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Online-istan by numbers

By The Editors

29 July 2013

An infographic from the July 2013 print issue
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The internet has been open to commercial traffic since the 1995 decommissioning of the US based, research only, National Science Foundation Network. Whilst at the time Bill Gates referred to the development as the “most important” since the creation of the first IBM PC in 1981, the significance of the decommissioning for Southasians was unclear. Indeed, the fact that in 1995 many in Southasia had never used a computer, let alone owned one, rendered the ‘information superhighway’ something of a shibboleth.

Eighteen years on, the picture is somewhat changed. Whereas internet penetration at the turn of the century was marginal to the point of non-existence, penetration rates have increased significantly in the past decade. Though in Burma, Bangladesh and Afghanistan the internet remains difficult to access, the advent of mobile services will, arguably, circumvent the costly logistical challenge of broadband infrastructure. The sheer weight of Southasia’s population would make any increase in penetration rates dramatic on a global scale, significantly altering the demographics of global web traffic. The possibilities for Southasian states to balance Information and Communication Technology (ICT) trade flows (which are currently at a deficit throughout the region) will be greatly enhanced as regional human and structural capital matures.

The state of Southasia’s ICT infrastructure remains a colossal hindrance, however. The region’s fastest broadband speed is that of Sri Lanka, which at 3.31Mbps ranks a miserly 136th worldwide. The slowest in the region – Bangladesh and Bhutan – are to be found languishing at the bottom of world listings, ranked 176th and 177th respectively. The challenge of providing access to those in remote areas remains largely ignored. Meanwhile, market forces continue to provide a powerful disincentive for consumer uptake, with the cost of establishing a fixed broadband connection often prohibitive. Though future mobile technology may mitigate these difficulties, for now at least, they constitute a significant barrier to greater regional connectivity.

Whilst Online-istan may yet be a work in progress, it poses a direct challenge to the obstacles imposed by the region’s national boundaries. In order to shake the current reality more forcefully, a greater degree of inclusion and penetration is required. Government attempts to ‘nationalise’ web communities through censorship and surveillance must be checked with vigour, whilst efforts to provide access for remote areas and marginalised groups should gather speed. Only then can the ‘information superhighway’ be a catalyst for meaningful democracy and regionalism.

Editors

Sources: The World Bank, International Telecommunications Union, Nielsen Online, Alexa.com, Netindex.com

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