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Price of Monopoly and Democracy

Shrinking the digital divide, the gap between those people with effective access to information technology and those without, worldwide has been on the table of activists, NGOs and governments for years now, and the UN has devoted a global conference on this issue, the World Summit on the Information Society, with the goal to “bridge the so-called global digital divide separating rich countries from poor countries by spreading access to the Internet in the developing world.”(0) The UN states in the Millennium Development Goals Report of 2006 that by the end of 2004 the digital divide is still a grim reality at large. By 2004, merely 14% of the world’s population were using the internet with the following large digital divide apparent:

  • over half the population in developed regions had access to the internet,
  • 7% in developing regions, and
  • less than 1% in the fifty least developed countries.
  • broadcastSubscribers2006

    In 2008, the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) reports that only 3% of the Sub Saharan Africans are online. However there has been tremendous growth in technology with the hope that these developments will eventually benefit everyone. To believe that such eventual global reach will occur without planning or analyzing and addressing existing (political and infrastructural) issues, would be naively optimistic! Although decreasing the digital gap is desperately needed for social, political and economic development, merely improving access to Information is not sufficient in my opinion.

    Equitable access to communication for everyone should also mandate affordability. In 2007, Wired magazine reported that, “only about 3 percent of the world’s population has broadband, and prices vary wildly. In Japan, DSL or cable averages 6 cents per 100 Kbps … But in Kenya, that same hookup speed costs $86.11.” In this regard, the ITU notes that in Africa, “the scarcity of international Internet bandwidth and lack of Internet Exchange Points (IXPs) drives up prices. Africa, the poorest region in the world, has the most expensive Internet prices. The average monthly Internet subscription is almost USD 50 in Africa, close to 70 per cent of average per capita income.”

    The APC (Association for Progressive Communications) lists lack of competition in developing telecommunication markets as the main cause of the high prices (1,2). In some African states, satellite internet rates of around $10-15000 per Mb per second per month have been reported while the actual cost incurred to the operator is around $2000. More recently, the development of fibre broadband networks connecting West, Southern, and Eastern Africa is very encouraging. It promises higher data transmit rates, faster transmission and hopefully cheaper prices. However, without competition for the states of companies that have monopolies in the African market, the prices will not be accessible to the majority of the public(3,4). This need for further competition to drive down the broadband prices isn’t unique to Africa. According to GlobalVoices, Ecuador, Bolivia, Chile, Venezuela, Colombia, Argentina, and Peru (in decreasing order) also suffer from high Internet access fees.
    So, the situation is prevalent in developing countries and any meaningful remedy will not happen over night. On the other hand, we can not afford to neglect discussing issues, existing shortcomings, and devise solutions as any meaningful improvement in democracy (or simply the living conditions of millions) will depend on hearing the voice of millions who may not (or simply can’t afford to) have access to the most connected network of Information. After all, as Yochai Benkler notes in The Wealth of Networks, “the networked information economy improves justice from the perspective of every single one of … theories of justice.”

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