Getting Down to Business on the Digital Divide

The “digital divide,” the ever-widening gap between those with and without access to technology, is often overlooked by American businesses.

While most see the digital divide as a problem best left to governments and NGOs, some of America’s top businesses are now becoming involved and figuring ways to overcome the digital divide and benefit everyone involved.

At the Digital Dividends Conference, held in Seattle this week, industry leaders such as Hewlett-Packard and Ericcson have made announcements regarding their efforts to address the issues of the digital divide.

“Digital technologies are being used right now in very innovative ways that can create significant social and environmental benefits for the billions of people who do not yet have access to the Internet,” says William D. Ruckelshaus, Chairman of the World Resource Institute, the host of the conference. “Market Drivers will be required to quickly and effectively bring the benefits of connectivity and participation in the e-economy to all of the worlds people.”

The conference has drawn a number of large Multi-nationals, who indeed seem to be driving the market right across the digital divide.

Hewlett Packard announced its new program, World e-Inclusion. The new strategy extends HPs business focus to traditionally excluded markets, with an emphasis on sustainable business ventures that improve the livelihoods of the roughly 4 billion people who live on an annual salary of $2000 or less.

The Company plans to target $1 billion in sales, leases and donations to these markets.

“The Internet and related information technologies hold the promise of rapid, sustainable economic growth that directly benefits everyone on the planet. However the same forces could also exacerbate social and economic disparities,” says Carly Fiorina, HP chairman, President and CEO. “How much of each the world will see depends to some degree on how companies like HP approach sustainability and the deployment of technologies across markets, cultures and continents.”

Ericcson has also made significant investments in inclusive technology. The Company has, for the second year in a row, awarded Ericcson Internet Community Awards, with accompanying grants of $100,000 in Web development to help those implementing Internet programs for non-profits and non-governmental organizations.

According to Kennet Radne of Ericcson Internet solutions, the investment in these types of technologies is essential to the future of technological development.

“This is to prove that leading edge technologies can be used in all sectors of society. It is our dream to make sure that people can use this technology and that ordinary people can have access to the Internet,” says Radne. The company is also working hard to drive down prices and adapt technology in order for wider implementation.

“It makes business sense and it makes sense from a social point of view,” says Radne. “If you can make (technologies) available, you create a society where you can share knowledge and information with everyone, and we know that strong community is good for business.”

HP is not alone in believing that this untapped portion of the market has valuable business potential.

C.K. Prahad, Professor of Business Administration at University of Michigan has been preaching the value of this market for years.

According to Prahad, not only are the bottom 80% of the wealth pyramid a valuable market for implementing technology, but they are also an important resource for innovation.

Sighting numerous examples in a presentation at the Digital Dividends Conference, Prahad emphasized the potential is very real, once people get over a number of assumptions they have and focus on the necessary innovations required to realize this potential.

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