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High cost of Internet impeding social, economic development - NGO

Lebanon\'s economic and social development is being impeded by the \"prohibitively overpriced\" cost of Internet access, a leading NGO working in the field of information technology has said.

The Collective for Research and Training on Development -Action (CRTD.A) received an $83,000 grant from Microsoft to research the potential for increasing access to the Internet in rural areas of Lebanon, and has found that online information is extremely difficult to access in some parts of the country.

CRTD.A officials say that cheap, reliable access to the Internet is essential if Lebanon\'s disadvantaged communities are to develop. The NGO is planning to launch an information sharing portal which will provide an online directory of information targeted at the NGO community, the Social Affairs Ministry and students to bring together information which is currently scattered across the Internet or only available in English.

\"We have around 150,000 internet connections in Lebanon. Ninety percent of them are in Beirut, Tripoli and the surrounding areas.\" CRTD.A\'s Lebanon Development Portal project manager, Omar Traboulsi, told The Daily Star.

\"The digital divide in Lebanon is, to some extent, enormous. We are working in the regions trying to assess what exists there in terms of access to and training for information and communication technology.\"

He described how access to the Internet could increase development potential in Lebanon. \"If the government moved toward e-government, than someone from a rural village in the Bekaa, for example, could pay their bills online,\" he said. \"Students could research educational opportunities and a woman\'s collective making jams could market their produce using e-commerce.\"

But he warned that there was little the NGO could do alone in terms of increasing access to the Internet across the board. \"We can\'t do anything about the technical aspect- that\'s the government providing access that is affordable,\" he said. \"But we have identified that information on social and community development is scattered rather than concentrated, and in English rather than in Arabic. We want to create a portal that is interactive, where users can upload information as well as browse.\"

The portal, known as the Lebanon Development Gateway, will allow NGOs, students and other interested parties to share information in Arabic, which Traboulsi hopes will increase opportunities for social and economic advances in Lebanon. A pilot version of the site will launch in November.

It will be part of the Development Gateway Foundation (DGF), an international network of similar projects whose mission is \"to reduce poverty and enable change in developing nations through information technology.\"

The DGF gave the initial grant to the CRTD.A to develop the portal project, and the NGO says that it hopes to receive further funding for the initiative once the Web site is live.

The money from Microsoft, which is being used to research the potential for increasing access to the Internet in rural parts of Lebanon, came from the computer giant\'s \"Unlimited Potential\" program, which provides training curriculums and software, as well as cash grants, for communities that lack access to computer technology. The company\'s Web site says that access to information technology \"can help foster social and economic opportunities that change people\'s lives and transform communities.\"

The cost of communications is one of Lebanon\'s major issues. Partnership for Lebanon, a US-led initiative launched in 2006 to assist reconstruction efforts after the war with Israel that year, has made developing Lebanon\'s information and communication infrastructure a priority. In a fact-sheet on the subject, the organization says that: \"Lebanon\'s communication infrastructure is weak. Connectivity is expensive and quality is poor.\" The group say Internet connections in rural areas can cost up to $400 a month.

CRTD.A say that the portal project will need institutional backing if it is to succeed. \"It requires will from the institutions,\" Trabousli said. \"There is a vicious circle - why put information on the Internet if no-one will access it?\"

Beirut,09 24 2008
The Daily Star
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