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The Digital Divide Has Persisted over the Life of the Internet

Larry Press

People have been trying to measure the global diffusion of the Internet and the digital divide between rich and poor nation for twenty five years. The first to do so was Larry Landweber, who noted whether or not a nation had an Internet (or other) connection. It was a binary metric — yes or no — and it was suitable to its time because there were only a handful of users who were restricted to teaching and research, using a few applications like email, file transfer, news groups and remote login.

1991 Internet diffusion (purple) – In 1991, Lawrence Landweber began mapping the parts of the world that were connected and the parts that were not (he had to manually insert the colors due to the limits of technology at the time). The yellow parts show where there was no Internet connectivity. The green shows where there was only email.
Source: internethalloffame.org / Click to Enlarge

Five years later, the Internet had many more users and applications in commerce, government, entertainment, etc., so my colleagues and I developed a multidimensional Internet diffusion framework. One of our dimensions was pervasiveness, based on the number of users of the Internet per capita.

That made sense in 1995 since there were relatively few applications available for the slow dial-up connections of the time. A few people had faster ISDN or DSL connections and an organization might connect over a faster digital link, but most users were running the same few applications over analog phone lines.

Today, users per capita is pretty well meaningless. A Cuban who accesses email using a 2G cell phone and a Google Fiber user who has symmetric gigabit access to multiple computers and devices on a home LAN are clearly not equal.

To some degree, we anticipated this sort of thing via the connectivity infrastructure dimension in our framework. It considered international and intranational backbone bandwidth, Internet exchange points and last-mile access methods, but it was an imprecise measure — mapping a nation into five levels — and data was not readily available. (Our case studies typically required two weeks of in-country interviews).

Skipping ahead twenty years, a paper by Martin Hilbert uses an interesting diffusion metric — nationally installed bandwidth potential (BP), which is a function of the number of telecommunication subscriptions (fixed and mobile), the kind of access technology per subscription (cable, DSL, GSM, etc) and the corresponding bandwidth per access technology. Their estimation of the latter is quite complex, taking factors like data type, upload/download speed, compression, etc. into consideration. The methodology is described in a ten page supplement to the paper. (It is behind a paywall — let me know if you would like a copy).

Hilbert computed the BP of 172 countries from 1986 to 2014 and observed that the digital access divide is persistent. It is true that wireless connectivity is relatively inexpensive and mobile Internet use is growing rapidly in developing nations, but it is just as clear that many applications are precluded by the speed and form factor of mobile devices. A WhatsApp chat with a friend is not the equivalent of watching a high-resolution movie on a large screen TV and I am confident that Hilbert did not conduct his research or write the paper I read on a mobile phone. Even reading this blog post, following its links to other documents and taking notes on it would be tedious on a phone.

Ten countries with most installed bandwidth potential / Click to Enlarge

I expect this imbalance to persist because improved technology is costly and it enables ever more complex, demanding applications. The only trend I see that may in part reduce this feasible-application gap is the move to server-side processing for big data and AI applications, but even then interaction and the display of results will require bandwidth.

Hilbert's data also shows global shifts in application feasibility. As shown below, BP dominance has shifted from the US in the early, NSFNET days to China today. Korea has joined the top ten and the shares of Japan and Western Europe have dropped. The share of the bottom 162 countries rose slightly in 2001, but had fallen below the 1986 level by 2014.

Income differences explain much of the persistence of the digital divide, but policies regarding Internet infrastructure ownership and regulation are also important. For example Estonia ranks 40th in the world in GDP per capita, but is ranked 20th on the International Telecommunication Union ICT Development Index.

Policy choices may play an even larger role among the top ten nations. The US ranks 9th in GDP per capita and Korea is 30th, but my son, who lives in Korea, pays $22 per month for symmetric, 100 mbps connectivity and has a choice of several competing Internet service providers. I live in the US and pay considerably more than he does for considerably slower service and have no ISP choice — I am stuck with Time Warner Cable.

While we are waiting for enlightened policies, we can hope for technical change like the OneWeb and Spacex satellite Internet projects.

By Larry Press, Professor of Information Systems at California State University He has been on the faculties of the University of Lund, Sweden and the University of Southern California, and worked for IBM and the System Development Corporation. Larry maintains a blog on Internet applications and implications at cis471.blogspot.com and follows Cuban Internet development at laredcubana.blogspot.comVisit Page
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Share your comments

The real digital divide problem Michael Elling  –  Aug 09, 2016 5:49 PM PST

The problem stems from vertically integrated edge access providers and lack of settlement flows north/south and east/west in the IP stack.  Address those issues and the digital divide will disappear.

To what extent are those problems a Larry Press  –  Aug 11, 2016 7:25 AM PST

To what extent are those problems a reflection of the wealth/income divide? To what extent could they be solved through regulatory change?

Solving the problems Michael Elling  –  Aug 11, 2016 9:15 AM PST

The core (WAN) is clearly horizontal.  Doing the same for the edge (ISPs) would drive out a lot of redundant capex/opex at each layer.

The edge subscription model is wasteful.  Redundant marketing, CRM, billing, support, etc… with no net benefit.

Centralized procurement/subsidization of edge access is the way to go.

That only occurs with market driven inter-carrier/actor settlements; something the IP stack eschews and the regulators foolishly are moving away from.  Think of 800 for broadband.  But really for any component anywhere in the stack.  These settlements are important price signals that provide incentives and disincentives.  Importantly they are the answer to universal investment at the edge.  IPv6 becomes a reality in qtrs and years as opposed to decades.  New protocols quickly develop at promulgate with incentives. 

Taking those together we end up with a model where marginal supply and demand clear rapidly, which solves the obsolescence problem.  Furthermore, the communications cost is carried better by the "value" it creates.  This is the market driven way of value and cost sharing that is necessary for sustainable and generative digital ecosystems.

The latter simply do not exist.  Finally, with access mostly free or subsidizied, the digital divide is substantially diminished.  Globally we will have 6bn people connected to high mbs & gbs access within a decade.

The trends I am speaking of are already happening.  We can make it happen sooner if we recognize the problem of lack of interconnection and lack of settlements.  Govt can play a role in mandating/guiding these.  Believe it or not, every time it has happened, the incumbents have arrived at better business models.

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