South Africa and Namibia are the only two southern African countries included in the Œmedium access’ list of the world’s first Digital Access Index (DAI), which measures an economy’s access to information and communications technology (ICT).

The DAI was released by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) in Geneva yesterday, as part of the run up to the World Summit on Information Society due to take place in the Swiss city from 10 to 12 December.

According to an ITU statement, the DAI is the first index of its kind, and covers 178 economies and classifies countries into one of four digital access categories: high, upper, medium and low. Those in the upper category include mainly nations from Central and Eastern Europe, the Caribbean, Gulf States and emerging Latin American nations. The DAI also distinguishes itself from other indices by including a number of new variables, such as education and affordability.

"Many have used ICT as a development enabler and government policies have helped them reach an impressive level of ICT access," the DAI report says.

It adds that the index will be a useful tool to track the ambitions of some developing economies. The rapid adoption of ICT within ambitious developing economies has resulted in the first release of the DAI delivering some surprises. For instance, Slovenia ties with France, and the Republic of Korea - usually not among the top 10 in international ICT rankings - comes in fourth. Apart from Canada, ranked 10th, the top 10 economies are exclusively Asian and European.

However, most southern African countries fall within the low access category. The report states that the four Asian Tigers (Korea, Taiwan, Singapore and Thailand) have made the greatest progress in ICT over the last four years. The results suggest that English is no longer a decisive factor in quick technology adoption, especially as more content is made available in other languages.

The DAI combines eight variables, covering five areas, to provide an overall country score. The areas are availability of infrastructure, affordability of access, educational level, quality of ICT services and Internet usage. The results point to potential stumbling blocks in ICT adoption and can help countries identify their relative strengths and weaknesses.

According to the ITU statement, the results suggest it is time to redefine ICT access potential. "Until now, limited infrastructure has often been regarded as the main barrier to bridging the digital divide," says Michael Minges of the ITU’s Market, Economics and Finance Unit.

"Our research, however, suggests that affordability and education are equally important factors." To measure the overall ability of individuals to access and use ICT, the ITU study has gone beyond the organisation’s traditional focus on telecommunication infrastructure, such as mobile phones and fixed telephone lines.

For example, nearly 40% of Peruvians responding to a survey say they either did not have a computer or could not afford Internet services, which points to affordability as a critical success factor. ITU research has also shown that Internet use is closely linked to education.

In China, over half of all Internet users are university educated. The DAI concentrates on factors that have an immediate impact on determining an individual’s potential to access ICT. It deliberately omits variables subject to qualitative judgment such as the regulatory environment. Besides its global scope, its carefully chosen variables guarantee transparency, says the ITU. "Market structure and degree of competition are open to levels of interpretation," Minges says.

"We purposely exclude qualitative factors ­ to avoid subjective bias in the calculation."