Use Radio Waves to Bridge the
Digital Divide in Africa

Michael H. Glantz
18 August
2004

Use Radio Waves to Bridge the Digital Divide in Africa

There's a lot of talk these days about the "digital divide." Digital divide refers to the difference in access to computers between the developing countries and the industrialized ones as well as between "computer haves and have-nots" within the same country . This is the way things are today, with regard to the current situation of access to the wealth of information on the World Wide Web and the Internet.

While there is a limited, though slowly growing, access to computers in developing countries, the places for access are few and far between depending on the particular country. Therefore, access to that wealth of information by way of the computer is not available to most people. On the other hand, computer technology and access to it by people in industrialized countries (and the well-to-do within rich and poor countries) are advancing rapidly. Most people in developing countries are lagging far behind their counterparts in the industrialized North, and that disparity is growing.

In an attempt to bridge the gap between rich and poor as well as between industrialized and agrarian societies, programs have been developed to bring computer connectivity to villages and poor neighborhoods, even to the poorest of poor neighborhoods, in Latin America, Africa and Asia. There are numerous non-governmental organizations whose goal is to bridge that divide. It is admittedly not an easy task.

Early bridges were made from local materials such as wood, stone and fibers. Today, most bridges have a concrete, steel, or wood framework with an asphalt or concrete roadway. Based on the length of the barrier to be crossed, the amount and type of traffic as well as forces of nature (wind, tide, flood) different materials and shapes of bridges are used. There are many types of bridges such as arch bridges, girder bridges, truss bridges, cantilever bridges, cable-stayed bridges, suspension bridges and moveable bridges. Many bridges are actually combinations of different types of bridges -- and no two bridges are identical! Most bridges are held up by at least two supports set in the ground called abutments. Some bridges have additional supports along the middle of the bridge called piers. [Source: www.swe.org/iac/LP/bridge_03b.html]

On the west side of the North Atlantic, for example, outdated models of usable computers are sent to landfills or taken apart for their parts, as people trade up to the newer increasingly more powerful models. This process is happening at the same time that there is a dire need for computers (and for connectivity) to the World Wide Web on the eastern side of the Atlantic, specifically in Africa. Yet, access to the Internet is crucial for Africans over the next couple of decades for reasons of education, capacity building, awareness, and disaster preparedness if not avoidance, and even for nation-building purposes.

The US National Science Foundation (NSF), like the national science organizations in other countries, is concerned for many reasons about the digital divide and is exploring ways to bridge the divide, some for national interest and some for humanitarian reasons. The UN Secretary General, too, is concerned about improving the connectivity of developing countries to the globe's information highway via the Internet. If connectivity were to happen universally, then a virtual worldwide university would be created. Already, there are many free courses on the Internet and they are available to anyone just for the cost of being able to connect to it, e.g., access.

A major problem facing those Africa governments that want to bridge the digital divide is one of resources. They are facing many crises at the same time --- food, water, health, land degradation, a variable and changing climate. They must prioritize their strategic objectives. In doing so they will surely ask the following: In what way will bridging the digital divide help them to solve their food production problems, or improve their economies, or bring peace and stability to their countries? It is not an easy question to answer with confidence. In theory one can present arguments to make this point, but the reality is that the burning issues of the moment tend to overshadow concern about educating the general populace or even kids in school. Aside from the necessary condition that a government has the will to close the digital divide, it will have to be accomplished with resources from outside its borders. Humanitarian organizations, private, nongovernmental, UN and governmental will have to take on the major share of the task to bridge the divide.

Some governments are concerned about the open access to information that they don't want their citizens to know. News travels very fast on the Internet and few secrets can be localized if not kept. The same is true for rumors; they can be spread. The Internet is not only a source of information; it is also a source of disinformation as well as conflicting information.

There has always been a gap over access to information or to new technologies within countries as well as between them. "Access is power, because information empowers those who have it". That will continue to be the case in the future. There will continue to be digital haves and have-nots. The best we can hope for right now is to keep the gap between them as small as possible.

The good news is that the digital technology does exist. What is lacking is the access to that technology by most people in the world. But there is at least one way to bridge that digital divide in the short term --- the RADIO. By taking the information on the Internet to the radio waves, those with computer access now can relay important Internet information to the general public in far away places where Internet access may be very limited or even non-existent. In other words they can serve as information piers in the same way that concrete and steel piers are used to provide physical support for the middle parts of real bridges. For example, using digital broadcasting by way of satellite transmissions, people everywhere can listen to educational and other awareness-raising programs being read to them in a timely and targeted way. The possibilities are endless.

When people talk about bridge building, what might first come to mind are the major bridges they have seen or heard about: London Bridge in England, the San Francisco Bridge in California, and the like: sturdy bridges with many spans crossing major rivers.

San Francisco Bridge, Calif. 
  London Bridge, England

Using the radio as a bridge today would be like constructing a temporary virtual brid, like a pontoon bridge that is often constructed when a flood has destroyed major bridges.

I think many people in the Northern countries view the radio as a source of entertainment and do not consider it as a major way to educate. In their part of the globe, for example, TV and other electronic media have upstaged the radio waves. That view must be changed, because radio can serve as an important temporary bridge across the digital divide. This would provide the major powers with enough time to develop sturdier, more permanent, bridges. This could help to ensure that people in developing areas, no matter how remote, would have easy access to the information highway that people elsewhere are presently enjoying.


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