From November 2006...
The idea of using Information and Communication Technology (ICT) for development (thus ICT4D) has been in the air for decades, ever since mainframe computers became available in the 1960s. For example, South Korea installed its first IBM 360 in 1967, with an expectation that its cost would be repaid within the first year. But this is very different from what ICT4D has become more recently. For example, there was a huge increase in mobile phone usage in countries liberated from Soviet domination and monopoly telephone syystems in the 1990s, and in Latin America. This trend is now in progress in Africa. Similar developments are ongoing in satellite communications and fiber optic connections, where again there has been huge growth since India bought its first TV satellite decades ago, and Africa still lags, with excessive costs for satellite connections, and very little fiber optics.
UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan's Digital Challenge to Silicon Valley made the case explicitly. It turns out that Silicon Valley, as good as it is on components and systems generally, has no special expertise in addressing development issues generally or poverty more specifically, and that much of the needed innovation comes from elsewhere, as the Simputer from Bangalore, India, or the MIT $100 Laptop. The UN ICT Task Force and World Summit on the Information Society were the most visible UN projects in ICT4D. The UN Development program is active in promoting ICT4D and Free/Open Source Software in many countries.
The phone companies are good at putting in cell towers and marketing their products wherever they are allowed to. The principal obstacle remains national telephone monopoly laws and other inappropriate regulation.
Voice over IP
VoIP sends digitized voice over the Internet using Internet Protocol, like any other data. In the absence of Net lag, and with sufficient bandwidth, voice quality can be comparable to analog telephones. Since VoIP does not require a dedicated circuit, it is vastly less expensive than conventional telephony.
VoIP remains illegal in a number of countries. There are also attempts to regulate VoIP providers heavily as common carriers.
Satellite coverage of the globe is complete. The remaining problem is primarily non-competitive pricing over Africa, where a 128 Kbps connection reportedly costs as much as $1700 per month. The cost of ground equipment has been declining rapidly. A VSAT terminal now costs about $900.
There is a cable on the east side of Africa, from Europe to Cape Town, South Africa, and continuing to India. Some countries have failed to buy connections to this cable. A similar cable is being laid down the east side of Africa. A dozen landlocked countries in Africa still have no external fiber optic connections at all.
Some countries that have connections, notably Nigeria, have shown little understanding of how to use them. They have not prepared infrastructure or policies to permit rapid connection before the cable landed. They still have a long way to go to deregulate communications. Bangladesh has performed even worse with its first connection.
Although there are many technical differences among computers being built for poor people, and among R&D projects aimed at creating programs to place them, the most significant difference from the point of view of the poor is whether a program uses Free or proprietary software.
Licensing a proprietary operating system and an office opplication suite runs about $50 per computer. Microsoft offers a $30 deal to countries on Windows and a crippled version of Office (one local language and English). Any language community can localize Linux or BSD itself, using volunteer labor, at a licensing cost of $0. Microsoft offers to let governments localize its software and give the results back to Microsoft to sell to the people of the country.
Although Bill Gates has publicly disparaged the idea of computers for the poor, Microsoft is intensely active in ICT4D projects, and is actively opposing OLPC and all other Free Software projects around the world, in addition to disparaging Linux and other Free Software at every opportunity. It is attempting to take over effective anti-poverty programs with donations of equipment and personnel, in the hope of future profits after the schools are locked in.
There are about a billion schoolchildren. Suppose that they get new software every four years in school, at $30 each. That's a quarter billion units a year, or $7.5 trillion.
Thailand: Before the recent coup, Thailand was enthusiastic about OLPC. Post-coup, the new administration is publicly disparaging Free/Open Source Software, and is in negotiations with Microsoft.