Archive for the ‘Digital Divide’ Category

Intel, OLPC Come to an Accord

Friday, July 13th, 2007

The Associated Press is now reporting that Intel and MIT’s One Laptop Per Child initiative have reached an accord. The two entities have been bashing each other in the press for some time now, dissing each other’s technology like an east coast-west coast rap war. Now, the AP says that Intel will actually be joining the OLPC board and contribute funding to the development of its so-called $100 laptop.
More from the AP:

Under their new partnership, Intel and One Laptop Per Child might seek ways to package their computers together for overseas governments. For example, Intel’s Classmate, which has to be plugged in, might be an option for urban settings, while the XO laptops, which use very little power and can be mechanically recharged by hand, could go into rural districts.
“There are an awful lot of educational scenarios between K and 12,” said William Swope, Intel’s director of corporate affairs. “We don’t think all those are going to be served by any one form factor, by any one technology, by any one product.”
Walter Bender, who oversees software and content for One Laptop Per Child, said the biggest benefit for his group would be Intel’s work with the project on future technical developments. That will deepen the pool of software and hardware designers available to perfect the XO machines.
“It’s a big problem, more than 15 people at OLPC can do all by themselves,” Bender said. “Getting more talent lined up to help us is only a plus.”

All I can say is this: Hallelujah.
For several years now, I’ve been screaming a particular mantra. When it comes to global development, different tools work best in different circumstances. There is no one single magic bullet, technological or otherwise, that will solve the ills of poverty, corruption or educational inequity. Sure, mobile phones have spread like wildfire throughout the developing world and are helping countries make important leaps. But that doesn’t mean those countries shouldn’t explore using telecentres or low-cost laptops for different situations. Try telling a small-business owner in Ghana that they can only use their mobile phone for all of their productivity needs. And sometimes technology isn’t the answer at all, either – we shouldn’t be afraid to admit that when that’s the case.
Similarly, you can’t expect a single branded device, even one created by entities as talented as Intel or MIT, to suit the needs of every development challenge in a particular country. Like the AP article notes, technological needs in an urban context differ from tech needs in a rural context. Classroom settings and business settings are different. The needs of an NGO working in a refugee camp are different from the needs of officials working in a governmental office headquarters.
With Intel and OLPC coming together and acknowledging that their devices will have pros and cons depending on the circumstance, countries that embrace their technologies will hopefully be able to make smarter, more strategic choices. Less time will be wasted in debating whether a government should by this tool or that one as the sole answer to all of their needs, simply because the person pitching the tool is well-resourced or charismatic. Imagine if we could get mobile phone manufacturers, Microsoft, free/open source advocates, etc., to adopt similar mindsets.
Different tools for different circumstances. Perhaps we’re making some progress. -andy

Democratic Presidential Candidates Discuss the Digital Divide

Friday, June 29th, 2007

Democratic candidates Bill Richardson, Chris Dodd, Dennis Kucinich and Mike Gravel discuss the digital divide in the spin room following the June 28, 2007 presidential debate at Howard University.
Formats available: mp4, mobile

Asking the Candidates about the Digital Divide

Friday, June 29th, 2007

While they didn’t discuss the digital divide during the presidential debate as I had hoped, I managed to put some questions to four of the candidates in the spin room. Most of them didn’t give me much more than a sound bite, but it was still interesting. Bill Richardson probably had the broadest perspective on the subject, while Chris Dodd and Dennis Kucinich focused on ubiquitous broadband and laptops for kids. Mike Gravel offered some terse comments on keeping the Internet free and putting computers in our classrooms.
I’ve posted an article about what they said on my PBS blog. I’ll also put together a video of their comments soon. Hopefully, I’ll be able to ask the Republican candidates about the digital divide at the next PBS debate, which will take place at the end of September. -andy

How Seriously Will Tonight’s Presidential Debate Tackle the Digital Divide?

Thursday, June 28th, 2007

It’s just past 9am and I’m finding myself checking my watch a lot, hoping the hours of the day will pass quickly so I can head over to Howard University for tonight’s Democratic presidential debate. The event is being organized by PBS, and my colleagues there have been kind enough to extend me a press pass so I can blog (and maybe even vlog) the event. For the first time ever, the debate will feature a panel of moderators made up entirely of people of color, and it’ll focus on domestic issues that are of particular concern to minority voters.
As you can see on the debate website, they’ve already broken down the themes of the debate into eight categories, including healthcare, criminal justice, immigration and affordable neighborhoods. But I must say I was pleasantly surprised when I saw that one of the eight themes will be the digital divide. By my count, it’s been seven years since a national political forum set out to address the digital divide. As a nation we’ve become complacent regarding the issue, which is understandable since around three-quarters of US households have Internet access, while minority groups have made significant strides in catching up.
But complacency, as is often the case, doesn’t change the fact that there are still challenges that must be met. Because so many people are online today, Internet access is taken to be a given, whether by government, businesses, schools, etc. If you need to access to some kind of government service, you’re expected to go online. Students are assumed to have access when completing homework and other assignments. Job applicants are assumed to have access and the requisite tech skills to back it up. When you meet someone who isn’t online, the first assumption is that it must be by there choice, rather than the possibility that they can’t afford it or lack the skills to use it effectively.
Meanwhile, as I’ve been arguing for a very long time now, the digital divide isn’t just about measuring who has access to the Internet and who doesn’t. It’s about who has access and the skills necessary to use these tools to improve quality of life for their families and communities. Included in this is the ability for people to become more civically engaged and have more of a voice within local and national decisionmaking. None of you need to hear me repeat the same lecture on how social media tools like blogging and YouTube are giving individual the power to participate in civic discourse in ways that were not previously possible. (Remember, Time Magazine gave us all that Person of the Year award.) Thankfully, research from groups like the Pew Internet Project is beginning to suggest that user-generated content is becoming more democratized. But the conventional wisdom would still suggest that Web 2.0 is largely a place for more affluent, better educated and generally white people.
We need to do a better job of bringing social media tools and skills to people that’ll have been disenfranchised, just as we work on strategies to bridge the divide in the more traditional sense. It’s a multi-stakeholder challenge, involving the private sector, local and national government, educational instutions, religious institutions and civil society. How will the candidates tackle these issues if they were to become president? So far I’ve heard close to nothing from any of them. I’m hoping that’ll change tonight. -andy

Ask a Technocrat

Tuesday, June 19th, 2007

Later this week in Geneva, the International Telecommunications Union will be hosting a high-level UN conference on digital content delivery and the future of the Internet. Thomas Crampton of the International Herald Tribune will moderate a panel this Friday on the role international organizations should play in a world of converging media. His panel will feature leadership from entities such as WIPO, UNESCO, the ITU, the EU parliament and the European Broadcasting Union.
Thomas has put out a request for bloggers to submit questions for the panelists. If you’d like to offer your two cents, you can post your questions in the discussion thread on his blog.
Don’t think you have any questions? Think a little harder. These folks are playing a major role in issues ranging from bridging the digital divide to who controls intellectual property on the Internet. I’m sure we can come up with some good questions, right? -andy

Andrew Rasiej Throws Down the Digital Divide Gauntlet to Presidential Candidates

Friday, May 18th, 2007

Personal Democracy Forum co-founder and digital divide activist Andrew Rasiej made a passionate case to revive the digital divide as a major policy issue. He asked how many people in the audience felt the digital divide was still a problem, and few of us did. Andrew went on to talk about poor Internet access in low-income schools and communities, and how inequitable access is hampering civic participation and democracy.
Rasiej then announced that the Personal Democracy Forum will launch an online petition to elect “the first tech president.” He’s challenging the public to sign onto the petition and forward it to presidential candidates to get them to sign on to these basic principles:

  • Declare the Net a public good. Bring broadband to everyone.
  • Wireless public spectrum must be available and expanded.
  • We need to support Net Neutrality.
  • Go from No Child Left Behind to Every Child Connected
  • We need to create a connected democracy, where people can actually hear public hearings and participate. We need to use this to create transparency and accountability.
  • We need a national guard of technologists to work during Katrina-like emergencies.

I’ll see if I can dig up more about the initiative. -andy

Time-Warner to Allow Fon Wifi Hotspots

Monday, April 23rd, 2007
Martin Varsavsky

Martin Varsavsky, founder of Fon

Jessica Mintz of the Associated Press is reporting today that Time Warner Cable has agreed to a partnership with the insurgent community wifi business Fon. Founded by serial entrepreneur Martin Varsavsky, Fon offers wireless routers that anyone can use to set up a public wifi hotspot. When you get a Fon router, you set it up to allow your neighbors to piggyback on your wireless connection, either for free or a small fee – typically a couple dollars a day.
While Fon has been successful partnering with ISPs in Europe, they hadn’t had any success penetrating the US market. (This didn’t stop tens of thousands of Fon enthusiasts, or foneros, setting up their own Fon hotspots on the Q-T, though.) Now, Time-Warner cable customers will be allowed to use the technology and become purveyors of community wifi without having to violate their terms of service. The question still remains whether other ISPs will follow suit. Starbucks and T-Mobile, for example, have been somewhat dismissive of Fon, which caused the Spanish company to respond by giving away nearly 7,000 free Fon routers to people who live adjacent to Starbucks, allowing them to provide a competing service.
Last year I got a chance to meet Martin during a presentation he gave at Harvard. Here’s a video of him discussing the idea behind Fon. -andy

Bush 2008 Budget Would Cut NTIA Funds in Half?

Monday, February 5th, 2007

President Bush has just released his proposed fiscal 2008 budget, and I can just tell all of you are just drooling to get your hands on it. It’s not exactly great bedtime reading – okay, maybe it is depending on your bedtime goals – but if you want to get a sense of the president’s spending priorities, there’s nothing like going straight to the horse’s balance sheet.
From what’s been published on the Whitehouse website so far, one thing stands out from my perspective as an observer of things technology-related. If you take a look at the section regarding the Department of Commerce, it’s hard to find a mention of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA). They’re the folks that advise the president on telecom policy issues, from spectrum management to US competitiveness in the technology sector. The NTIA was also home to the Technology Opportunity Program (TOP), which awarded grants on digital divide initiatives, and they still manage the Public Telecommunications Facility Program (PTFP), which helps public broadcasting cover the cost of its infrastructure.
If you look at the budget text related to the Department of Commerce, the NTIA is only mentioned once, and it’s in the section that lists the line items for each division of the department. In this document, NTIA would get only $19 million, down from the $40 million appropriated to it in FY 2006.
Since the year 2000, there’s been a back-and-forth fight with Congress over NTIA’s budget, as has been charted by the Federation of American Scientists:

Proposed by the Whitehouse in FY2000: $ 72.3 million
Appropriated by Congress: $ 52.9 million


Proposed by the Whitehouse in FY2001: $ 423.0 million
Appropriated by Congress: $100.4 million


Proposed by the Whitehouse in FY2002:$ 73.0 million
Appropriated by Congress: $ 73.0 million


Proposed by the Whitehouse in FY2003: $ 44.0 million
Appropriated by Congress: $ 73.6 million


Proposed by the Whitehouse in FY2004: $ 25.4 million
Appropriated by Congress: $ 51.1 million


Proposed by the Whitehouse in FY2005: $ 27.6 million
Appropriated by Congress: $ 38.7 million


Proposed by the Whitehouse in FY2006: $ 23.5 million
Appropriated by Congress: $40 million

Given all the flak the White House has gotten from critics about US telecom infrastructure and competitiveness slipping further and further behind much of the rest of the developed world, I was surprised by the line item drop for NTIA. In contrast, just two weeks ago, Sens. Daniel Inouye (D-HI) and Ted Stevens (R-AK) introduced a bill that would give the NTIA some direction on how to spend more than one billion dollars appropriated to them for emergency communications measures around the US. (Yes, the NTIA does that too.) Meanwhile, the White House offers the same agency $19 million.
Is there more money out there somewhere in another budget document that I’m missing? No doubt the new Congress will have some interesting opinions on the matter. -andy

Brits Propose Bridging Home-School Digital Divide

Wednesday, January 10th, 2007

At the British Education Technology Show today, UK schools minister Jim Knight announced a new goverment goal of bringing Internet access to all students who don’t already have it at home. Outlining a series of education technology initiatives, Knight stated he was launching a multi-stakeholder taskforce to develop a sustainable strategy for bridging this home-school digital divide.

(more…)

A Little Methanol Goes a Long Way with Laptop Fuel Cell

Wednesday, January 3rd, 2007

Over the holidays, TopTechNews.com and MobileCrunch reported on a new fuel cell technology by Samsung that might have a direct impact on the digital divide.
Essentially, what they’ve done is created a docking station for their laptops that is powered by methanol, which is both cheap and easy to produce. (So easy, in fact, that people often die from methanol-tainted homebrew alcohol.) The docking station gives a laptop to stay charged 40 hours a week for four weeks. That’s an astonishingly long time, given how my current laptop battery won’t even let me get through a single DVD movie. They expect to ship the docking station before the end of the year. Meanwhile, they’re also working on a pint-sized version, quite literally – a miniature power source that requires the equivalent of a coffee cup’s worth of methanol to power a laptop for a week.
Most of the news coverage I’ve seen so far about fuel cells has been in relationship to cars and foreign oil dependency, so I was pleasantly surprised to hear about Samsung’s announcement. There’s no mention how much the fuel sells will cost, but if they can get the price point down, it’ll be interesting to see how it penetrates developing nations and other places with large communities of people who don’t have access to reliable energy sources. Methanol fuel cells would help people who are off the grid to power their digital tools more reliably, and this could impact the adoption of mobile and portable Internet devices.
Meanwhile, the only by-product of the fuel cell is water. Now if Samsung could ensure that this water is safe to drink, talk about killing two birds with one stone…. -andy