The growth of the internet has been met with much optimism – from improving business efficiency to opening the world of knowledge, information, and communication to the world. In most industrialized countries, broadband connectivity continues to improve and expand, and while this is also happening in developing nations, internet access or affordability remains a challenge for many people living in the these places. The International Telecommunication (ITU) reported, in the 2012 edition of Measuring the Information Society, that the cost of internet services remains prohibitively high in low to medium income countries, especially in relation to people’s purchasing power. As a result, only 24.4% of individuals living in developing countries had access to the internet in 2011, compared to 70.2% of those living in developed nations. So how can the benefits of the internet become more inclusive?
Beginning in the 1990’s, governments and donor organizations began to invest heavily in public access to computers and the internet in the hope to bridge the “digital divide” and to enable people to access critical resources needed for leading a successful, fulfilling life in a world that is increasingly connected online. The anticipated results were that people in developing countries, particularly those who could not afford computers and internet access, would realize improved economic, social and political conditions. Today, because of public and private investments, telecentres, libraries, and cybercafés are a prominent feature of the information and communication landscape in every part of the world.
While many funding agencies and governments continue to value public access, the prevailing opinions on its cost and benefit have shifted. Many funders, especially government institutions, have begun to question the necessity to support public access initiatives by using public funds. A number of funders, however, have gone further and questioned the need to provide public access in developing countries. The impression is that the facilities are underutilized and that some uses, such as games, are not worthy of investment. Furthermore, prior research on the impact of public access has been inconclusive. As a result, with the rapid growth of mobile phones, and the more recent increase in mobile internet subscriptions, many funders have moved away from supporting public access.
It is against this backdrop that the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Canada’s International Development Research Centre (IDRC) commissioned this study in 2007. The study aims to develop a better understanding of the impact of public access venues in diverse settings around the world, covering all models of access. This report presents the findings of this study. It is the culmination of work done by an international team of researchers who designed a fresh and rigorous approach to measure, collect, and analyze data on the impacts—positive and negative—of public access in people’s lives.
The findings are illuminating, and likely to contain surprises for many. The report shows that a significant number of people in developing countries continue to rely on services provided by public access venues, despite the continued expansion of mobile phones and mobile Internet. Public access venues remain, for many citizens, the only means of accessing the internet, and they build important digital skills that people use throughout their lives. When people have particular needs, such as finding government or health information, public access is there to serve. Furthermore, the presence of a knowledge worker, such as a librarian, often ensures that help is always available to public access users. In Bangladesh, for example, more than half of the survey respondents said that they used staff assistance every time they visited a public access venue. Even people who can afford internet access at home or through mobile phones continue to use public access venues because there are advantages not found elsewhere. Public access also appears to be delivering positive benefits for disadvantaged groups, and to entire communities who benefit from public access use to connect with family and friends. Women, in particular, frequented libraries and telecentres, especially in Chile and Brazil. There are also intriguing findings about the value of social networking and games, as well as the interplay between mobile phones and public access. Overall, while there can be improvements made to the way public access venues are operated, the dominant theme is one that portrays the many benefits that public access provide to individuals and communities that is not reported elsewhere.
We hope that the findings of this research will be useful for decision makers in governments and funding organizations responsible for setting policies and making investment decisions regarding public access. Public access practitioners can also use the findings to improve the level and quality of services they offer. The project sponsors have ensured the research results will become publicly accessible, and for the first time in our respective institutions, we are committed to make the research instruments and data freely available as well. Future research initiatives can take advantage of this opportunity, and advance the knowledge gained through this research.
We are grateful to more than 30 researchers around the world who took part in this undertaking. In particular, we would like to recognize the staff of the Technology & Social Change Group (TASCHA) at the University of Washington Information School who skillfully coordinated and led this study.
Director, Global Libraries Initiative
Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
Director, Science and Innovation
International Development Research Centre
- International Telecommunication Union. Measuring the Information Society. 2012 Edition http://www.itu.int/ITU-D/ict/publications/idi/material/2012/MIS2012_without_Annex_4.pdf. ↵