Back From Africa: My Glimpse of the Digital Divide

I’ve returned to L.A. from Ghana (West Africa) and have a ton of thoughts rolling around in my head. I’ve been up since 4:30 am (the 7 hour time change is killing me) reading email and catching up on three weeks of news and blogs.

I was surprised at how little time I had to write while in Ghana, less time than I had in the three weeks before I left. That’s why this blog has been sparse recently (which I hope to make up for).

What surprised me most about doing technology work in Africa is how much we in the U.S. take broadband for granted. While in Africa I never had to use dial-up, only DSL, which runs about $60/month for 100KBps. For comparison, in the U.S. we pay around $30/month for speeds three to eight times faster and much more reliable.

Even through DSL a lot of websites were slow because of large images, animations, and ads. Not only was surfing a frustrating experience, but Gmail was virtually inaccessible from Ghana, taking 10-15 minutes for a page to load (I never figured this one out), DSL was down 3-4 hours every afternoon and then for a 4 day stretch while the ISP updated their equipment, and downloading was nothing short of a root canal.

During a 2-day training course I gave to several non-profits on how to build a website, I included several URLs containing tutorials or free software we were using to build web pages (Nvu, IrFanView, Paint.NET), and one by one people came up during breaks asking if I could download these files and burn them on CD. CD?! These days it’s rare that I use CDs for anything but playing music, but think back to 1997 when the internet was still a slow, painful experience and downloading software meant “dial-in, start the download, go to bed.” The IT Training facility where the training was held had a 33.6 KBps dial-up connection that they paid for by the minute.

These interactions, and others like them, forced me to dramatically alter my thinking since my answer to pretty much every question is “I’ll send you a link.” What if someone doesn’t have the means to follow that link?

I’m thankful to return home and use my high-speed, always on DSL connection for which I pay $27/month. But this gap, this Digital Divide of the wealthy who have easy access to worldwide knowledge resources and the poor who have little or no hope of using these resources, is going to continue to widen as long as high-speed internet access is expensive and unreliable in poorer countries.

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#1 Tyler Watson on 08.10.05 at 5:24 pm

Great post. I commented briefly on it over at my blog.

#2 Eddy Ekmekji on 08.10.05 at 6:55 pm

(I got this link from Tyler)–It seems like you nail not just a digital divide, but also the potential of inter-connectedness. You’re in Ghana, and using the common language of technology. Great Post!