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Wiring the world wirelessly

18 August 2009 Inderscience

The rapid expansion of the use of the mobile phone raises hopes that the digital divide might be bridged sooner rather than later, according to a study published this month in the International Journal of Electronic Security and Digital Forensics.

Nominally, the digital divide affects the world's poorest people and was identified as a problem in the 1990s. It has become more apparent as those people who are connected recognise the increasing benefits of online services, the web, and mobile communications. However, by marginalising those people and dividing the world into the connected and the unconnected we could missing endless opportunities that would arise if we had universal connectivity across the globe.

According to Elias Pimenidis of the University of East London, UK, e-government services built to serve low-income citizens fail to reach those most in need. One way to address this problem might be through the advent of inexpensive mobile networks. Such systems could make useful services available securely even to those in poor, rural areas where there is no prospect of computer access.

"Since the turn of the 21st century the digital divide has been the subject of many debates, large and high profile initiatives by the United Nations, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund," Pimenidis and colleagues in the Informatics Laboratory, at Agricultural University of Athens, Athens, Greece, explain in their report. "Yet, progress in bridging the gap, to date, has been very slow."

While some parts of the world enjoy enviable high-speed broadband connections, many rural areas are heavily exposed to the digital divide, with very limited, and often no internet connectivity. For many poor areas in the developed world, this problem could be eradicated through the use of telephone landlines where available, but for the so-called developing world, there are few landlines, particularly in rural sub-Saharan Africa and Asia.

However, even in poor areas, mobile devices, specifically mobile phones, are now familiar to a large proportion of the world's population and ownership and access is rising rapidly. "The use of the mobile phone has surpassed the availability and use of landlines and is continuing to expand at a much more rapid pace," Pimenidis explains, "This makes it the obvious choice as a point of access to the internet and e-services for areas that have so far been digitally marginalised."

He and his colleagues have investigated the potential for implementing applications and services through proven secure and trusted environments for large numbers of people across the globe. It is, the team says, now, "up to the individual governments and international organisations to promote such telecommunications networks and electronic services to help these marginalised populations to reap some of the benefits of the digital world as it is shaping in the 21st century."

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