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The disparity between rich and poor countries in terms of "teledensity" number of main telephone lines per inhabitants has hardly changed in the last decade. In most developing countries the vast majority of the populations still live in rural areas 2. Yet, teledensity in rural areas in these countries is about 10 times less than in urban areas.
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Typically, more than 75 percent of rural localities have no access at all to even basic telephone service. The investment required to reach an average teledensity of just 1 percent in rural areas in developing countries represents a market of hundreds of billions of United States dollars. According to the World Bank, 71 percent of the total population in the developing world lives in rural areas. The distinction between "developing" and "developed" nations is somewhat misleading and tends to perpetuate the image of the world as composed of one group of rich "donor" countries and another, larger group of poor and passive "recipient" countries.
In fact, some "developing" countries, particularly in Asia-Pacific and in Latin America, are catching up quickly with the so-called "developed" countries. These emerging economies are leapfrogging technology. Some of them are, for example, building telecommunication networks that are capable of handling more advanced services than some of the existing networks in rural and remote areas of "developed" countries. At the other end of the scale, many of the poorest countries, particularly in Africa, are essentially rural and "remote" from a geo-political-economic perspective.
At the same time, in the industrialized countries, problems of social, economic and geographical exclusion and isolation are growing, at least partly due to the increasingly global competitive environment.
And how about the countries in the former Soviet Union: are they "developing" or "developed"? To divide the world into "developing" and "developed" nations hides the fact that in most poor countries there are also groups of affluent and wealthy people, who form part of global web of people with similar living standards and united by common economic interest and often similar educational background.
For such people, geographical distance is not a serious obstacle to communicating and meeting with each other. In contrast, geographically and socially isolated and impoverished groups, which exist also in industrialized nations, usually neither communicate with nor meet with anyone outside of their immediate neighbourhood. The problems of providing education and health care and creating employment opportunities for such isolated groups are therefore universal, even if their magnitude varies greatly among different countries. Indeed, the relevance of the very concept of "nation," often artificially created by arbitrarily drawing border lines on a map, may be questioned in today's changing global environment.
Most governments do not have an economic power matching that of large transnational companies and are unable to control the global flow of capital, which often affects the development of nations more than political decisions. The problems faced by the "developed" nations are therefore not that different from those faced by the "developing" countries, and both worlds would benefit from cooperation and competition on more equal terms.
Globalisation and telecommunications
In particular, many of the telematics research and development programmes for balanced, regional development within industrialized countries may be relevant for rural and impoverished urban areas in low-income countries. Providing they have an adequate telecommunication infrastructure, poor countries could benefit, at marginal cost, from telematics products and resources developed by such programmes, particularly for distance education and health care.
Does a hungry, homeless or sick person ask for a telephone? Obviously not. He or she asks for food, shelter and medicine. Meeting such basic needs naturally becomes the first priority, and few governments of poor countries, which are facing more or less permanent crisis situations, feel that telecommunication development in rural areas is something they can afford to worry about. However, timely provision of food, medicine and health care, particularly for rescue and relief operations in disaster situations, depends heavily on the availability of telecommunications.
Pictures of starving, sick and dying people in poor countries, brought into the living rooms of people in wealthy countries, are powerful means of persuading them to contribute to humanitarian assistance. However, TV and other mass media could not fulfil their important mission of shaping public opinion and mobilizing resources for assistance without telecommunications. Moreover, the human sufferings caused by natural disasters could in many cases be avoided or at least reduced by means of telecommunication applications for remote sensing, telemetry, meteorology and early warning systems.
Humanitarian assistance, albeit necessary, is a short-term remedy and does not improve the living conditions of the poor in a longer perspective. Today, the need for sustainable, ecologically sound development and a more equitable distribution of the world's resources is widely recognized and made more obvious to people in the wealthy countries by the accelerating migrations from poor to rich countries.
The vital importance of telecommunications for economic, social and cultural development is clearly established. Telecommunications plays a crucial role in today's information society. Telecommunications and information technology IT presently account for more than 5 percent of the GDP globally, and much more in industrialized countries. This dynamic sector generates new business opportunities and jobs, not least in rural and remote areas.
While many large telecommunication operators and hardware manufacturers have in the last few years reduced drastically their work force, there are now in the USA, for example, more jobs in the information sector computer software, data processing and information retrieval than in the production of motor vehicles and parts.
Telecommunications and the City
Are the "information super highways" perhaps becoming a more important part of the infrastructure than ordinary highways? It is widely recognized that merely reducing the trade barriers between developing and industrialized countries would transfer far more resources from the rich to the poor countries than all the money spent on "official development assistance". Some progress towards the elimination of trade barriers was achieved by the recent GATT agreement, and the newly created World Trade Organization will certainly continue to pursue this objective.
Truly global trade, however, is inconceivable without adequate telecommunications in the "remote" and rural world, especially since the proliferation of computing and networking has changed the rules of business in industrialized countries. One may argue that people have been living without telecommunications for thousands of years and therefore question the utility of IT and advanced telecommunication services for often illiterate, village dwellers in developing countries, particularly since, in most cases, they cannot afford to pay the real cost of such services.
In the past, many innovations have met resistance from the elite who are the first to benefit from new technologies to make it available, at affordable prices, to ordinary people, who "were not ready for it and didn't need it". The manufacturers naturally wish to extend their markets but are usually not willing, or unable to absorb initial losses over extended periods.
Therefore, the diffusion of new technologies to deprived population strata has often involved subsidies from government or philanthropic foundations. Rural telecommunications in industrialized countries has been developed by extensive subsidies, either cross-subsidies or special low interest loans: for example, the loan provided by the Rural Electrification Programme in the USA. However, it is widely recognized that this has contributed tremendously to the social and economic development of rural and remote areas and, in many cases, to the development of new profitable markets for the telecommunication equipment and service providers.
Clearly, developing countries and regions, which are unable to keep up with the formidable development of IT and telecommunications, have not made much progress. Indeed, their living conditions have in many cases deteriorated, at least partly due to difficulties to compete in the increasingly global economy without access to IT and telematics.
The rapid development of IT and telecommunications in industrialized countries threatens to leave the developing countries even further behind, while, ironically, the information-intensive service sector is a sector where developing countries could compete successfully with advanced countries.
This is evidenced, for example, by the increasing number of information processing jobs, outsourced by transnational companies to developing countries, but only to localities where adequate telecommunications are available! Of course, investment in telecommunications development must be weighted against needs of investment in other parts of the infrastructure, such as roads, railways, water supply and electrification.
When doing this, it should be born in mind that information is not only a non-polluting, renewable, but continuously growing resource.
Telecommunications and the city : electronic spaces, urban places - Ghent University Library
Today, information is increasing exponentially at a tremendous speed; instant contacts between millions of people through computer networks trigger chain reactions, not unlike nuclear reactions. Access to this global resource is becoming the driving energy of development, and is as important as access to roads and to electrical power.
IT and global telecommunication and computer networks will have the same, if not greater, impact on society, as the invention of electricity. In the rich world it will soon become as cheap and easy to plug into the global information resource when one needs to know something or wishes to share knowledge with someone, as it is to connect to and use electrical power to shave or vacuum.
Moreover, telecommunications may be considered as the "infrastructure of the infrastructure", as it provides tools for the development and efficient use of other parts of the infrastructure. In urban areas there are usually long waiting lists of people who want a telephone, mainly for business, social and security reasons.
There is also a large potential market for advanced telematics services needed by businesses, research institutes and public services. Large national and transnational companies, including banks, with facilities in developing countries are of course well aware of the strategic value of telematics and can afford to build or lease their own networks. By contrast, small enterprises and public institutions, even in large cities in many developing countries, are only vaguely aware of the possibilities offered by advanced telematics services and often consider themselves fortunate if they have access to a telephone.
The efficiency of often inadequate public services, such as education, health care, security, transport and processing of information, records and general statistics, could be greatly enhanced by improved access to telematics services.