Development agencies have long been agonising over how to bridge the growing digital divide between rich and poor countries. Evidence suggests that one solution is to set up communal Internet access points - or "telecentres" - in rural areas.
Development agencies meeting in Bern this week heard that telecentres had achieved significant progress in bringing Internet access to poorer countries.
Stella Hughes of the United Nations educational agency, Unesco, said that with the help of the Swiss government's Development Agency (SDC), Unesco was running multimedia facilities in Africa, Asia and Latin America, where basic computer skills are taught.
She said one aim was to help communities in developing countries to become "active users rather than passive consumers of the Internet".
A similar project in India has achieved impressive results. Balaji Venkatamaran of the MS Swaminathan Research Foundation (MSSRF) told the Bern meeting that a third of the population in one rural community in southern India was regularly using the Internet since a telecentre was set up there three years ago.
He said the main groups of users consisted of young people, women and the poor. The latter typically used the Internet to access information about health matters and government welfare entitlements.
Delegates at the meeting, organised by the SDC and Helvetas, a Swiss non-governmental organisation (NGO), said they were optimistic that Internet access would spread rapidly, given that computers and other technologies were becoming cheaper.
But they concluded that the costs of bringing Internet access to poorer countries remained prohibitive. Roberto Bissio of the Third World Institute in Montevideo, Uruguay, told the meeting that it would cost around $100 billion (SFr1.65 million) to create one million rural telecentres, giving Internet access to two billion people.
"Probably 90 per cent of the money needed will come from local investors", he said.
by Markus Haefliger