Gates Foundation expands digital divide initiative

The Gates Foundation announced a new US$328 million plan to provide computer and Internet services through public libraries in developing nations

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has announced a new US$328 million ($415.5 million) plan to provide computer and Internet services through public libraries in developing nations.

Botswana, Latvia and Lithuania won the first round of grants, a total of $US17.5 million, the foundation said in a statement.

Over the next seven years, the Gates Foundation expects to invest the remainder of the fund in 12 to 15 countries.

The grants are aimed at creating opportunities for people in the developing world to access the Internet. A portion of the funds will be set aside for IT training programs.

The initiative comes amid heightened sensitivity to the need to bridge the digital divide in developing nations. A number of companies and groups are working to provide low-cost IT products and Internet access to poor areas of the world, including the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) Group led by Nicholas Negroponte, a cofounder of the MIT Media Laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; Via Technologies Inc., which is building solar-powered computer centers, and Intel, which has pledged US$1 billion over five years for computers and Internet access.

The latest notebook reference design is aimed at Taiwan, which is an emerging but by no means poor economy. The device is orange, comes with an attached shoulder strap and is meant for school-age children.

Citing statistics that say 87 percent of the world's population, or five billion people, have no access to the Internet, the foundation pledged to help solve this inequity.

"The vast majority live in developing countries, which means that those with the greatest need often do not have the opportunity to access valuable health, education, and government information that can improve their lives," the foundation said in a statement.

The foundation worked with the government of Botswana to develop a pilot plan to connect five villages to the Internet and put computers in public libraries or reading rooms. The goal is to develop the test sites to make sure they are both useful to the public and show staying power over the long term. The foundation invested US$1.1 million to fund the initial round of the project.

In Latvia, the Gates Foundation provided US$16.2 million for broadband Internet connections and Wi-Fi networks in libraries across the country. Each library will also receive three computers and IT training for their staff. The government of Latvia and Microsoft Latvia also committed funds and software to the project.

Lithuania received a US$220,396 grant to help plan a national effort to provide Internet access in public libraries throughout the country for free. The foundation will grant additional funds to the effort once planning is completed.

The foundation cited past successes for its faith in the global Internet initiative. In 2001, the foundation worked with the government of Chile to put Internet access and computers in all of the country's 368 public libraries. Another effort in Mexico placed computers in about a third of the country's 8,000 libraries.

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