Third World struggles to get into the world wide web

In theory, the Internet’s ability to bypass borders and inter-weave world cultures was going to shrink the globe.

In reality, Third World countries, faced with poverty, illiteracy, politics and lack of adequate communication infrastructure are having to show remarkable dexterity to eke out a place on the Internet.

The hard, and perhaps unsurprising, truth is that despite some amazing end-runs by poorer countries, experts say the gap between plugged-in and shut-out is widening every bit as fast as the gap between rich and poor.

With only two per cent of the global population on line, according to United Nations figures, the Internet in 1999 is still more of a golden thread connecting the most privileged global classes than a true World Wide Web.

“You’ll find people in developing countries doing incredible things with their fingernails, scratching out access,” said Raul Zambrano, information technology specialist for the UN development project. ``But while this is wonderful, the gap between the haves and have-nots is widening.” The efforts by Third World countries, however, go largely unnoticed. Most analysts who cover technology in the United States do not cover places like Goma, a city in the Democratic Republic of Congo that relies on Uganda for its link to the Net. Nor do many watch Haiti, the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, a country that has less than one phone line for every 100 people. Electricity is only available in urban areas, and then for only a couple of hours per day. The average per capita income is $250 per year.

Yet the first site to be entirely written in Haitian Creole came online earlier this month, built in an office in downtown Port-au-Prince that has had to turn to solar power to fuel its operations.

``We have to use solar power and batteries and generators because there is no electricity most of the time,” Patrice Talleyrand, who creates content for the Web site, said in a telephone interview. ``We have to be a little creative.”

The site features discussion groups, Voodoo links and surveys Although the site is in Creole, it can be switched to English. New York-based is trying to form a network of such Web sites for underserved nations, on the view that eventually, profits will come from even these markets. . ``Eventually, the Internet is going to become more important in these countries, and it is an advantage to be one of the first ones to be involved,” said Phil Ingram, international marketing manager for

Having Web sites on the Internet is only half the battle. The real challenge is to provide access nationally in a country with very little infrastructure, said Mr Talleyrand. ``The telephone company here in Haiti sees Internet service providers as competition,” he said. ``They keep cutting their phone lines,” he added. Some Haitians are now using wireless connections and radio modems to connect to the service providers, also known as ISPs.

``It’s amazing, the things they do down there is like something out of MacGyver,” said Mr Ingram, referring to an American television show about an agent who was able to construct gadgets. —Reuters

Source: Nicole Volpe The Economic Times August 18, 1999.