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Experts: Internet Access For All By 2005

According to a U.N. report, everyone worldwide should have access to the Internet by 2005, even if it means walking for half a day to the nearest computer or cell phone.

"It is incumbent on us, and we feel that it is entirely possible ... that by the end of 2005 a farmer in Saharan Africa should be able to get to a point of access, let's say in half a day's walk or riding on a bullock cart," said Chuck Lankester, a U.N. consultant on information technology.

But action is urgently needed to reach goal and to stop the ever increasing "digital divide" between the rich and poor countries, said Lankester.

The panel included government ministers from Africa, Asia, Eastern Europe and representatives of private businesses and foundations.

Currently less than five percent of the world population is benefiting from the tens of billions of dollars of E-commerce, the report said, and developing countries risk not "just being marginalized, but completely bypassed" by the new global market.

"The panel calls on all actors to unite in a global initiative to meet the following challenge: provide access to the Internet, especially through community access points, for the world's population presently without such access by the end of 2004," the report said.

The experts, invited by the U.N. General Assembly to recommend a plan of action to develop information and communication technologies, urged the United Nations to create a task force to coordinate efforts between international organizations, the private sector and foundations.

They called on governments, international organizations, voluntary groups and foundations to donate $500 million to improve access to the Internet and other new technologies in developing countries.

The private sector, the panel said, would raise another $500 million.

"There is a vast untapped potential out there and a huge incentive for industry and foundations to pursue that," said Lankester, who organized the panel.

Governments would meet every dollar invested in their country with another dollar, "so effectively, a dollar raised by the donor community would leverage four dollars in terms of action on the ground," he explained.

The panel recommended that world creditors write off 1 percent of debt of developing countries which invest an equivalent amount in new information and communications technologies.

To fend off any criticism that other forms of aid such as food or health should come first, Lankester said leaders of developing countries were themselves demanding that technology and aid come hand in hand.

"What they said was please continue to give us fish, but do give us ... the fishing rods so that we can help ourselves, because this is a technology that will enable us to pull ourselves out of the desperate situation which we now find ourselves," Lankester said.

Among other things, new technologies can be used for exports, to improve administation in the public sector, for education, and to reach wider audiences with health care information, the report said.

The world's seven leading industrialized nations and Russia will review the report when the Group of 8 summit takes place in Okinawa, Japan, in July.

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