The Digital Divide in 2011

Session J6 at the April meeting

Chaired and reported by Harvey Newman

"The Digital Divide in 2011" presented a current perspective on the evolution, status and outlook for the Divide that separates the more- and less technologically advanced regions of the world. The 21st century has been marked by some leading and emerging nations' realization that a focus on advances in information technologies, as enablers of education, knowledge sharing, international collaboration and scientific progress, is a powerful means to economic leadership. The speakers at this session included R. Les Cottrell, Assistant Director of SLAC Computing Services, Michael Stanton, Director of Research and Development at the Brazilian National Research and Education Network (RNP), and Alexander Ntoko, head of the Corporate Strategy Division of the International Telecommunications Union (ITU).

Cottrell spoke on “Quantifying the Worldwide Digital Divide: the Emergence of Africa" and the role of the Internet End-to-end Performance Monitoring (IEPM) projects that he chairs. Africa, a huge land area greater than the U.S., Europe, China and India combined with a population of more than a billion people beset by many challenges, needs network connectivity if the decline of the continent is to be reversed and the burgeoning scientific community there is to progress. But through his IEPM work that has measured connectivity to Africa over the last decade (now 740 sites in 50 African countries) Cottrell showed that progress has been painfully slow; indeed Africa is in danger of falling even farther behind all of the other world regions in terms of bandwidth and connection quality, as their network infrastructures progress. He also demonstrated how there is a strong correlation between the network throughput to a country, and its development, as shown through indicators such as the ITU's ICT Development Index.

A recent cause for hope is the arrival of a host of undersea cables to both the west and east coasts of Africa since mid-2009, spurred on by the World Cup being in South Africa in 2010. The use of such cables could bring a massive increase in capacity as well as a reduction in the time-delay relative to satellite links, resulting in a potential for a radical improvement in network throughput and responsiveness. The IEPM measurements show that the delay to many countries from Angola to Zambia has already been reduced. The next step which is underway is to build the needed optical fiber-based network infrastructure to connect the undersea cables to the interior. Other challenges to be overcome are the extremely high price of bandwidth compared to elsewhere, and going beyond the reach of fiber through wireless, low earth orbit satellites, and perhaps even weather balloons. Another very important step that has taken place is the formation of research and education network organizations in countries throughout Africa, and their formation of consortia such as UbuntuNet, which has been instrumental in the continent's progress.

Turning to recent events, Cottrell showed how IEPM was able to track the effects of undersea cable cuts in the Mediterranean in January and December 2008 on connectivity, country by country across the region, as well as the beneficial effects of the turn-up of a new France-Egypt cable in 2010, and the disruptive impact of the North African uprisings in January 2011.

Stanton spoke on "Research and Education Networking in Latin America: A Time of Change", with a focus on the transformation of R&E (Research and Education) networks in Brazil over the last decade through the use of optical fibers, where he himself was centrally involved. He reviewed the arrival of optical high capacity cables to the coasts of South America around 2000, the rise of just seven national R&E network organizations, known as NRENs (in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Costa Rica, Mexico, Uruguay and Venezuela) by 2004, and the absence of international links within Latin America or to Europe up to that time. This was followed by the first Latin American regional network RedCLARA, and links to the GEANT Pan-European network through the EU funded ALICE project that also led to the formation of 6 additional NRENs, as well as higher bandwidth connections to the U.S. through the NSF funded Ampath and later WHRENLILA projects, resulting in the present dual 10 gigabit/sec links between Sao Paulo and Miami.

Turning to Brazil, he reviewed the revolutionary changes in R&E networking that have occurred throughout the country since 2004. The national R&E backbone core progressed from 34 – 155 Mbps to 2.5 – 10 Gbps (a typical factor of 100-300 increase, using optical fibers) in 2005, followed by a second wave of upgrades in 2011 to 10 Gbps across the 4000 km east coast and 3 Gbps to points on the north coast and the interior. Only 3 of the 27 state capitals remain without high capacity optical fiber (as one has to cross the Amazon jungle) and use a satellite link or lower capacity terrestrial links. The architecture of the network also has progressed, using the same hybrid “packet and circuit” architecture prevalent in advanced R&E networks in the U.S., Europe and Asia.

An equally important aspect of the progress in Brazil has been the adoption of “do it yourself” metropolitan area optical networks, which have brought increases in capacity by orders of magnitude (to 1 or 10 gigabits/sec) to hundreds of academic and research institutions while lowering the costs. This transformation has been completed in 21 of the 27 capitals as of this writing and the completion in the last 6 capitals is expected by the end of 2011. The next cycle is to use the extensive optical fiber footprints of the state-owned energy utility companies to reach the interior, together with a national broadband plan, in order to provide 1 Gbps access to most of RNP's users within the next 5 years. Brazil's external links to other Latin American countries also are progressing, with Brazil's rapid progress serving as a model and a motivator for progress in Argentina, Chile, Mexico and other countries in the region. This progress is further spurred on by international advanced network consortia such as GLIF in which Brazil as well as the US and many European and Asian countries take part.

Speaking on "The Digital Divide: A Global View" from the ITU's perspective, Alexander Ntoko reviewed the ITU's key roles, ranging from managing vital shared ICT resources including the international phone numbering system and radio frequency spectrum, to the international standardization of communication technologies including many related to the Internet, and the facilitation of global ICT development. He highlighted the achievements of the last quadrennial Plenipotentiary conference in Guadalajara (Mexico) including resolutions on Accessibility; ICTs and climate change; Measures to help prevent the illicit use and abuse of telecommunication networks; e-Health, Conformance and interoperability; Emergency communications and humanitarian assistance; Electronic meetings; and many more. Compromise resolutions also were reached on the deployment of the new Internet protocol IPv6 and on Internet governance.

A main theme of Ntoko's presentation was access to broadband, which we in the ICFA Standing Committee on Inter-regional Connectivity (that I also Chair) have come to recognize as the Second Digital Divide. Broadband is a great enabler of sustainable economic development, education, access to modern healthcare, and a wide range of government and business services, and indeed of nearly every aspect of modern life. “Governments need to raise broadband to the top of the development agenda”, Ntoko said, and “we need to assure that … broadband access becomes much more affordable than today”. He cited figures from the ITU's “Measuring the Information Society 2010” report that show the great disparity in costs that exist today, that tend to greatly disadvantage the populations who can least afford it.

Progress towards greater global access is now being fostered by a top-level Broadband Commission formed by the ITU whose recent in-depth report “Broadband: A Platform for Progress”  details the meaning of broadband, documents its overall importance and relation to economic development in many ways, and opens by stating that global access to broadband is an essential element in the achievement of the Millennium Goals set by the United Nations with a target date of 2015.

The talks can be seen at

Also see the article in this newsletter by Alberto Santoro: “The Digital Divide in the Scientific Community and Worldwide.”

Disclaimer - The articles and opinion pieces found in this issue of the APS Forum on International Physics Newsletter are not peer refereed and represent solely the views of the authors and not necessarily the views of the APS.