country which will enable fast, secure and dedicated internet connection for all and will also break the barrier of not reaching the unreached. So, it can be said that the infrastructural issues to spread connectivity will be almost restructured in the country by this year. But will WiMax reach the unreached? Will the technology be used as an expansion of accessibility or removal of previously used technology? Even if the technology reaches the unreached, are they prepared and educated enough to adopt the impact? Introduction and expansion of telecentres can be used to solve the problems initially. India has been an excellent example of establishing and using 600,000 telecentres in all villages to give people access to information and communication technology. In Bangladesh, initiatives for establishing telecentres have already been taken and a number of institutions have established their network to work on that. Gonokendra: Centre for Community Development, Internet Learning Centre: School Based Telecentre, Youth Community Multimedia Centre (YCMC), GHAT: Rural ICT centre (RIC), Community Information Centre (CIC), 'Pallitathya Kendra' are few examples of telecentre initiatives. According to Bangladesh Telecentre Network (BTN), the number of telecentres in Bangladesh as of May 12, 2009 is 2068. These initiatives always indicate an increment of the usage of ICT Services in Bangladesh, hence decreasing the digital divide.

The impact of ICT on social and economical development is enormous. To sustain the development, the 'Digital Divide' needs to decrease between countries with high levels of ICT and Bangladesh. Only then can we expect a better future in the upcoming days. Can the telecentres cut the Gordian knot and eliminate the barrier of the digital divide; hence assure a better future for poor people in Bangladesh? The hope remains.