Digital divide remains glaring in Asia despite growth in mobile telephones

Despite significant progress Asia and the Pacific has made in utilizing information and communication technology (ICT), such as with the rapid growth of mobile phone subscriptions, a significant disparity still remains in access to the Internet between high-income and low-income countries.

How to overcome this “digital divide” is the focus of a meeting being held in Bangkok by the United Nations’ regional arm – the Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP). The two-day meeting, which opened on Tuesday, has gathered ICT experts from governments, the academia, UN and other international agencies, and the private sector including from Microsoft.

A study by ESCAP shows that both phone and Internet use has increased over the last five years in the Asia-Pacific region since the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) was first held in 2003. For example, the number of mobile phone subscribers has increased by nearly 70 times in South Asia between 2000 and 2007, and by over 40 times in Central Asia. In Southeast Asia , which has a relatively more developed market, the number of subscribers still grew by about 10 times. Yet, the growth is the fastest in the poorest countries in the region. The least developed countries in the region as a group has seen their mobile phone users increased by close to 80 times.

By contrast, the gap between rich and poor nations in Internet access has widened over the same period of time. At the top end, the most connected five countries – New Zealand , Japan , Republic of Korea , Singapore and Malaysia – have between 55 per cent to 80 per cent of their populations with access to the Internet by 2007.

For the bottom five – Myanmar , Timor-Leste , Tajikistan , Bangladesh and Cambodia – less than one per cent of the population uses the Internet. The average for the Asia-Pacific region is 20 per cent.

The expert group meeting, WSIS+5 and Emerging Issues in Asia and the Pacific, is intended as a platform to discuss technical aspects of ICT development and solicit expert views on key issues - such as problems with infrastructure - which need to be addressed at the regional level. It covers four broad topics:

-The current status of ICT and the implementation of the WSIS Plan of Action in the Asia-Pacific region, including the key challenges facing the region in developing an inclusive and development-oriented Information Society.

-Capacity building and sharing of successful experiences.

-The integration of ICT in effective disaster risk reduction programmes, for example, by providing technical solutions such as region-wide early warning systems, and better communications systems to assist with disaster recovery.

-Key emerging issues that are standing in the way ICT connectivity in developing nations, and building an understanding why the region has been slow in expanding access to the unconnected and under-serviced areas.

Among the speakers will be representatives from Sri Lanka, India, Laos, Malaysia, Japan, Russia, Nepal, and the Republic of Korea, as well as from ESCAP, United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, Food and Agriculture Organization, International Telecommunication Union, United Nations Education, Science and Cultural Organization, Asian Development Bank, Pacific Island Forum Secretariat, and Microsoft.

The recommendations of the meeting will be presented to the member states of ESCAP at its Committee on ICT which will hold its session from 19 to 21 November in Bangkok .