Bridging the digital divide

This story was first published in The Straits Times on March 13, 2014

ON MONDAY, Parliament heard that broadband connections will be made more accessible and affordable for the low-income earners.

Minister for Communications and Information Yaacob Ibrahim said this during the Committee of Supply debate, but no details were provided. An announcement will be made "in due course", he added.

It is heartening to know that more will be done for the low-income. The Infocomm Development Authority's (IDA) more than a decade-old broadband scheme, part of its PC ownership initiative, is certainly in need of an overhaul.

IDA's NEU PC Plus programme offers students from households with a gross monthly income of less than $2,700 the opportunity to own a new computer at a discount of up to 75 per cent.

This means paying as little as $146 for a desktop or $214 for a laptop and three years of broadband access.

IDA also has a broadband-only scheme for students who already own computers but cannot afford broadband subscriptions. They pay only $1.50 monthly for 36 months for a fixed-line or mobile broadband subscription.

The problem is the subsidy can be used only on SingTel's fixed-line ADSL and M1's mobile broadband services and for a plan that offers a surfing speed of 1Mbps tops.

At 1Mbps, users practically cannot multi-task. This means they may be able only to check their e-mail, and not check their e-mail and surf the Web at the same time.

At this speed, the type of websites that they can browse is also limited. For instance, a graphics-heavy website like The Straits Times, BBC or The New York Times may take a minute to download. They can forget about streaming YouTube videos too.

Users may also experience problems entering websites that authenticate users and secure the link. Security software typically slows down access speed. Because of this, a student with only a 1Mbps connection may have difficulty entering a school's secure portal to download assignments.

High-speed Internet access

FAST Internet access is often taken for granted in Singapore, one of the most connected cities in the world.

Schools dish out assignments that require Web research - and even printouts - for anything from the water cycle to the history of the American comic strip Peanuts.

Many schools have also instituted several "e-learning" days in the year, when lessons are conducted over the Internet on the home computer. Assignments are to be downloaded from the school portal in some cases.

The home-based study exercise is aimed at ensuring that children do not miss lessons in the event schools have to close temporarily in a crisis, such as an epidemic or when air quality seriously deteriorates due to haze.

Most schools have been running such programmes since the severe acute respiratory syndrome outbreak in 2003.

But the knowledge available on the Internet does not come so easily to some 15 per cent of local homes - or 170,000 households - that have no computer or Internet access, or both. Yet many of these homes have school-going children.

The figure is based on the latest available 2012 Annual Survey on Infocomm Usage in Households by the Infocomm Development Authority (IDA) involving interviews with 5,000 households.

The proportion of homes without computers has come down from 26 per cent a decade ago, thanks in part to the IDA's NEU PC Plus programme. It has benefited close to 37,000 homes with school-going children since its launch in 1999.

However, the finishing line has been redrawn since then, making the scheme look obsolete. A technology upgrade to faster, fibre connections is wanting.

The successful roll-out of Singapore's ultra-fast fibre broadband network island-wide has raised the competitive bar.

Since the fibre broadband network's launch in late 2010, more than half a million homes here have subscribed to a plan, surfing at a speed of 100Mbps at least.

The rich-poor divide has become greater in terms of connectivity speeds.

On the flip side, the fibre broadband network has also brought down connectivity prices significantly - by more than half.

Today, a 100Mbps plan costs as little as $39 a month - less than half of what consumers used to pay five years ago. A 200Mbps plan was even offered for $39 a month by M1 during the PC Show in June last year.

Providing such services to the students of poor families is arguably an expense that the Government can afford to bear.

Don't forget our elderly

ANOTHER reality that may widen the digital divide comes from the opposite end of the age continuum.

Singapore faces a rising greying population, with baby boomers entering their golden years. They need to be cared for in a high-tech way to ease the long queues in hospitals and ensure early intervention to avoid costly hospital re-admissions.

Dr Yaacob outlined in Parliament the Government's plans to make home-based health care more widely available through the use of sensors.

"Sensors can help stable chronic disease patients self-monitor their conditions in the comfort of their own homes, and receive health-care services only when necessary," he said.

For example, floor mats embedded with sensors can help health-care workers regularly monitor their patients' weight. Sharp weight fluctuations may suggest fluid retention from renal or cardiac failure. This could be a result of the patient not taking his medication as prescribed.

Wearable health monitors and sensors have already been showcased at trade events like this year's International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in January.

More advanced telemedicine applications include "video calls" with the doctor, for instance.

But all these applications require a fast Internet connection, preferably in the home.

The IDA has done well in decking up 100 public buildings, including community clubs, residents clubs and libraries, with computers offering the elderly free Internet access.

Dubbed Silver Infocomm Hotspots, these centres have important social and educational functions - allow elderly people to interact with one another and learn computer skills.

But hot spots do not serve those who have difficulty walking. Patients are also unlikely to go to these public terminals to "talk" to their doctors or caretakers.

Early indications suggest that such home-based health-care facilities will be in demand here. For instance, Singapore's first retirement village - The Hillford in the Jalan Jurong Kechil area developed by World Class Land - was sold out within hours at launch in January.

Units in the development come with elder-friendly facilities and commercial space set aside for health care and eldercare. The project also promises features such as a 24-hour concierge service, a full-time resort manager, clinics and restaurants, on top of typical condo facilities such as a swimming pool and gym.

Recognising the need to narrow the connectivity gap, the Government started the ball rolling during the Budget announcement three weeks ago with fibre broadband subsidies for SMEs.

This is so that they can take advantage of new technologies like data analytics that require greater computing power. They can get half of their fibre broadband connection costs subsidised for up to two years, capped at $120 per month.

As Dr Yaacob pointed out in Parliament this week, the Internet has become a fundamental utility to businesses and individuals in today's connected world.

Like the SMEs, the needy elderly and children from low-income families will also benefit from fibre broadband subsidies.

When that happens, this Government is truly keeping with the Budget's tagline of leaving no Singaporean behind.

This story was first published in The Straits Times on March 13, 2014

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