Giving the inhabitants of some of the poorest countries on earth access to TV and the internet are seen as being the most effective ways of improving their lives. Children are given the opportunity to receive a higher quality of education, and through social media sites interact with their counterparts in the next town, village or continent. Local businesses have the ability to contact and interact with companies and consumers around the world, giving them previously unimaginable access to international markets. In the world of travel, for instance, a combination of the internet, tablet PCs and smartphones makes it possible for a family-run hotel on the Skeleton Coast of Namibia to advertise its presence to potential clients surfing the internet while sitting on a bench in Central Park.
The basic requirements of the technological age are a reliable source of electricity and mobile telephony, TV and broadband networks. In the remotest rural communities and the poorest countries of all, often referred to as the fourth world, even the most rudimentary of infrastructures remain unavailable. Independent Non-Governmental Organizations (INGOs) and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) are working alongside governments to provide such facilities, but while devices such as mobile phones and PCs are relatively cheap, installing power systems, whether in the form of wind and hydroelectric turbines or petrol/diesel generators is often prohibitively expensive. Similarly, persuading TV, mobile phone and broadband network providers to invest in areas where their return on investment is questionable can be problematical.
In regions where infrastructure issues have been overcome, the pace of development is rapid. The digital divide is being narrowed as millions more children every year are able to reap the benefits offered by ICT. For example, a UNICEF survey carried out in Vietnam reported that 40% of youngsters living in rural areas of the country accessed the internet as part of their educational development and 34% sent text messages relating to school issues; in towns and cities, these figures rose to 62% and 57% respectively.
In war-torn Afghanistan, a collaborative venture between entrepreneur and philanthropist, Ehsanollah Bayat’s Telephone Systems International and the Afghan Ministry of Communications led to the formation of the Afghan Wireless Company in 2002. The consortium has been instrumental in establishing a mobile telephone network covering all regions of the country and currently serves over 4 million customers. Ehsanollah Bayat, an Afghan national, left his country in the 1980s to study in the USA at the New Jersey Institute of Technology. Having gained a BSc in Engineering Technology, he moved to Florida, where he founded Telephone Systems International in 1998; he returned to Afghanistan in 2001.
In many developing countries, it is impractical for traditional, land-based telephone networks to be developed. The terrain in desert and mountainous regions makes it virtually impossible and prohibitively expensive. Fortunately, mobile networks, though still not cheap, offer a practical alternative in such regions; this, along with a ready supply of simple cellphones has made it possible to connect the inhabitants of even the remotest communities to the outside world.
Today, while much remains to be done in order to bring the benefits of ICT to the world’s poorest and remotest regions, significant steps have already been taken. In the future this process is certain to accelerate, aided by the efforts of national governments, UNESCO, charities and the voluntary assistance of multinational companies in the communications sector.