Actions to bridge the digital divide on the ground


A direct comparison is not easy because the projects are quite different in forms. However, since they are all dealing with the access and use of Internet, they can be compared on how they are addressing these issues. There is definitely a need for public access points, especially in places that are most likely to experience the digital divide such as poor neighbourhoods or remote areas. The market approach alone is not sufficient to bring everyone to participate in the Information Society and some initiatives are necessary to help for a wider spread of the IS. Access to Internet is the first point, without it, nothing else is possible. Public support to the extension and the sustainability of access points is also essential to reduce this digital fracture. Estonia is a good example of the development of such access points at a national level, which might succeed in reducing the domestic Digital Divide, or at least the geographical component of it. France is a different story, because even if it is catching up with other countries in terms of number of public access points to be in accordance with the eEurope action plan, it is lacking this national unity. The development of Access Points comes most of the time from local initiatives and as a result, the inequalities in access within the country are not diminishing. It seems that the government has understood the problem and decided last year to help the financing of 400 new access Internet points in rural areas (French government, 2000).

The research in the two countries shows clearly that there is not one good solution to address the digital divide but that a wide variety of actions can be brought forward. Along the development of access, necessary training is also required, first to teach new users but also to train people for the constant evolution of the new technologies.

It seems that Estonia is missing the training aspect in its initiatives and is focusing more on access. It is true that it was necessary for them to focus on access at first, but the French projects were still addressing the issue better.

Having visited Estonia, I wonder if a project like the Internet Bus would be interesting to go in remote areas of the country where new technologies are still rare. Such an initiative would be highly successful in developing countries and actually, I heard that a similar concept is now running in Senegal. It consists of a truck going into villages for around a week to enable the population to discover Internet. The Internet bus was without doubt a particular project. There is no doubt about its value when the Internet is not well known and spread, some limits in its usefulness are appearing nowadays. I think it was a good innovation three years ago, but that adjustments in its missions should be made now. Focusing more on advanced training to make people creators of contents would give another dimension to the project. Public Internet Access Points in France or Estonia are installed in public spaces, mainly in Public libraries, but what about people who are not coming to these points? The Internet bus has the potential to go everywhere, such as the monastery they went to! Therefore, this mobile unit could be an asset to reach and visit the most excluded people. The Romas for example, with their nomadic culture, could benefit from visits from the bus. More generally, the bus could be a good tool to reach particularly disadvantaged groups. The bus also revealed at the same time a weakness in France, the lack of Public Internet Access Points in small villages. This is why, a lot of young people visited the bus because they had no other way to access Internet besides Schools. The second project in France also demonstrated that there is a need for PIAPs and that they are easy to install and to run if one wants to do it.

As the Estonian example showed us, the private sector can also develop some initiatives to bring more people to Internet, especially in developing countries were the public money lacks. It can compensate a lack of governmental initiatives or accelerate them.

At the end of the day, this can only be profitable for them with better-trained people for work and more users of their products or e-services not to say anything about the publicity they gain from such actions. Big companies are well aware of that and are spending huge sums of money, such as the 's "E-Inclusion" initiative to bring Internet to poor countries (Hewlett Packard, 2000). Microsoft is also addressing the domestic digital divide in the USA; in 1995, it launched a two-year pilot program, in conjunction with the American Library Association to wire 200 public libraries in underserved urban and rural areas. This pilot program is now being expanded to libraries in every state through a partnership with the Gates Library Initiative. It is interesting to note that through their experiment, they also noticed, "that providing access isn't, by itself, enough. People also need training and technical support to ensure they get the most from technology" (Microsoft, 1999). This private initiative might also repair the weakness of the PIAPs, the lack of training.

Having studied projects in both countries, it seems to me that each country could answer the Digital Divide problem better by learning from each other. In France a national plan should be set up to insure that no region is left out of the development of PIAPs. Estonia could transform its projects to include more training in them. Another point they could improve to is to create more local contents. Most of the PIAPs do not have their own websites and it could be a good thing to create some with the users. They could develop information on their region which would be useful to people and might decide some of them to become Internet users.

I think finally that the most important lesson of this comparison is that there is an absolute necessity to work on the three aspects, access, training, and contents at the same time to promote access to Internet. I particularly appreciate the Social centre global project for that point.