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Barrett says time is right to close digital divide

James Niccolai | Jan. 16, 2009
Craig Barrett has now turned his attention to an even bigger challenge!

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA, 15 JANUARY 2009 - Craig Barrett spent decades using his business skills to make Intel the world's most powerful semiconductor company. He has now turned his attention to an even bigger challenge -- spreading computers and education throughout the developing world.

The Intel chairman, who gave up his CEO title in 2005, was at the Consumer Electronics Show last week to launch the Small Things Challenge, which encourages individuals to take small steps to help bring relief to the world's poorest countries.

The challenge seeks donations to Save The Children's Rewrite the Future program, which provides education for children in war-torn countries. And Intel will donate US$0.05 for each person who simply visits the Web site, up to a maximum $300 million this year.

But for Barrett it's about more than charity. Visitors to the site can also make a "micro loan" to a local entrepreneur through, which displays profiles of people seeking funds to grow their business -- a plumber in Uganda who needs supplies to open a hardware store, for example. It delivers the loans through a local partner and aims to repay them after six to 12 months.

Barrett sat down with IDG News Service at CES to talk about the effort to raise living standards in developing countries, as well as Intel's Classmate PC and whether he misses his day-to-day role managing Intel. Following is an edited transcript of the discussion.

IDG News Service: We've been hearing about efforts to close the digital divide for several years now, but the progress often seems frustratingly slow. You seem to think we're at some sort of tipping point. What makes you so optimistic?

Barrett: There are two reasons. If you simply look at where the growth opportunities are in the ITC market, they happen to be in emerging countries, and if you look at the sheer numbers -- more Internet users in China than the U.S., more cell-phone users in Africa than in the U.S. -- to me this seems to be a tipping point just from bulk numbers.

Secondly, look at the usual sequence of events in developing countries -- first you have nothing, then you have cell phones, then you have Internet penetration. Usually there's a four- or five-year delay between each. The last holdout I thought would be Africa, but I've been pleasantly surprised by what's going on there. Take a simple example -- last year my wife and I were in Tanzania to climb Kilimanjaro. Our guide was talking to his family on a cell phone all the way up the mountain. Not only are you seeing cell-phone penetration in Africa, but you've got three or four submarine fiber cables coming into the country, both in South Africa and East Africa. You've got the possibility to combine those landings with broadband wireless to cover the continent. So I've got to get optimistic that this stuff is happening.


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