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Content & Media > Articles > Global markets, local divides: Asia confronts the digital decade >

Global markets, local divides: Asia confronts the digital decade

Madanmohan Rao reports from the Asian Media Summit in Manila 

From dramatically changing business and political climates across Asia to grammatically changing spelling and sentence structures via SMS, the Internet and wireless telephony are transforming Asian countries and cultures in unprecedented ways.

The number of Internet users in Asia is expected to increase to 228 million out of a global total of at least 765 million users by 2005. Asia already accounts for about a quarter of e-commerce transactions worldwide.

Asia has an estimated 250 million cellphone users today, increasing to 600 million users by 2005. The ITU also predicts that by 2010, more than 50 percent of all mobile-phone users in the world will be in the Asia-Pacific region, up from 35 percent in 2000.

And in terms of manufacturing output, Asian nations like Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan have become leading global players in hardware while India has emerged as a major software powerhouse.

But despite these market opportunities, care must be taken to ensure that the digital divide in Asia does not widen into a yawning abyss, according to analysts who gathered recently in Manila for the 10th annual summit of the Asian Media Information and Communication Centre (www.amic.org.sg), titled "Asia's InfoComm Future: Building Core Values, Competence and Capacity."

About half the world's population as well as two-thirds of the world's poor live in Asia (particularly south Asia), and considerable planning, resources and creativity will be needed to reduce the digital deficit in the region along with other socio-economic problems.

In the climate of the current technology market slowdown, some "breathing space" seems to have been created for decision makers to reflect on the dizzying pace of developments in the Internet Age, observed Rudolf Traub-Merz, Philippines representative of the German foundation Friedrich Ebert Stiftung (www.fes.org).

The rhetoric of "One World" seamlessly connected in cyberspace is now being replaced by concerns over growing digital divides. "Modern communication technologies have hardly developed into a weapon of an all-embracing empowerment, as they have bypassed 95 per cent of the world's population," said Traub-Merz.

Still, the pace of technology change has never before been as rapid, and global standards are being set by the digital world, according to a speech prepared by Philippine president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.

The Net can help Philippine organizations share timely and accurate information with the global community, and promote vigilance and democracy, according to Arroyo, who is also the chair of the newly formed IT and E-Commerce Council (ITECC).

Like Singapore and India, the Philippines also aims to position itself as an e-services hub in Asia, especially for animation and backroom operations. "Harnessing IT is the key to finding the country's niche in the global electronic economy," according to Arroyo.

The Philippines formulated an Intellectual Property Code in 1997, joined the e-ASEAN Task Force for southeast Asia in 1999, and passed an E-commerce Act in 2000. Other Philippine IT initiatives include Project RISE (Rescue Initiatives in Science Education) to upgrade teacher skills, and an ambitious IT professional training programme to increase the number of finishing graduates to 10,000 every year within a period of five years.

"While we cannot stop the tide of migration of our knowledge workers to foreign shores, we need to ensure that their skills are on par with global standards," said Augusto Lagman, president of the Philippine Computer Society.

With a population of 72 million, the Philippines has a teledensity of 10 per cent, TV penetration in 71 per cent of all households, a cellphone user base of 9 million, and close to a million Internet users. It is also regarded as the "texting capital" of the world with an estimated 200 million SMS messages sent out every day.

Banking, ticketing, and information inquiries are available as billable services via SMS messages, and m-commerce is expected to take off more rapidly in the Philippines than e-commerce via traditional PC channels.

In fact, SMS messaging played a significant role in orchestrating popular support during the recent protests which eventually toppled then-president Joseph Estrada, said Emily Abrera, CEO of McCann-Erickson Philippines. Unfortunately, heavy use of SMS has adversely affected spelling abilities of students, she joked.

"Pervasive computing via non-PC devices is sweeping across the world. By 2002, 50 per cent of the sales of Web-enabled devices will be for non-PC devices," said Nathaniel Marquez, wireless e-business solutions manager for ASEAN and South Asia at IBM.

By the end of 2001, the number of worldwide mobile subscribers is expected to surpass the landline user base; Asian nations like Hong Kong, Japan, South Korea, Singapore, and Taiwan have already crossed this point.

This will change business practices as well as personal lifestyles, he predicted, especially with the successors of SMS - EMS (enhanced messaging services) and MMS (multimedia messaging services).

"Cellphones are joining the Web as the nucleus of new business in the digital age. For teenagers, the mobile phone is an instrument of truly private and personal communication, and is even influencing practices like dating," Marquez observed.

Convergence of Internet access with wireless and TV channels is helping serve markets better across Asia, said Cecilio Lorenzo, COO of Philippine ISP InfoCom, which offers DSL and cable modem access.

Wireless telecom giants like Ericsson and Nokia have also set up numerous research and development labs across Asia, which can help boost local capacities, Lorenzo said.

South Korea is the leading broadband Internet market in the world, and the wireless Internet user base in Japan has already exceeded the number of users accessing the Net via PCs.

For many Asian countries, significant online audiences and e-commerce markets lie in their diaspora populations, particularly in the U.S. The Internet can thus serve as an effective "global glue" for the online global tribes of India, China and other Asian countries.

"The Internet seems specially suited to the needs of diasporic communities, specially for communication around issues ranging from reproductive health in South Asia to virtual libraries for China. A number of diasporic Web sites are designed to correct what are perceived as misperceptions of outsiders and to mobilize support," according to Ann-Belinda Preis of the bureau of strategic planning at UNESCO, whose recent World Culture Report also covers museum and heritage Web sites.

"Thanks to its global nature, our site on the Web helps to tap advertiser markets in the Philippines as well as in the U.S." said Dennis Valdes, president of INQ7.net, the joint Web presence of the Philippine Inquirer newspaper and GMA TV network.

"During the overthrow of Joseph Estrada from his presidential post, our site for some time was the 11th most popular site on the Web," said Valdes. The site now has content services for PDAs and cellphones as well.

"Without credibility, news becomes a commodity. Content has to be branded to preserve and increase its value," said Valdes, echoing the observation of numerous other analysts.

"As the age of digital communication bursts forth, I believe the most valued characteristics of future mainstream media are likely to be their credibility and connections to the communities they serve," wrote media analyst Roger Fidler in his bestseller "MediaMorphosis."

However, pure content sites are struggling to survive in the post-dotcom era as ad revenues dwindle, warned Cyril Pereira, managing director of Telesis Consulting in Hong Kong. Even Web sites of traditional media companies are struggling to become profitable.

Doubts over the efficacy of banner advertising on the Web led Asian companies like Hyundai Motors to temporarily suspend Internet advertising budgets last year, said Sung-Ho Park, communications professor at Honam University in Korea.

On some popular Web sites in Asia, online traffic is still unaudited, thus leaving advertisers in the dark as to the efficacy of their online campaigns.

Many traditional media organizations are still not effectively leveraging email newsletters and user feedback, warned Linda Crider, VP at Kohorst Design Works in Hong Kong, whose clients include China Daily, Hong Kong Radio and Television, and Shanghai Star.

Traditional media should synergise content across channels, gather more online information from user registrations, and tap "passion publishing" where users actively participate in issues of interest, she advised.

The Web can also be effectively leveraged at times of natural disasters like earthquakes and floods which often strike Asia, disseminating information about survivors and raising funds online. Small mobile phone exchanges can be activated for emergency communication services.

Ethical challenges arise for new media as the pressure for immediacy and sensationalism can lead to less restraint and inadequate fact-checking, warned Tara Sinha, chair of the Indian Institute of Mass Communication in New Delhi.

At the same time, the Net has spurred a wave of investigative journalism from South Korea to India, exposing corruption in the highest levels of government as evinced by the Tehelka.com episode in India.

Many Asian governments are accused of being ineffective, not cost-effective and not accountable; good governance practices can leverage the Net to improve administrative processes, said Anura Goonasekara, deputy director of the Asian Media Information and Communication Centre in Singapore.

At an international level, the forces of infocomm technologies and globalisation are now mutually reinforcing each other, observed Kyung-Ja Lee, president of the Korean Broadcasting Institute.

But while Asia has produced leading hardware and software players at a global scale, it still accounts for an inadequate share of global cultural products, she said.

Lee cited studies from the Korea Bank which showed that in South Korea, the infocomm industry has become the most important sector, accounting for 50.5 per cent of GDP growth and 40 per cent of the total national export in 2000. Samsung Electronics alone accounts for 12 per cent of national exports, and in 2000 its total sales were more than one third of the national budget.

"Growth rates for India's software sector are higher than overall GDP growth rates. India is the second largest software exporter in the world after the U.S., and Indian software specialists play a crucial role in computer programming worldwide. The success of India in the software arena reconfirms that intellectual capital is the most valuable resource in the infocomm industries," said Lee.

But uneven distribution of resources locally has led to a rise in social tensions in Korea; similar disparities are emerging in China between the coastal and interior regions, and India also has related problems with the digital divide, Lee observed. About 85 per cent of the citizens of Bangalore, India's "Silicon Plateau," have no access to computers.

The single largest export of the U.S. is cultural products like films and television; Hollywood movies account for more than half of the film markets in Europe, Latin America and Japan and most of the video rental market in South Korea. "Yet, foreign films take in less than 3 per cent of the U.S. market," Lee said.

Similar imbalances apply to Web content, especially in English, but an increase in publishing of local language content will help offset this imbalance.

Infocomm technologies can help empower SMEs (small and medium enterprises) and open up a fast track to knowledge-based growth in Asia - but unfortunately, relying only on market forces for technology diffusion will make global citizens only of those who can afford access to these technologies, warned Toby Monsod, assistant IT secretary of the Philippines.

"The Internet must be treated as a public good. But governments will be faced with some tough choices on whether to invest in urban technoparks or rural telecentres," she said.

"30 per cent of the population in developed countries have access to the Net - but only two per cent of the population in developing nations are online," said Ann Quon, assistant chief at the Asian Development Bank, which is launching initiatives such as CLICK (Centre for Learning, Information, Communication and Knowledge) to improve e-readiness in Asian countries.

Notable experiments and innovations in India to improve IT access include the Simputer project, CorDECT wireless local loop technology, the M.S. Swaminathan Foundation telecentres in Tamil Nadu, Gyandoot rural cybercafes in Madha Pradesh, and TARAhaat.com and iKisan sites for rural businesses.

The "hole in the wall" experiments of NIIT showed that poor children can teach other how to use computers just from exposure to kiosks; this project is being carried forward by the Delhi municipality, and other state governments are expected to follow suit.

Accessing the Net via TV can rapidly increase the Internet market in India, said Anju Grover Chaudhary, professor at Howard University in Washington. Companies like SitiCable, Hathway, WorldGate, TeleCruz, Daewoo, NDS and Videocon are developing plans for this Internet TV market.

"This can increase the markets for entertainment as well as distance learning. Current affairs programs can enhance discussion and debate via online voting - such programs like @2000+ in Finland are already succeeding well on this front," said Chaudhury.

There are 70 million TV sets in India's 175 million households, but the higher technology costs of Internet TV may put it out of reach for much of rural India, she cautioned.

Other organizations like the LEARN foundation and Grameen Telecom in Bangladesh are improving Internet access and mobile cellphone facilities for students and villagers.

"Fundamental changes in other sectors must take place along with the IT sector in order to reduce the digital gap in Asia. This gap will grow but later taper off and then narrow," said Javed Jabbar, founder of the South Asian Media Association in Pakistan and former minister for information and media development.

e-Learning is an area with tremendous potential in Asia, given the priority Asian parents place on children's education as well as the increasing online component of high-technology training materials.

"e-Learning will play an important role in the emerging society which fosters a culture of lifelong learning," said Ian McDonald, chairman of the Commonwealth of Learning agency in Canada; the country recently formed an Advisory Committee on Online Learning composed of academics and business executives.

"Very few institutions, unfortunately, are investing sufficient resources to train staff how to teach online. Online educational ventures also need to be sustainable," he said.

"New educational designs will be needed, but simultaneously we need to ensure learner protection and beware of diploma mills," McDonald cautioned.

The news media are already playing an important role for students in learning about new infocomm technologies via special print and broadcast modules that cover developments too rapid to be reflected in textbooks.

In fact, a big challenge for educators lies in designing new curricula in journalism, communications and business which effectively integrate digital media with traditional media practices.

"Our students are required to have new skillsets for new job descriptions and new career titles. We need inter-disciplinary courses, cooperation with other departments, and informative internship programs," said Mike Rapatan, communications professor at De La Salle University in Manila.

In addition to connectivity and capacity, the Internet also throws up challenges for some Asian governments in terms of content of sexual and political nature.

"From Falun Gong dissidents in China to Tamil separatists in Sri Lanka, the Net is being used as a mobilisation platform," observed Shyam Tekwani, journalism professor at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.

Governments like those of Malaysia are realizing that citizens can not be controlled once a nation's middle class embraces computers.

In the interests of promoting e-commerce and becoming a regional e-hub, Singapore has all but given up its initial fight to control the Net - only a token 100 pornography sites are being blocked; the leadership also seems to have conceded that to compete in a global marketplace of ideas, governments will have to face the public online, according to Tekwani.

On the regulatory front, government policymakers are faced with a complex set of challenges revolving around copyright, defamation, intellectual property, privacy and censorship.

In terms of regulatory stipulations on ISPs, the more liberal Asian countries are immunizing ISPs and hosting companies from liability until they know of the presence of offending material under their control, observed Ang Peng Hwa, communications analyst at the Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.

One issue revolving around Internet content that is mobilising concern among parents and educators around the world, including Asia, is protecting children from pornographic sites as well as email/chat correspondence from child abusers.

"Parents should realize that children need protection and guidance on the Net just as in a new city or neighbourhood. Software filters which block access to pornographic sites can be used by parents as well as cybercafe owners," said Susan Sridhar, professor at Women's Christian College in Chennai.

But a recent survey she conducted in Chennai showed that most parents are unaware of such software filters; most of the smaller cybercafes in Chennai (which has over a thousand cybercafes) do not use software filters.

More counseling for children is needed, as well as collaboration between the Internet industry and community groups, said Sridhar.

In addition to individual discussions with children, focus groups are useful for understanding children's habits and attitudes towards cyberspace since peer presence helps boost their confidence in talking to researchers, advised Latiffah Pawanteh, communications professor at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia.

The pace of Internet diffusion coupled with U.S.-dominated globalisation also seems to be sparking off concern over cultural hegemony over Asia, observed Arun Mahizhnan, deputy director of the Instititute for Policy Studies in Singapore.

However, it is simplistic and inaccurate to paint a binary picture with polarized opposites like "the West versus the Rest" or "McDonald versus Jihad" or "Coca Cola versus Ayatollah," he cautioned.

"One must acknowledge the American genius for creating and marketing their pop culture worldwide. For their part, Asians should stop whining and leverage their own innate capacities in the online world. After all, the Internet actually plays to the creative and technological strengths of the Asian people - we should actively exploit it," Mahizhnan advised.

At a regional level, Asian countries and companies need to cooperate more to create regional Internet backbones and collectively lobby for better settlement rates with U.S. ISPs, advised Ajay Kumar, industries secretary at the state government of Kerala in India.

"Most South Asian countries also do not have an efficient, cost-effective or liberal domain management system in place, as a result of which there is a strong preference for U.S. domains," said Kumar.

In sum, Asian countries are going through a silent but crucial socio-economic transformation due to digital technologies, sparking off an increase in business potential, liberalism and individualism, according to Alain Modoux, assistant director general for communication and information at UNESCO in Paris.

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The writer can be reached at madan@techsparks.com

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