REDMOND, Wash., Dec. 14, 2000 — Information technology’s benefits to society are undeniable. It has transformed the way people learn, work and play, creating new and previously unimagined opportunities for countless numbers of people. Yet, we are still a long way from bringing these benefits to the majority of people on the globe. Currently, only about five percent of the world population has access to personal computers, whereas media such as TV and radio routinely reach nearly three-quarters of the world’s people.
“Information technology is not a magic formula that is going to solve all our problems,” said Kofi Annan, secretary-general of the United Nations. “But it is a wonderful tool that can help liberate the poor and empower them.”
At the fifth annual United Nations World Television Forum held last month, government and television industry leaders and experts from every part of the world discussed the role television can and should play in helping to bridge the digital divide. Approximately 80 distinguished speakers participated in the event, including Annan; Harri Holkeri, president of the United Nations General Assembly; Makarim Wibisono, president of the United Nations Economic and Social Council; and Jon DeVaan, Microsoft senior vice president, TV Division.
“By informing and explaining, you can make people aware of the potential offered by the digital revolution,” Annan said to the senior representatives of traditional and new media, academia, civil society and governments around the world. “Those who most need the opportunities IT offers are at present the people who know least about them.”
DeVaan concurred, pointing out that in the United States and certain parts of Asia, household penetration by the PC has risen above 50 percent. However, that number is as low as 14 percent in Eastern European countries and well below 10 percent in most developing nations. Many people in the world cannot afford a personal computer, nor do they have access to one. So how can those people derive the same benefits from the Internet — a vast resource of information for learning and communication — as those who have easy access to PCs?
Television is an obvious answer. It is one of the most ubiquitous devices in the home today, DeVaan said, with roughly 1.5 billion TV sets in homes around the world. Compare that to the 400 million PCs in households worldwide, and the solution seems clear.
“When we talk about the digital divide, it’s critical to understand the importance of the Internet as a medium for breaking through the geographical, technological and socio-economic barriers of the world,” DeVaan said. “Building a truly global infrastructure with internationally supported, open standards should be our first priority … Microsoft has looked at this problem for some time and is actively pursuing ways to bring technology and Internet access to communities around the world.”
DeVaan explained that last year in China Microsoft introduced the Venus Computer, a low-cost device that connects the average TV to the Internet and also performs PC-like functions such as word processing, spreadsheets and gaming. The cost equaled roughly $180 U.S.
In the United States, Microsoft WebTV also brings the power and richness of the Internet to the TV set. By providing Internet access through a regular television set, information and communication are more accessible to those without personal computers. DeVaan spoke of children of migrant families in Florida whose education was often disruptive and inconsistent due to the families’ need to move from place to place to find work. In Miami-Dade County, the local public school district, Barry University and Microsoft worked together to provide Microsoft WebTV to those migrant families. With a television and a telephone, the students had access to a teaching staff dedicated to their needs as well as a consistent curriculum.
At the U.N. Forum, Annan also announced the establishment of an International Task Force, bringing together development institutions, private industry and foundations to help devise a strategy for information technology development, and to provide overall leadership on these issues.
“Once certain basic conditions are in place, new information technology does have enormous potential to promote economic growth and to help eradicate poverty,” Annan said.
Microsoft Chairman and Chief Software Architect Bill Gates expressed similar sentiments earlier this year at the Digital Dividends Conference in Seattle: “The fundamental benefits of having a tool like this — 99 percent of the benefits come when you’ve provided reasonable health and literacy to the person who is going to sit down and use it.”
“Helping people gain easy and cost-effective access to the amazing resources of the Internet is perhaps the single biggest thing we can all do to bridge the digital divide,” DeVaan said. “By enabling people to access the Internet using the ubiquitous TV — whether for education, communication, or just as a gateway to a larger world — we will ensure that one more barrier to participation in the global information revolution will come down.”