The Cloud and the Digital Divide

If you’re reading this blog then you don’t need to be convinced about the tremendous role that information technology now plays in all aspects of our lives, from entertainment to medicine, education, and enterprise.To really be successful in the modern world as a student, entrepreneur, or even informed citizen, you need access to a computer and the internet. Yet in much of the world, this access isn’t realistic. In 2007, while 62% of the developed world used the internet, only 17% of the developing world, and 22% overall, was online. While all of those figures have since increased, over 2 billion people live in communities without basic information and communication technology, so the digital divide remains.

Part of the problem is that computers can be prohibitively expensive, sometimes for an entire school or small business. Cloud computing has long been presented as a way to overcome the digital divide by lowering costs. Last year, for example, the government of India developed a tablet PC that would cost only $35 and didn’t even need an outlet as it was solar powered. The tablet, intended to get millions of Indians online, is so cheap because it runs on open-source technology and is a thin-client with only a memory card for storage and no hard drive. Using WiFi, the tablet would be able to download documents and run applications from the internet, and, if it hits the market as planned sometime in 2011, one million will first be distributed in universities and then secondary and primary schools.

Another ambitious project is NoPC, which caters to rural Africa. Rather than connecting clients to a a server, NoPC operates a data center in a capital city that then connects to the schools via the mobile phone network. This makes the network easier to maintain under harsh conditions and reduces the need for technicians to make trips out to the scattered, poorly accessible rural villages. Other proposed solutions to the digital divide has been to retool old computers that would often be thrown away and are virtually free into thin clients. So far, it looks like most of these proposals have seen only limited success unless some of these later initiatives take off. Still, the focus remains on cloud computing and virtualization to bring information technology to the global have-nots.