Global Alliance Bridges the Great Divide

Article ImageThe Global Alliance for Information and Communication Technologies and Development (GAID), borne from the United Nations' Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Task Force, has some ambitious plans regarding accessibility. Kofi Annan, then-UN Secretary-General, announced the organization in April 2006 as a multi-stakeholder agency, with involvement from the private sector, governments, academia, and civil society, and GAID currently boasts Craig Barrett, the chairman of Intel, as its chairman.

GAID's initiatives cover a wide spectrum, but two are getting a great deal of attention: achieving better broadband penetration in Africa and developing technologies to help people with disabilities to access information.

"The basic problem in Africa is that some countries have been covered but the majority of sub-Saharan Africa lacks low-cost broadband. We need to fill up the gaps where they exist and the biggest gap is East Africa," explains Sarbuland Khan, GAID's executive coordinator, who says that the digital divide will be crossed through a skeleton-wired infrastructure supplemented with wireless, satellite, WiMax, and other technologies.

"The problem with digital inclusion is: Who pays for it?" according to Daniel Aghion, executive director and co-founder of the Wireless Internet Institute (W2i), which has been working with GAID since its days as the ICT Task Force. "So a lot of the focus has been on how to deploy a cost-effective infrastructure."

"If the right technology and the right business model come together, companies can reap real benefits," says Khan. "A telephone call from Pakistan to New York has come down to two cents per minute, and still people are making money on it. The demonstrated results indicate that if the same thing is done with the internet, we can have the same results. It requires some [research and development] and some investment, but it can be done." Khan believes that significant strides will be made in the next five to 10 years, but says progress will be faster in rural areas where a lack of existing infrastructure creates a more pressing need and actually makes development easier.

"The goal is not that we, the UN, do it, but we try to get the partners to do it themselves and show that the UN can catalyze. We don't have the resources or the expertise, but we can convene the right people around the right table to work on these issues," says Khan.

GAID is also convening an optimal group to work on the Global Initiative for Inclusive ICTs (G3ict), in partnership with W2i. On December 13, 2006, the UN General Assembly adopted a convention under which people with disabilities have protected rights to education, health, labor, and other needs. All 192 member states have been encouraged to ratify the convention since, according to Aghion, roughly 10% of the world's population has an impairment that makes it difficult for them to best use information technology. G3ict brings together the public sector, corporations, and organizations with the ultimate objective of making ICT more accessible for people with disabilities.

"In the U.S., some policies have been set to address that community and are embedded in the Americans with Disabilities Act, but—as far as information technology is concerned—they have not been very actively enforced," explains Aghion.

He says, for example, that a building designed without wheelchair ramps will not receive a permit, but "there is no such thing as a permitting process for websites. Not that we are saying there should be, but there should be a process by which websites are accessible to all." Aghion further says that while plenty of solutions have been developed, they are expensive and not easily acquired. He cites IBM and General Electric as two particularly forward thinking companies when it comes to these issues, and Intel, Cisco, Air France, and IBM, among others, are on board as initiative sponsors.

"The goal is to encourage companies in the private sector, with support from the UN, to develop assistive technology to enable people to gain access to information and knowledge," explains Khan, and the initial thrust during 2007 is to create an awareness of the problem among governments worldwide.