Common Ground Elusive as Technology:


By Katie Hafner

New York Times
July 8, 1999

San Jose, Calif. -- For the average Internet user in the United States, life is a never-ending stream of dilemmas: Upgrade now or later. Order I.S.D.N. or wait for cable modem service to arrive. Buy the Palm V organizer or go with the one that connects to the Web. Check e-mail while on vacation or leave the laptop at home. But a conference held here in June underscored a very different reality: in many corners of the world, there are dozens of developing countries where widespread access to the Internet -- of any kind -- remains a distant possibility.

While it is true that some of the earth's most remote places are now linked to the Net -- one recent addition is Bhutan, a small kingdom in the Himalayas, which inaugurated its first Internet link last month -- there are still no connections at all in Iraq, North Korea and a handful of African countries. In many countries that have Internet connections, Net access is concentrated in the largest cities and is prohibitively expensive when set against an individual's typical income. That expense largely restricts the use of the Internet to an elite, mostly made up of foreigners, government workers and business people. And in some cases, government censors put the Internet out of reach for most people in their countries.

The conference here, called INET 99, was the annual meeting of the Internet Society, a nonprofit group that coordinates Internet-related projects around the world and has the motto "Internet Is for Everyone." Each year, the group holds a three-day conference; previous locations have included Prague, Montreal, Geneva and Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. This year, 1,600 network administrators, academics and business people gathered at the gleaming, cavernous San Jose Convention Center in the heart of Silicon Valley. That backdrop accentuated the fast-paced, high-risk, moneyed world of high technology, a world very far away from the everyday experiences of the people attending from developing nations.

Many people at the conference, from places like Japan, Germany, Finland and the Netherlands, were sophisticated Internet users, concerned with cutting-edge technical issues. But many others were from countries where Internet connections are available to only a privileged few. "It created a sort of schizophrenia," said Will Foster, a research assistant at the University of Arizona in Tucson who attended the conference. "The presentations by Ebay and E*trade highlighted the tension between the go-go growth of Internet start-up companies in Silicon Valley and the realities of Internet connectivity in countries like Cameroon."

Each year, a workshop is held for a week preceding the conference; this year, 143 people from 66 developing nations attended. It is aimed at sending participants home with additional technical and administrative skills for running networks. Those accepted for the workshop -- 570 people applied -- have basic technical skills. "They also have to have leverage within their organization, and the organization has to have leverage in the country -- for example, someone running networking for the major university in the country or within the P.T.T.," said George Sadowsky, the Internet Society's vice president for education, referring to the shorthand used for many countries' national telecommunications providers.

The demographics of the workshop shift each year, as telecommunications needs change across the world. The first workshop, in 1993, had a large contingent of Eastern Europeans. This year, more than half of the participants were from Africa, which accounted for about 13 percent of the world's population but just 1 percent of the world's Internet users as of the end of March, according to data from Mike Jensen, a consultant with the Association for Progressive Communications, a nonprofit group based in Johannesburg. Excluding South Africa (where 1 in every 177 people uses the Internet), for every 4,123 Africans, there is just 1 person who uses the Internet, according to Jensen's figures.

Wawa A. Ngenge, the national coordinator for the Sustainable Development Networking Program in Cameroon, said his country got its first Internet connection in 1997. Internet service providers there pay the national phone company $3,000 per month for a 64-kilobits-per-second line, which is not much faster than the fastest dial-up modem; such slow speeds are common in developing countries and mean that I.S.P. customers must put up with very slow speeds. Just 15,000 people out of 15 million have Internet access, all of it concentrated in the capital, Yaounde. Using the Internet costs about $3 per hour in Cameroon, a country where the average civil servant makes about $200 a month, Dr. Ngenge said.

One thing slowing the Internet's spread in developing countries is the fact that many governments there enjoy a telephone monopoly. Dr. Sadowsky said such governments feared that the Internet might reduce the revenue from international telephone calls and faxes. "Telecommunications rates are extraordinarily high," Dr. Sadowsky said. "In the worst case, the P.T.T. provides one-fifth of a country's G.N.P. Part of our work is in convincing countries that if you ignore the Internet, you'll keep your telephone revenues the same, but you'll pay in opportunity cost, in terms of economic and social development."

Once the main conference began, those who had attended the workshop found little use for the general sessions, many of which focused on state-of-the-art wireless communications, E-commerce, venture capital and the development of Internet II. After a panelist at one session mentioned that 40 percent of all venture money was invested within a 40-mile radius of where he was sitting, a member of the audience asked about the prospects for venture capital investments in the developing world. "Remember, we're technology investors," the panelist answered politely. "They're so far away from us," Dr. Ngenge said of conference participants from wealthier countries. "We're worrying about two different sets of problems."

One prominent set of problems is, of course, political. In Laos, for instance, the Communist government considers the Internet a destabilizing influence because of the free flow of information associated with the Web and keeps connections scarce, said Paula Uimonen, a Swedish researcher in Geneva who is studying the Internet in Laos and presented a paper at the conference. "It's obvious that it's a lack of political willingness," she said. In some countries, users who can connect to the Internet sometimes find that access to certain sites is blocked, according to Human Rights Watch. The group said that some Mideast countries, for example, blocked access to political sites under the guise of protecting users from pornography.

Laos has had e-mail since late 1994, Ms. Uimonen said, and got its first I.S.P. last year. There are 1,000 Internet users, most of whom are foreigners. There are two cybercafes in the capital, Vientiane, but Laotians are not allowed in. The connection of Myanmar, formerly Burma, to the Internet remains similarly tenuous. All modems must be registered with the government, which is run by the military, Dr. Sadowsky said. Neither Laos nor Myanmar had representatives at the conference.

Immigration policies can make it hard for people to get to the conference. Two Cubans were invited to participate in the workshop, but one was not given a visa and because of that, the other stayed home. A person from Sudan was registered for the conference and had a visa but was detained by the Immigration and Naturalization Service in New York, then sent back to Sudan.

A 24-year-old network administrator from Hanoi named Tuan Bui Anh arrived in California without incident. He said Vietnam got its first Internet connection in late 1997. Before that, computer users could send e-mail but could not go out on the Web. Net Nam, the main I.S.P., and four other service providers have connections concentrated in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City.

E-commerce has yet to make an impression in places like Vietnam, where few people have credit cards. Following a keynote speech given by Meg Whitman, chief executive of the Ebay auction site, Tuan seemed a bit bewildered. "I think this is for the Americans only," he said.

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