The Worldwide Web Divide

A meeting today reminded me of how much we take for granted here in the developed world when it comes to internet access, content and expectations surrounding the web experience.  A few MCDM representatives met today with Patrick Awuah, President and Founder of Ashesi University in Ghana, to talk about potential linkages between the MCDM program and Ashesi.  Opened in 2002, Ashesi is the first liberal arts university in Africa with curriculum focused on business, technology and entrepreneurship.  After the MCDM team provided an overview of the program and highlighted the potential benefits to Ashesi students, Patrick began to share details of the internet realities in Ghana:  Slow (most access points use dial-up); Centralized Access (most people access the internet via internet cafes- home access is very rare);  and Expensive (1 MB capacity broadband line costs the University $2,300 a month).   Patrick noted that Ashesi has had to ban Facebook access between 8am and 6pm to help manage load issues [he also acknowledged the academic benefits of no FB during class time :)]Many of these challenges are the result of government-owned monopoly.  Conditions are expected to improve dramatically in the next two years due to privatization of the internet access business and the addition of two more networks.  But in the meantime what we take for granted here in the US- streamed shows via NetFlix, Xbox live and 24X7 reliability – is a distant reality in Ghana.

I had a similar eye-opening experience working with the Intranet team @ Mercy Corps- one of the largest US-based NGOs.  Working with the team to develop content strategy, we were constantly reminded of the fact that the  majority of staff are located in developing countries – most with either dial-up or very slow/unreliable broadband.  So all content and design decisions had to factor in the low-bandwidth experience.  In other words– we had to keep things pretty basic.  Frustrating when there is also pressure to deliver a compelling look and feel to impress the US-based executive team.

So what does a true worldwide web experience look like? Are there ways to create compelling low-bandwidth experiences that rival high-bandwidth design?  Or should we stick with the assumption that there will always be a is a two-tiered web?  What happens with the growth of mobile?  Does it help even the playing field or will smartphones continue to be the realm of the western and/or wealthy?  These are issues I’d like to explore this quarter.

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