A Preliminary Model of Internet Diffusion within Developing Countries

Bayaarma Bazar, Department of Education, Ulaan Bataar, MONGOLIA. artand@magicnet.mn

Gregg Boalch, Curtin Business School, Curtin University of Technology, Kent St, Bentley, WA, 6100, Australia. Phone +61 8 9266 7246 Fax: +61 8 9266 3076 boalchg@cbs.curtin.edu.au


Internet, Information Technology, Diffusion, Developing Countries


Rapid development of the Internet has facilitated access to information as well as communication between individuals and groups both within and outside the country at relatively low costs. However, due to variety of reasons a majority of organisations and individuals in developing countries are not able to get Internet connection, and this causes an increase in the information gap between Western and Developing countries.

A study was undertaken in an attempt to gain an understanding of the current status of development of the Internet and to identify key factors that affect successful rollout and use of the Internet in developing countries.

This paper represents some of this results of this study into Internet Rollout and use in some 30 developing countries.

It defines the criteria used for selection of target cultures as developing countries, examines the generic components of the rollout and use of Internet technologies, and summarises the published experiences of Internet rollout and use within these target countries.

Based on the above, the paper then proposes a model to represent the diffusion of Internet technology in developing countries, the sequential process of diffusion, the main players in the diffusion process and the factors affecting the diffusion process, all at a national level.


Much of the research into Internet Rollout and Usage has taken place in the OECD countries, in particular the US, UK, Australia, Canada and Europe. These countries have infrastructure already in place, and rollout was facilitated by extending and expanding the existing telecommunications infrastructure. In addition, these societies already had significant technology diffusion, and as such infusion of the Internet into the general community was starting from a comparatively high level.

For those countries without developed telecommunication infrastructure, the rollout / diffusion of Internet technologies presents specific problems.  A research project was undertaken to investigate the recent experiences in developing countries, predominantly from some 226 contemporary traditional and electronic publications.  The research was conducted in three stages - technology diffusion processes, contemporary Internet technologies and the experiences in developing countries. The scope of the project did not enable the researcher to conduct in depth qualitative analysis of specific case studies. 

What is a Developing Country ?

According to World Bank (1996), the main criterion for classification of countries and distinguish different stages of economic development is Gross National Product (GNP) per capita. Countries are classified into three categories: low, middle, and high income countries. The middle income countries are subdivided into lower-middle and upper-middle income groups. The groups (as of 1994) are as follows:

Low-income and middle-income countries are generally referred to as developing countries. However, the term 'developing' does not imply that the other countries have reached a preferred or final stage of development.

It is to be noted that the classification of countries by income does not accurately reflect the level of Internet diffusion within a country, particularly as high income countries experience quite different levels diffusion of the technology. For instance, the Internet developments in US, Canada and Australia are far more advanced than in Israel, Kuwait, or Qatar, though these countries all belong to the same income group. However, it is believed that the classification of countries by GNP per capita gives sufficient starting point for narrowing down the research base for this given project.

The target countries for this research will be Low and Middle-Lower income countries. These include countries such as China, Vietnam, Mongolia, Laos, Philippines, India, most African countries, and the former Soviet Republics.

Components for Rollout and Use of the Internet

The literature review and data analysis suggest five categories of components that are necessary for rollout and use of the Internet. These are: -

  1. National/Organisational needs and/or new opportunities;
  2. Technology;
  3. People/Skills;
  4. Capital Resources; and
  5. Management of the technology adoption and diffusion process.

These main components and their relationships in the process of rollout of the Internet and its use are presented by the model illustrated in Figure 1.

Components of Internet Rollout and Use
Fig 1 Components of Internet Rollout and Use

Following is a summary of each of the factors, based on a more detailed framework developed within the initial study and not included within this paper.

National / Organisational needs

As shown in Figure 1., the satisfaction of national/organisational needs is the main purpose of the efforts to introduce and apply the Internet.

Organisations and nations generally have a vision of their future, coupled with some form of strategic plan in order for that vision to be realised.  Objectives are then set as a part of that plan, and rollout is undertaken in terms of meeting these objectives. Hence, the efforts are considered successful only when one or more national/organisational benefits are gained and/or new opportunities for socio-economic developments for new business are opened. For the benefits to be realised, it is clear that the technology should support the national and organisational needs, and address strategic and core aspects of society and organisations. In other words, the Internet should be implemented with the vision of improving the social and economic situation of the country and organisation, to improve performance and competitive advantage rather than just for the sake of technology itself.


Compared to the benefits and opportunities promised by the Internet, the technology for its implementation is not sophisticated.

The Internet, from technological point of view, consists of three main components: the infrastructure, computer and networking technology and the Internet technology.

The literature review and analysis of case studies indicate that the most important component for the rollout and use of the Internet is the underlying telecommunications infrastructure upon which the Internet services are built. The existence of adequate infrastructure in a country facilitates the adoption of the Internet by organisations and individuals.

It should be noted that a detailed analysis of these technologies is not included within this paper, due to size constraints.


For the successful implementation and use of the Internet, a set of technical, operational, and management skills are necessary. The skills required for the introduction of the Internet in an organisation will vary, depending on the purpose of using the technology as well as the tools in use.

Capital Resources

The capital resources necessary for the implementation of the Internet consists of the initial capital investment and ongoing costs required to support the use of the facilities. The cost items both for installation of a connection to the Internet and for the support of its use will vary from one organisation to another depending on the type of connection and also on whether or not the organisation runs an in-house Internet node for provision of information services.

As it was suggested by researchers (OAG, 1996; McClure, et al, 1995), training of employees in the use of Internet tools should be an important cost article in feasibility study of projects for implementation of Internet based information systems. This is mainly due to the fact that effective training of users is the most significant factor in ensuring that the benefits promised by this technology are realised.

The quantitative amounts of cost items in the framework differ significantly from one country to another depending on a number of factors including the quality of available telecommunications infrastructure, government policies, regulations, the level of competition in Internet service provision market and so on. For example, a dial-up SLIP/PPP connection to the Internet costs US $16-20 for unlimited use in Australia, whereas this will cost US $90 in Mongolia. (PAN Mongolia, 1996c [HREF7]; Enkhbat, 1996 [HREF2]).

Management of Internet Adoption and Diffusion Process

Another important component of the Internet, which is equally important for the successful implementation of this technology in a country and an organisation is the management of its adoption and diffusion process. Findings regarding the diffusion of the Internet, together with the factors that affect its results, will be discussed in the next section.

In conclusion, it should be noted that many authors (eg. Lange, 1995) are of the view that the Internet is a technology driven phenomenon. The research results indicate that this statement is true in the early stages of Internet development in a country. However, for the widespread use of the Internet, it should meet business requirements, and/or open new opportunities for organisations using this technology.

Environmental Factors

All of the above are affected by environmental factors. Internal factors are generally culture-specific, in that they determine the perceptions and visions of the stakeholders, and thus cause significant differences in the rollout and use of Internet across the range of developing countries examined.

Experiences of Rollout of the Internet in Developing Countries

This section summarises the findings of research into the diffusion of Internet in these developing countries.

Increasing Connectivity

Certainly, the Internet is spreading around the world. Governments, and organisations in developing countries have realised the benefits and opportunities that the Internet presents for social and economic development, increasing organisational and national competitiveness. While the Internet is sometimes a little more than a digital playground or vast shopping mall for many users in western countries, it is perceived to be essential to economic survival in developing countries. As a result, the Internet developments in third world countries have accelerated in 1995 and 1996; more and more countries are connecting to the Internet with the hope that it will help reduce the isolation experienced by these countries and facilitate economic developments.

Despite these increased connectivity, there are still few countries that have only e-mail connection (Vietnam, Togo, Cambodia) or no connection at all (Laos, North Korea, Turkmenistan).

Technologies Used

While trunk routes are rapidly being upgraded all over the world to more advanced technology such as digital microwave or fibre optics and ATM, the local loops in most developing countries are still almost entirely outdated analogue based copper cable. This is the case particularly in rural areas. Very few developing countries are implementing the above mentioned transmission technologies (eg. China and Russia).

The poor infrastructure presents serious barriers to rollout of the Internet in many developing countries. On the other hand, the latest developments in data communications technology (particularly wireless technology) makes it possible to bypass the existing poor infrastructure and have more faster and reliable Internet connection. Furthermore, the use of these technological options is cheaper than using the old infrastructure and ensures equipment and protocol compatibility with newer services that the Internet might have to offer (Hadi, 1995 [HREF4]).

Another technological challenge many developing countries face in introducing the Internet is connecting the rural areas. In most cases, the capital cities, and major centres are connected to the Internet and the remote areas, where the benefits from the Internet are greater, are left with no access. The advancement in wireless technologies (satellite, radio etc) present viable solution to the challenge (eg. in Indonesia). LEO, UHF radio, geostationary satellites, bi-directional satellite links using Very Small Aperture Terminals (VSAT) are the viable connectivity options for developing countries (Jensen, 1995 [HREF5])

Despite the reduction in prices of the necessary equipment, cost remains a problem in developing countries. In such cases, e-mail connection through other data networks such as BITNET, and UUCP are common. In order to avoid high telephone costs charged by PTO's, polling arrangements from outside of the country is widely practiced.

These low cost networking options have been used extensively in a variety of ways in countries in Africa, Pacific Islands, South and South East Asia.

Although this connectivity option does not give users the possibility of using many Internet applications, it widens their communication and enables them to use basic Internet services such as file transfer and news. Furthermore, efforts are being put to enable users with only an e-mail connection to the Internet to gain access the WWW. One example of such effort is Equator Off-line, a freeware tool which is being developed by SatelLite, an international non-profit organisation. This tool will allow users without direct Internet access to browse the WWW using Graphical User Interface (Nelson, 1997). Such efforts are believed to give users with e-mail connection access to the vast range of information available on the Web.

An additional factor is the desktop equipment being connected to the communications infrastructure.  In many developing countries, and especially in urban and rural areas, existing IT appears to be below the level currently used in developed for Internet usage.  It appears to be counter productive to rollout broadband services where the computers are still running on 386 technologies or even less.

Connectivity Strategies

Different strategies are adopted by countries to implement the Internet.

In terms of the connectivity models identified by Goodman et al (1994), most of them are adopted in conjunction rather than in their pure form.

Local commercial networking initiatives are not common in developing countries due to an insufficient return on investment.

The national backbone approach is adopted by China, Russia and Ukraine, whereas, African Internet nodes usually evolve from low-cost, grass roots net. In either case, however, assistance from international development agencies plays a significant role.

Many international aid financed networking initiatives are under way. World Bank, UNDP, ISF, USAID are among the most active supporters of such initiatives.

The support from these organisations take in several forms including financial and equipment aid, human resource and consulting assistance. However, these assistance need to be more coordinated with each other as well as with the other initiatives in the country and region. Furthermore, there were concerns regarding local ownership of these network connectivity. According to Mutume (1996), there is an oversupply of networking efforts in Africa, particularly for commercial purposes. One possible implication of this increased foreign assistance is that development initiatives are taken out of the hands of locals. ''This leaves strategic policy and implementation matters to non-Africans and creates a gap between genuine African aspirations and external expectations''.

Sustainability challenge

One serious challenge with networking initiatives is that of ensuring the sustainability of the connection in terms of financial as well as availability of skills. This challenge applies to both the local initiatives as well as to the projects sponsored by aid organisations once the assistance is ceased.

In order for networks to grow and become viable means of communication and information services provision, the network node operators must develop an entrepreneurial spirit toward network management. The node must attract fee-paying users and provide them with a reliable and cost-effective services. The network node operators must charge users, maintain good user support, market their services effectively, attend to the needs of their clients, and maintain the information made available, in a current easily accessible form. Zamnet, a Zambian ISP can serve as a good example in this sense (World Bank, 1995) [HREF12].

Other challenges

Besides technical and economic challenges, concerns inherent to the Internet such as security and possible influence of Western culture causes difficulties in obtaining government or PTO authorisation in many developing countries. In fact, this can be greater than any technological challenges to the introduction the Internet. For example, the absence of an Internet access in Vietnam and some Arab countries is believed to be due to security and cultural issues.

The Use of the Internet in Developing Countries

The pace of Internet developments and level of use of the technology varies among developing countries. These are dependent on many factors including economic development, infrastructure, culture, historical background etc. For example, most African countries' Internet connectivity is still very limited (except South Africa); the former communist regime countries are struggling with their transition to market economy; other countries eg. Indonesia has started using the Internet for commercial purposes.

While the newly connected nations are struggling to provide users with stable connection and basic Internet services such as e-mail, the more experienced ones are concerned with issues such as navigation on the WWW, building information contents in local languages, provision of commercial information services, security and privacy issues etc.

Types of organisations

The types of organisations using the Internet are:

NGO's, relief groups such as WHO, HealthNet, VITA (Volunteers in Technical Assistance) are among the first users of the Internet. Their use is usually very limited to exchange of e-mail messages through store-and-forward connectivity.

Government organisations have started using the Internet, however, their use is limited to home pages of parliaments, ministries with some reference information, and communication through e-mail. In a few countries, governments are increasingly publishing information on the WWW. However, in many cases the potential of the Internet (particularly e-mail) to break down status barriers interferes with the local culture.

Research and educational organisations, usually pioneer the Internet use in a country. In many cases, the leading research institutes and universities run the national gateway to the country eg in China, Taiwan, Malawi, and Zambia.

HealthNet, an international network of health workers operated by SatelLite, plays a significant role in connecting health professional in developing countries. The access to the Internet is achieved via FidoNet.

Very few libraries use the Internet. The service of the connected libraries are usually limited to providing catalogue information and some access to reference databases.

In some countries, commercial use of the Internet has started. Particularly, companies in Asian countries eg. Indonesia are 'dipping their toes into water'. Most common commercial use is marketing, and advertising, no business transactions are being made over the Internet. The major barrier is obviously the security concerns.

Generally, most organisations in developing countries are in the early stages of Internet usage. Not many organisations are using the technology in their 'critical value activities'.

The Internet Tools in Use

Currently, most individuals and organisations that have an access to the Internet seem to be using it for:-

The main Internet tools in use are e-mail, WWW, FTP, and USENET. The Web use, however, is very restricted in most African countries due to the insufficient international bandwidth and high cost of such interactive access.

One factor that constrain the use of the Internet in developing countries is the domination of English language on the Net. As a result, not everyone has equal access to information available on the Internet.

Much has been done to integrate a variety of languages into communications software packages (eg. in Mongolia, Vietnam, Indonesia), but there is still a need for creating databases and value added information services in local languages.

As far as the attitudes of users are concerned, in western countries, many Internet users are driven by their curiosity and recreation/ entertainment. In contrast, the cost of Internet access in developing countries does not allow this luxury. As a result the use of the Internet in developing countries tend to be more purposeful and the users' attitude to the technology is more serious than in industrialised world (Ang & Loh, 1996) [HREF1]).

Another pattern regarding users' attitude in developing countries is that they tend to obtain rather than provide information (UNDP, 1995b [HREF10]; UNDP, 1995d [HREF11]). This is due to the fact that in most of these countries information is regarded as a source of power, and also due to the lack of networking culture within and among organisations.

Patterns of Diffusion of the Internet

Although the pace of Internet growth largely depends on a number of factors within as well as outside the country, the research results reveal some common pattern in introduction and diffusion of the Internet in various countries.

The first users of the Internet are usually researchers and academics. However, the growth of the Internet use has been fastest where there is a commercial push - the emergence of commercial ISP's, used by business organisations (Ang & Loh, 1996) [HREF1]; Kouznetsov and Bourtsev, 1996 [HREF6] and Guriev & Belyaev, 1994 [HREF3]).

The emergence of commercial ISP's enables competition between them, resulting in costs for services to drop. This in turn increases the rate of adoption of the Internet by individuals leading to the critical mass necessary for the diffusion of the Internet.

This process takes in different forms in various countries depending on the government policy and leadership of major networking organisations in the country. For example, many Asian countries are promoting the Internet by establishing schemes to encourage educational and businesses to connect and allowing competition among service providers. The Asian Internet growth rate will therefore be very high, especially compared with the industrialised world (Ang & Loh, 1996) [HREF1]). In contrast, in many African countries (eg. Cameroon), government exercises strict control over telecommunications industry thereby obstructing the diffusion of the Internet within the country.

It was found that although the Internet developments in third world countries have accelerated significantly, the Internet population is still dominated by users from developed nations (Ruth, 1996 [HREF8]).

The diffusion of the Internet in third world countries will not only help these countries develop their economics, but also is believed to enrich the Internet and the global community by adding new voices and varieties.

A Preliminary Model for Diffusion of the Internet

Preliminary findings to the first phase of the research project (the benefits of the Internet) stressed that the Internet should be seen as a mean to accelerate the social and economic developments of a country, and to improve business processes within and among organisations. These national and organisational level benefits will be derived only when the Internet has to be diffused within a country or an organisation.

As for any interactive innovations, the diffusion of the Internet within a country is achieved when a critical mass of organisations and individuals adopt the technology. In other words, for the Internet to become a tool for socio-economic development, it is necessary that enough organisations and individuals adopt the technology so that it's further rate of adoption becomes self-sustaining (Rogers, 1995).

Based on the above, it can be said that the diffusion of the Internet can be seen at three levels: National, organisational, and individual.

As a result of the research, an Internet diffusion model was developed for all the three levels, depicting the diffusion process, main players and the factors that affect the diffusion process.

The following section discusses the model for diffusion of the Internet within a country and presents models for organisational and individual adoption to ensure the completeness of the model. Since the organisational and individual level adoption processes are beyond the objectives of the paper, discussions on both models are not presented in detail.

The diffusion of the Internet within a Country

As far as the diffusion of the Internet within a country, is concerned, Till (1996) [HREF9] found that the Internet in Africa is growing at the same rate as it did in the West, but shifted in time. Furthermore, Christie et al (1995) noticed that European use of the Internet roughly parallels developments in America, with a time lag of up to three years. These suggest that although there are many different economic, political, and cultural factors, and different strategies and technical solutions may be adopted by countries, the process of diffusion of the Internet within a country has a common pattern. The suggested model for diffusion of the Internet within a country is illustrated in Figure 2.

Preliminary Diffussion Model of Internet Rollout

Fig 2 Preliminary Diffusion Model of Internet Rollout

The Diffusion Process

The diffusion of the Internet within a country is believed to follow a pattern consisting of four areas of application: Research, Education, Commercial, and Widespread use by individuals.

In majority of the cases in both industrialised and developing countries, the Internet is introduced by research institutes. For example, in US, the Internet was established by the NSF, in Thailand and Morocco the Internet was enabled by efforts of researchers.

Even in cases where the Internet connection is introduced to a country by universities, the first area of application is still for research purposes.

The next area of application of the Internet in a country is usually educational organisations, specifically, universities. The use of the Internet by students plays an important role in diffusion of the Internet. If students get exposed to the Internet during their studies at university, they are likely to easily adopt the Internet after they graduate from the university. Thus the use of the Internet in education help create a pull of potential adopters as well as future demand for Internet services.

Although research and educational organisations are and likely to remain active Internet users, the actual Internet developments are accelerated when businesses join the Internet community. When businesses use the Internet, two trends are usually observed. Firstly, investments in infrastructure increases leading to increased networking capacity - bandwidth and geographical coverage improves. Secondly, commercial ISP's emerge, leading to increased competitiveness among service providers, and decreased access and service costs for users. These trends, particularly the latter one, play a significant role in forming the critical mass necessary for the diffusion of the Internet.

With the increased availability of Internet services and decreased cost of such services, the adoption of the technology by individuals and local community service organisations such as libraries increase, thereby making the Internet available to the public.

Main Players of the Diffusion Process

The organisations that play important role in the diffusion of the Internet within a country are Government; Infrastructure Providers (carriers); Funding Institutions; ISP and IT Professional organisations/associations.

Governments and carriers set policies, regulations and the level of cost for telecommunications services that are crucial for the Internet services market environment.

Funding Institutions make available the financial resources necessary for the investments into the infrastructure.

ISP's provide user organisations with the Internet technology and services.

IT professional organisations usually (should) impart knowledge that is important for the diffusion of the Internet and provide expertise needed for the implementation of the technology. In general, IT professional organisations act as vehicles for the diffusion process.

The above mentioned institutions and user organisations such as research, educational, business and non-government organisations, and communities interact with each other forming inter-organisational networks through which information about the innovation (the Internet) are communicated (Rogers, 1995).

For the user organisations, the greater the number of inter-organisational networks that a company is involved in, the greater the likelihood of adoption of the technology (Porter, 1990 as cited in Swan & Newell, 1995). According to Swan & Newell (1995), technological innovation in particular is more likely to occur in companies that tap into inter-organisational networks that can help them to learn about the technologies and to appropriate these technologies within their own organisation, when it is advantageous for them to do so.

Factors Influencing the Diffusion Process

The rate of diffusion of the Internet within a country is dependent on a number factors that promote or hinder the technology. These factors include Infrastructure; Government Policies and Regulations; Economic development; Culture; Language; and IT penetration in the country.

Infrastructure within the country as well as the capacity of international links play an important role in the diffusion process. In countries where adequate infrastructure is available, the initial capital investment required for the introduction and use of the Internet tend to be low, and thus the adoption rate is usually high. Conversely, in countries where there is no infrastructure, the initial investment is high; however, once infrastructure is made available using advanced communications technologies, the usage costs tend to be low due to fast transmission rate.

When an outdated infrastructure is used, the usage cost may be high thereby affecting the adoption rate negatively.

Furthermore, due to the international character of the Internet, the availability of infrastructure in the region or in neighbouring countries favours the introduction of the Internet in a country. For instance, many sub-Saharan African countries were able to get an Internet connection through the South African gateway in Johannesburg, which is in turn connected to the US.

In countries where there are liberal Policies and Regulations towards telecommunications and Internet services, the market environment tends to be more competitive. This environment is conductive for diffusion of Internet within a country.

Government regulations on trans-border data flows and censorship are among the biggest barriers to the diffusion process.

The level of economic development of a country usually closely related to the infrastructure and the level of demand for Internet services. The lower the economic development, the lower the financial investment into the infrastructure. Furthermore, individuals and organisations in such countries tend to have low level of income, hence, the demand for the services is low. This results in a slow diffusion of the Internet within the country.

Cultural factors play a significant role in adoption of the Internet and the integration of the community with the global community. These cultural factors include individual beliefs, value systems, and attitudes to information sharing.

The language barrier is considered one of the problems facing the spread of the Internet in non-English speaking countries. The use of English is common in some countries, but the real penetration of the Internet into communities requires using the Internet applications in the local language.

IT penetration in the country is also a significant determinant of diffusion of the Internet within a country. In countries, where IT penetration is high, the adoption rate of the Internet is likely to be higher.


In this paper, the authors have investigated the components of Internet rollout and use, and looked at detail in the published experiences of Internet diffusion and application in specific developing countries.

A model is then proposed, illustrating the process of diffusion (Research, Education, Commercial, and widespread use by individuals), the main players in the diffusion process (Government; infrastructure providers/carriers; funding institutions; ISP's and IT Professional organisations/associations) and the factors affecting the diffusion process (infrastructure; Government policies and regulations; economic development; culture; language; and IT penetration in the country).

It is hoped that this research may form the basis for effective Internet rollout in developing countries, so that these countries may gain the maximum benefit to be shared through their communities.


Christie, A., Illingworth. M. M., and Lange, L. (1995) "One world: International Internet usage", Information Week, no. 547, pp. 52-59.

Goodman, S. E., Press, L. I., Ruth, S. R., and Rutkowski, A. M. (1994)  "The Global Diffusion of the Internet: Patterns and Problems", Communications of the ACM, Vol. 37, no. 8, pp. 27-31.

Lange, L. (1995) "The Internet: where is it all going?", Information Week, no. 536 pp. 30-35.

McClure, C. R., Bertot, J. C. and Beachboard, J. C. (1995) "Internet Costs and Cost Models for Public Libraries", US National Commission on Libraries and Information Science, Washington DC, USA

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