Content Bringing People to the Internet

I was over at the World Bank this afternoon, where they were co-hosting an event on "wired libraries" with IREX, a nonprofit working to strengthen education, independent media, and civil societies around the world. Much of the conversation centered around how governments and aid agencies should invest in extending broadband networks to libraries, which is a well-proven strategy to:

  • Enable access for underserved communities
  • Introduce people to the internet and build demand for service
  • Extend networks to areas that, without public support, would be money-losing investments

The e-rate program in the United States is one particularly successful public-private partnership that achieved these goals. If you're unfamiliar, E-Rate levies a small fee on telecom users, and then uses the receipts to connect public schools and libraries to broadband networks. Poland, Burundi, and Alberta, Canada have also seen successful public-private partnerships to expand broadband access.

Things got really interesting, however, when the discussion turned from services to content-- much more rarely discussed. Expanding broadband access to underserved areas is a good goal, but it's not worthwhile unless the people in those areas are able to access content that is valuable to them.

According to Paul-Andre Baran, who works for IREX wiring libraries in Romania, the first thing Romanians want from the internet is the ability to communicate, followed by access to information about educational and health care opportunities. Clearly, tools like Skype and Gmail are free and available, but who is providing information about scholarships for a student in Romania? Where can you find data about healthcare options if you live in Dorna Candrenilor?

I think there are two lessons here. First, we see that people will use broadband access as a tool for self-improvement-- whether by seeking out educational opportunities, or improving their healthcare, or some other way-- provided they have the ability to do so. This means they'll need access to a network, as well as access to the right content.  A wired library and a knowledgeable librarian are the first half of the battle, but if the content isn't available online, the story ends there. And the fact is, many kinds of content are expensive to produce, and so, naturally, content that caters to the needs of the poor is a relative rarity.

So, second, if an aid agency were seeking to facilitate development through use of ICT networks, investing in putting government services online is a crucial part of their work. It would be important to listen to the potential users, to find out what content they desire-- in different places, people will want different things-- but if the agency succeeded in putting the right content online, the users could take it from there.

Investment in expanding fiber and wireless networks brings the internet to the people, but content brings the people to the internet. As we've argued before, understanding how to use computers and the internet will be crucial for anyone to succeed in the 21st century, and every government and agency needs to make it a priority to prepare their people for this new world. Content, lest we forget, is half the battle.