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Closing the gap between information rich and information poor

30 April 2008
APEC is home to millions of people who have the potential to be leaders in the digital economy if only they were given the chance.

For proof look no further than Anne Ahira, a vivacious go-getter from Indonesia who acquired the tools to set up an online marketing company and has never looked back.

In a recent speech to APEC delegates in Bali the young entrepreneur called the Internet "the champion of the little guy," -- a way that small businesses can compete with much larger companies and make the leap from local to international sales.

"With just a few clicks a small business owner can target their specific market," she said. "There are tools available online that allow us to promote any product globally."

Today Ahira is so busy with her growing company and other commitments that she often has to turn down media requests for interviews.

In an email interview, Ahira told the APEC E-newsletter that when she first discovered the Internet and read about what others were achieving online, "I just knew I could be as successful as the 'biggest boys on the block..."

"You don't need a college education to go online," she added. "You don't need a large amount of money; you don't even need a product or existing business of your own - you can make money marketing someone else's merchandise."

There's no question that modern technology surrounding the Internet can empower young people like Ahira to take advantage and prosper from the borderless digital economy.

The problem is that many people across APEC don't have the tools necessary to use that technology. Ahira has noted that in Indonesia, for example, people have been talking about e-commerce for years but most of the attempts she knows of have failed because "they had no idea what the heck they were doing."

"It's an unfortunate fact that most people in the developing countries only know the Internet from a 'user' point of view, not as a 'marketer,'" she continued. "The Internet has created a new paradigm for business and if we don't learn how to use this technology and catch up quickly, we will be forever left behind and 'out of the game.'"

That's no exaggeration. According to GlobalSight Partners, a U.S.-based consulting company, online retail sales alone are expected to grow from US$172 billion in 2005 to $392 billion in 2010. But 80% of the global population lacks access to a computer or network.

Moreover, given that more than half the world's population lives in rural areas, and nearly two-third's of the world's poor live in Asia and the Pacific, APEC believes it is vital to study ways to make ICT work for the rural poor - in particular the rural working poor such as farmers and laborers.

In March 2008 at an APEC funded seminar in Tokyo, Japan, Mr. Virgilio Peña, former Philippines Minister of Information and Communication Technology, said that the seminar on ICT for capacity building of rural communities "confirmed the need to strengthen efforts towards building awareness of ICT and the value it brings to improve lives in remote communities. It also reinforced the concept that sustainability and scalability of rural community e-centers depends highly on the availability of information and services relevant to the needs of the community."

Extending community based Internet access has been an APEC priority since the early 1990s. In its broader commitment to free and open trade and investment as well as economic integration and achieving the Millennium Goals, APEC has encouraged economies to provide more cost-effective access to telecommunications, expanding broadband internet access and making community infrastructure more secure from cyber attack.

During the recently held APEC Telecommunications Ministerial Meeting in Bangkok members acknowledged that to bridge the development gap, access must be matched with ability, Ministers considered private-public sector partnerships as a means towards advancing development through innovation and technology.

APEC continues to encourage policies that promote the expansion of advanced technologies and services to unserved and underserved areas, as well as to small and medium-sized enterprises operated by women. APEC is also working on strengthening government-private sector cooperation in projects that would broaden access to the digital economy.

The Asian Pacific Women's Information Network Center, or APWINC, is one such example. Sponsored by Korea's Ministry of Commerce, Industry and Energy, APWINC has trained over 340 female chief executive officers, policy makers and aspiring entrepreneurs in Indonesia, Korea, the Philippines, Singapore and Viet Nam.

"Our APEC women's e-Biz Training in particular has been our key achievement as multinational professionals in IT, government and academia trained women entrepreneurs and policy makers to build knowledge, skills and capacity in e-business to create new business opportunities through on/offline networking," says Miji Choi, head of international affairs at the Asian Pacific Women's Information Network Centre in Taipei.

This year APWINC held the APEC Forum on Digital Economy for Women in Arequipa, Peru, from May 9-10. "While it is important to carry out capacity building programs which are customized first to the business and IT environment and second, to the current immediate needs of women in each APEC economy," Choi adds, "APWINC also places significance in showing the trainees a glimpse of the exciting future where today's digital economy is headed."

Bridging the digital divide is certainly not a new initiative. It was the topic of much discussion in APEC's May 2000 Cancun Declaration which was drafted by APEC Telecommunications Ministers. In November of that year the Leaders Declaration of Brunei Darussalam highlighted the importance of the information revolution and called for a tripling of Internet access in the APEC region by 2005.

In October 2001, through the APEC e-strategy, Leaders endorsed the additional goal of ensuring that all groups within an economy have access individually or through community-based services to the Internet by 2010.

APEC's Digital Divide Blueprint for Action promotes policy and regulatory measures to liberalize trade and investment in the telecommunications and information sector, e-security, e-government, mutual recognition arrangements for the conformity assessment of telecommunications equipment, human capacity building and an active dialogue with the business community.

APEC promotes 3G and advanced wireless systems to extend Internet and telephone penetration into remote areas. It is also encouraging more Voice over IP technology to provide telephone communication to unserved and underserved areas. The regional body also hopes that next generation networks will enable advanced new services to be offered by mobile and fixed network operators. In general it aims to expand E-learning, e-commerce, e-government and grid technologies to enable users in remote areas to access information anywhere in the network.

All the hard work is starting to pay off. By mid-2007, Internet access in the APEC region had more than doubled since APEC announced its goals at the turn of the millennium. Six out of APEC's 21 member economies have more than tripled their Internet access and nine economies have exceeded 50% internet penetration.

Dr. Dan Chang, deputy convenor of the Development Steering Group, or DSG, of APEC's Telecommunications and Information Working Group, notes that between 2006 and 2008, one APEC economy posted a double-digit increase in internet access; seven economies experienced single-digit jumps; two economies recorded 60% increases and three economies reported a jump in the 10-30% range.

Chinese Taipei advocated setting up independent, not-for-profit APEC Digital Opportunity Centers (ADOCs) as early as 2003 and the first was launched in 2004. Over the past three years, ADOC centers have made an immense contribution.

Nineteen ADOC partner offices have been set up in seven economies - Chile, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, Peru, the Philippines, Viet Nam and Thailand. Chinese Taipei plans to continue funding and establishing new ADOC centers over the next three to four years.

Among ADOC activities are e-Training programs to train IT professionals in ICT applications as well as in subjects related to trade facilitation and electronic business. ADOC also hopes to encourage e-Trade.
Training courses at the ADOC e-Care Center are designed for underprivileged groups including seniors, children, women and the physically and mentally handicapped. ADOC training centers are typically equipped with about 20 computers.

In July, Chinese Taipei hosted APEC participants at ADOC Week 2007, where delegates shared experiences and expertise on bridging the digital divide.

Peru-one of the first three ADOC operations established in 2005-has made very significant strides. In 2005, Peru opened the first IT School in Latin America.

Already hundreds of Peruvians have benefited from education reform in the area of ICT. In 2006, ADOC opened another two offices in Peru; one in Lima for micro-businesses and another at the Lima Chamber of Commerce.

During 2005-2006, 2000 young entrepreneurs were trained in the use of the internet and ICT issues. They were shown how to set up a business and how to explore opportunities in overseas markets.

This year Peru, which in the last six years has boasted an annual economic growth rate of 6%-7%, plans to launch E-Village -- a network of business organizations, various enterprises and government bodies will all be connected together in a comprehensive network.

Chinese Taipei, meanwhile, has initiated a "Build a non-digital divide environment project," which is targeting 100% wideband coverage by 2011 using satellite and microwave or Wimax technology. "This project provides computers for low-income aboriginal families, Internet training for senior citizens and e-commerce opportunities for small and medium-sized enterprises," explains DSG Deputy Convenor Chang.

Progress is being made on other fronts, too. In March 2003, U.S. President George Bush launched the Digital Freedom Initiative (DFI). Under the Digital Freedom Initiative, the U.S. is committed to helping countries bridge the digital divide and generate economic growth and opportunity.

DFI promotes the transfer of information and communication technology (ICT) to benefit entrepreneurs and small businesses in developing countries. The public-private partnership also aims to help countries create a pro-competitive policy and regulatory environment. In Peru, for example, the U.S. government, working with Intel, Cisco, Motorola, Voxiva and Hewlett Packard, is helping to support the government's efforts to promote the spread of the Internet to more than 1,000 rural locations.

Among other things, the DFI in Indonesia and Peru aims to place U.S. private and public sector volunteers in small and medium-sized businesses to share ICT expertise; support the development of a national cyber-security program to facilitate computerization and e-business; provide easier access to credit for small and medium-sized businesses and apply US expertise in areas such as distance learning, tele-health and e-government.

According to GlobalSight Partners, the world's total internet population today exceeds 1 billion and that number is forecast to double by 2011.
APEC member economies are betting that they will make up a significant portion of that increase in the years to come.

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