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Don't take the Internet for granted

January 27, 2008 - Art Smith
Most of us now take access to the Internet for granted. We have it in our homes, we have it at work, and we even have it in restaurants and on cell phones. In just over a decade of usage, chances are if you want to be on the Internet in the United States, you are.

This is not so everywhere. Developing and poorer countries struggle with basic services; the Internet is just not that high on their national “to do” lists.

I recently traveled to Central America with a group of students from Marietta College. The group was taking part in a pair of classes offered as part of the college's J-term program. The program offered classes outside the classroom setting during the time between Christmas and the start of the spring semester.

Two classes made the trip. They were The Psychology of Good Vs. Evil, and The Business of Cruising: Selling the Sea. The second class was co-taught by my wife Lori, and the focus was learning about the huge industry of cruising.

Both classes were taught aboard a NCL cruise ship called the Spirit. We left from New Orleans and visited Honduras, Belize, Guatemala, and Mexico.

The trip was great in every respect. The students were well behaved, seem to learn a lot, and managed to take advantage of the 87-degree weather and sunny skies in the process.

The cruise industry is a huge business everywhere they stop. Typically the $800 million dollar ships arrive at a port early in the morning. The ships then disembark around 1,500 Americans with wallets stuffed full of U.S. dollars.

Once away from the ship though, it becomes very clear how poor most of these countries and their people are. I wouldn't be surprised if many people coming off the ship in Honduras had more money on them than the average person living in the country makes in a year. Traveling through the streets you see example after example of families living in tiny homes, chickens roaming around the yard, and sometimes a horse tied to a tree. Families are living in homes that look far worse than some of the Katrina destroyed homes we saw in New Orleans.

The Internet, for most of these people,  is an afterthought.

I saw several examples of Internet cafes in Honduras, and also in Belize. People that use these computer-filled rooms pay by the hour to access the Internet. They are popular in countries too poor for people to afford Internet access in their homes.

In the U.S. more than 70 percent of people have Internet access in their homes. Head south of the boarder though, and that number drops dramatically.

Of the countries we visited Internet usage breaks down as follows:
Belize: 11.5 percent
Guatemala: 10.4 percent
Honduras: 4.5 percent
Mexico:  21.8 percent
In all instances, broadband usage is in the single digits in these countries.

Back on board ship we had our own Internet café. The on board Internet café had a great view of the passing ocean. No, I did not use it. I managed to stay off the Internet for a complete 7-day period. Many people did use it though. Beaming Web pages to the ship via satellite, the service is not cheap. Passengers pay between 40 and 75 cents per minute to stay connected to the outside world. Passengers, including many of the Marietta College students, frequently used the room. One student found out that she was accepted to graduate school at Ohio State University via an e-mail she received while we were in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico.

Cruise lines have added such features to ships because their passengers expect to be able to access the Internet anywhere they are. To me, it just served as another reminder of how technologically spoiled Americans have become.


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