Digital Divide in Europe

 The European Union has taken a serious position on trying to prevent digital divide from separating its people into first and second class citizens.   EU aims to be a leader in “shaping and participating in the global knowledge and information based economy”.  (Information Society 

European Union information society goals are achieve through research and development, regulation and standards for competition, and citizen participation through applications and content.  Broadband access to the internet is considered a prerequisite to achieving information society, because of its potential in improved productivity, health, education, government services, etc.  EU’s information society strategy is called the i2010 Initiative  - it aims to be inclusive regardless of geography, social, or economic status.  The public services are to be improved through better and more equal access.  Job growth is geared toward sustainability and quality of life.  Regulation is in place to ensure fair competition. 

Broadband internet access is identified as key in fighting digital divide within the European Union.  By 2005 20% of EU households had broadband.  In the last two+ years the number has increased quite a bit, but I don’t have the latest statisics handy.  There are still huge gaps between urban and rural areas, and that needs to be addressed through public intervention, because commercial investments have not been sufficient.  The EU states that public intervention must be done in a way that does not “distort competition”. 

Having traveled to Europe several times over the past fifteen years I have seen the rapid development and growth of digital technology in Europe.  In the 90’s it seemed that the United States was ahead in the development of the “information super highway”, as Al Gore put it.  Lots of exciting new innovations came out of Silicon Valley, Seattle and elsewhere.  But since the 90’s Europe seems to have gone ahead with innovative new technology, broadband, and internet usage.  There are still large gaps between Western Europe (the “old” EU) and the new members in Eastern Europe, such as Bulgaria and Romania.   

I am in Finland as I’m writing this essay and I see the quick changes taking place.  I was here last summer and it seems like since then so much has moved forward.  Now the trend is to go fully wireless, with new 3G networks and fast connections.  No more landlines!  Finland is ahead of most of Europe in broadband usage and mobile telephone markets.  Nokia is a huge factor in this development: when I was a child growing up in Finland, Nokia was known for its rubber boots, tires and TV’s.  Its success in the mobile technology has brought the whole nation to the cutting edge of technology.  See Finnish statistics HERE 

Being European myself I find the EU’s declarations comforting and reassuring.  I believe in fairness and equality for all citizens regardless of wealth or educational background.  Leveling the playing field gives more people a chance to achieve better quality of life, and societies more peaceful opportunities to develop.  It’s collective “we”, rather than individualistic “me” -type of thinking.  I like it. 

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Vonage and Speakeasy

Vonage is available in my area in Richmond Beach and it would cost me $24.99 per month if I signed up. I would also need a router which they sell for $9.99 after instant rebate ($79.99 original price.) International calls to Europe are about 1c per minute, which would be appealing if I wasn’t already using Skype. There’s “a good chance” that I could keep my old phone number – I still have a land line telephone, although when my daughter gets her first cell phone when she turns 11 in June, I think we’re going to get rid of the land line finally.

I checked Speakeasy but it seems to be more business-oriented. I could not find out if I could get service at Richmond Beach without giving my phone number to Speakeasy, and I was not willing to do that. The international calling rate to Europe was 6c per minute. I could find a monthly fee of $ 83 to $107 depending on internet plan. Sounds expensive but it includes your internet access. Speakeasy would provide a phone adapter, all you need is a phone.

This exercise was pretty easy to do but I was not willing to give my information to Speakeasy because I do not want their advertising. I don’t believe I would sign up for either because I have a cell phone, land line and Skype. That is all I need/want right now.

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Group Project: Use of New Technology

My task was to study six different newspaper/news websites: The Atlanta Journal Constitution (http://www.ajc.com/), Houston Chronicle (http://www.chron.com/), LA Opinion (http://www.laopinion.com), Seattle Post Intelligencer (http://seattlepi.nwsource.com/), St. Petersburg Times (http://www.tampabay.com/) and the CBS News (http://www.cbsnews.com/). All of them were reasonably well equipped with new technology such as video, RSS feed etc. but only the Seattle PI offered citizen blogs. I was most impressed by the Seattle PI in other ways too: it was well organized and had the feel of a large, diverse market. It was a bit tricky to navigate back to the home page though – it does not say ‘Home’ anywhere; you have to click on the PI icon.

Atlanta Journal-Constitution seemed too sports-focused for my taste. The Houston Chronicle had a pretty good front page, although a bit busy.  CBS News felt entirely different from the rest because it is not based on a newspaper but a TV news show.  Its website was full of multimedia stories.  LA Opinion had the most “small-market” feel.  Its website did not feel as well organized or hard-news oriented.  Of course, I could only read the English portions of it.

As the news organizations’ websites mature and establish themselves in the media market I think that they will overtake TV’s dominance because they are “on demand” – based.  People want to choose when and what they watch and read.  /Online access gives them freedom from time and space restrictions, and also opportunities to give feedback that they did not have during TV’s reign.

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Telephony Over the Internet

My mother had been talking to me about getting Skype for at least a year before we both finally did it.  She lives in Europe and our phone bills used to be big due to all the long-distance phone calls back and forth over the years.  She had heard about Skype from her friends who use it and told her how wonderful it was and cheap (free).  Now I’ve been using Skype for almost two years and absolutely love it.  I can turn on the camera if I want to and the sound is better than on a regular phone.

It is amazing how quickly everything seems to change and evolve with computers.  I cannot keep up with all the changes (I would have to take a class like this one every six months to stay on top).   But I do love all the new ways of communicating that make our lives easier at least on some level.

Phone companies are probably pulling out their (virtual) hair as they watch their customers switching to Voice over Internet Protocol and stop using their landlines and traditionl phones altogether.  Even cell phones can adopt VoIP.  But there is no stopping new inventions as we have seen with the telegraph and computers.  The phone companies must respond to the changes and hop on the bandwagon or lose their business.

Questions:

1) What will happen to the traditional phone companies when there are no more land lines and analog phones?  How will they re-create themselves?

2) How vulnerable will we be as a society when we all depend on digitized means of communication at every level?  (Energy, security, transportation, communications, etc.)  How can we better protect ourselves from sabotage?

3)  When will those who have resisted getting a cell phone give in and get one, or will they skip that phase altogether and just get a Skype phone?   Or if they don’t want mobility how will they make phone calls when there will no more be public phone booths?

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Invest in Education

If I were a leader of a developing country and I had to choose where to invest our limited resources, I would definitely choose education over just about any other investment.  And to be even more specific, I would invest in the education of girls first.  Studies have shown that when girls get educated it affects poverty and birth rates of a nation favorably, and when women learn marketable skills the whole family benefits.  Microcredit loans are a good example of this.  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Microcredit

Of course, if my nation was lacking the most basic infrastructure, such as clean water or food, I would have to start there, but once the basics were in place (that includes peace) I’d invest in education.  Internet access would be closely tied to the educational process – but one has to know how to read and write before the internet is of much use.

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Wireless Access Eradicates Poverty?

The United Nations, the World Bank and the IMF have for years tried to figure out how to eradicate poverty within the poor, developing nations, with very little success. One could analyze the reasons behind their lack of success, such as Western, biased attitudes about what is considered progress, or lack of sensitivity about the developing nations unique cultures, or just plain old colonialism at work. But the desire to help and to change the dynamic of “North vs. South” has been there and seems even more urgent now with the threat of climate change and terrorism affecting us all at global scale. Poverty drives deforestation, overpopulation and extremism.

Many poor nations around the world have never been able to build the infrastructure needed for modern lifestyles with telephony, cable networks, or even reliable transportation and roads. With the development of wireless networks for phones and the internet many poor countries are deciding to forgo building the expensive infrastructure altogether and jump into the 21st century with wireless technology.

According to Michael Best’s article “The Wireless Revolution and Universal Access” internet access is critical to the financial sustainability of poor, rural areas of the world. Wireless access is a lot cheaper that building the expensive infrastructure that we, in the West, have been construction for many decades (or perhaps centuries). Financial sustainability is key for climbing out of poverty and for ecological sustainability.

Because of the utter poverty in many developing nations, especially in rural areas, it is important for all citizens to have universal access to the internet and for governments to enable that through favorable taxation, regulation and education. Accessibility breeds innovation and creativity, and allows people to find ways to support their families through entrepreneurial ideas and better access to local markets. According to Michael Best universal access will pay for itself quickly through new innovations and business created by it.

The bottoms-up approach Michael Best writes about is good for poor, rural communities and it’s good for democratic ideals and the spread of peaceful, more tolerant politics. It may not be good for tyrants, one-party rulers, or religious fanatics.

Questions:

1) How is the dynamic between the “rich North” and the “poor South” going to change given wireless internet technology, rising China, India, Brazil and others, in the next 25 years?

2)  How do you think “favorable” taxation and regulation can help ensure that the poor have access to the internet or do you think that the government should stay out of it entirely and let the free markets decide? 

3)  Will universal internet access affect and spread democracy around the world or will it just make consumers out of everyone?

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Use of Multimedia on News Websites

This is part II of my analysis of various news websites. I completed the final three today just to get them out of the way and to get a better idea of all of them together. All the websites use at least some multimedia: video, podcasts, photos etc. Some did not offer podcasts but all had video and photos. The video usage adds to newsworthiness, although sometimes serves only the curiosity-side of the mind (just like TV news/infotainment).

I liked the Seattle PI website the best of the six I researched (perhaps my local bias, although I mostly read the Seattle Times website for local news). The PI offered most news, RSS feed, interactivity, reader blogs etc. The Atlanta Journal Constitution, St. Petersburg Times and LA Opinion seemed less dynamic, and more narrowly focused on their news. AJC (Atlanta) was the most entertainment-oriented and “fluffy”. All the “southern” (AJC, Houston Chronicle and St. Petersburg Times) papers were very sports-focused.

CBS News website was different because it’s not based on a newspaper but TV news. So one expects much more multimedia use. The website offered lots of video and podcasts, but it was not well-organized for feedback or editorials and opinion.

Some websites offered a huge number of RSS feeds (Seattle PI and AJC) and others hardly any or they were difficult to find.

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