Bridging the digital divide
Geoff Metcalf interviews Internet pioneers at

By Geoff Metcalf

In his book "Growing Up Digital," Don Tapscott defines the "digital divide" as, "The gap between those in society who can afford and have access to the digital economy and those who are unable to do so." Awareness of the digital divide issue has reached new heights worldwide. Celebrities are lending their names, corporations are generously donating computers and philanthropists have established funds to underwrite projects -- all focused on erasing the digital divide. Political leaders, in particular, are building platforms on this issue and view the Internet as a vehicle to educate their people on ways to avoid disease, improve crop production and train a potential work force. In short, they see the Internet as the pathway to their people's future.

While all of these efforts are important to eliminating this serious social dilemma, Global Pathways operates on the premise that the most powerful force in erasing the digital divide will be aggressive, private-sector companies who provide products and services that both meet the needs of the global market and make a profit. WorldNetDaily reporter and talk show host Geoff Metcalf recently interviewed CEO Dan Valentino and former POW Everett Alvarez about how they are working together to bridge this gap between people and technology and how this bridge is a potential solution to the growing cancer of government bureaucracy.

Question: Everett, how did you get involved in this project and why?

Answer: I've been in the consulting business for a number of years in the Washington, D.C., area and I've known some of the other individuals who have formed the Globalpathways group in a new venture -- we have been looking at this for over a year. It is a way of paying back: We're looking at the digital divide not only in this country but around the world and what we've been searching for is a unique solution that will enable entrepreneurs to be leaders in bridging the digital divide by bringing not only the computer, but access to the Internet, to a lot of people in this country and around the world.

Q: What is fascinating about this you have synthesized philanthropy with entrepreneurs into what you are calling -- Dan, what do you want to call this?

A: Philanthropreneuring. Hard to say but more difficult to spell.

Q: How do you synthesize these two elements? We all understand entrepreneurs and we understand the Internet and the digital divide -- but how do you tie philanthropy into it?

A: The fundamental premise, from our perspective, is that the things that are going on around the world from a philanthropy point of view -- the willingness of computer companies to offer free used computers, the government underwriting programs, and all the foundations doing whatever they can to help bridge the digital divide -- is a very important aspect of building a foundation to bring technology to the rest of the world.

However, our fundamental premise is that the divide will not be crossed until entrepreneurs -- aggressive entrepreneurs -- find a way to bring the appropriate products and services to the market at a profit. And when a profit can be made, that's when change begins to happen.

Q: There's something I don't understand about this. You are appealing to a couple of different publics. Robert Jarvick, who invented the artificial heart, has a quote I love. He said, "Leaders are visionaries with a poorly developed sense of fear and no concept of the odds against them ... They make things happen." That's the business guy out there busting his butt to make something happen. But are you muddying the waters by bringing philanthropy into the equation?

A: Our perspective is that when you build a model that suggests corporations and institutions -- if they provide the right contributions -- they can make a return from those contributions and that is a form of philanthropy.

Q: Give me an example.

A: OK. A major soft drink company that sees a way to invest millions of dollars to bring their brand, via a computer, to the world can write that off from a contribution perspective. Yet it is an extraordinary business investment when you look at the impact relative to the rest of their advertising budgets.

That means that, from a shrewd business perspective, if we can find ways to take advantage of the contribution and tax advantages that large corporations have -- and yield them a return on investment as significant as their other advertising dollars -- then that is a form of philanthropy with a return on investment. Our job is to build those business cases.

Q: Everett, you mentioned to me that one of the pilot programs has to do with the veterans' community. How does that work?

A: We've used the veterans' community as an example of the target that we are looking at as far as whom we are going to market to. What we are bringing to the group -- and we'll call them affinity groups whether they be associations or unions or corporations or what have you -- what we're looking to do is to bring a convergence of the computer, the Internet service provider and some creative content that is specifically for these groups that are interested in providing services to their members to increase services and communications with their membership.

Q: Virtually all of these prospect organizations have some dot org. There are dozens -- hundreds -- of them. What are you guys doing that is different from the gaggle of dot orgs that are already out there?

A: We're bringing the total solution in terms of the computer, the Internet service provider, and a creative content, specifically for that group, all in a package. Providing them not only better communication but also some e-commerce opportunities and enabling them to develop a stronger collaboration with their members. That's what we're doing that is different.

Q: So are you creating templates?

A: What we are creating is basically templates or models. Each one will be a little different. It will be unique to that organization. We see a real strong interest in this approach.

Q: Do you guys manage the content or are you primarily a consulting facility?

A: We are primarily a consultant or integrator. We will be working closely with the groups. We will be working to help them develop their portal -- their content, specifically.

Q: OK, you've got three 'C's here. You've got Computers, Connectivity, and Content. The content being contingent on what the organization is -- understood. Computers is a no-brainer. The connectivity? Are you folks creating a new ISP?

A: No, we are not. We are bringing in as a strategic partner an Internet service provider to work with us. We have created a relationship with PSINet, one of the world's largest Internet service providers. We are actually serving as a virtual ISP focusing on affinity groups. So we would be much more customized than they are.

Q: Everett -- you and I have talked about this before --both of us are veterans and we know that the inter-service rivalry is sometimes amusing to observe.

A: It certainly is.

Q: How do you get them all on the same sheet of music?

A: We're not looking at inter-service rivalry. We're looking at working with the specific organizations. We currently have an agreement to work with the Veterans of Foreign Wars organization which is, if you include the auxiliary, a total of 2.6 million members.

The concern that the VFW has in today's world is of providing closer and better communications with their membership. So we're going to be working with them to develop their programs in terms of their strategy of where they should go in order to bring their members on line. How they should shape the package, what they will be putting into the package -- the content -- and what opportunities their members will have when this is set up.

Q: Would you guys be in competition with -- or would there be a symbiotic connection with -- a site such as military dot com?

A: I think there is some form of relationship there. Military dot com is trying to spread information, but not necessarily in a way that brings into the homes of the military personnel the hardware, software and so forth. They are doing a wonderful job in attempting to communicate with the personnel in the military. Our effort is primarily designed for new users to the Internet. What we're trying to do is to provide an affordable and a friendly experience for the new user in bringing them on the Internet. And that is why a lot of our effort is going into the customized portal and the ease of using the equipment. We've come up with some creative ideas that we are excited about.

Q: I know some of these people at the VFW, American Legion, AUSA, Navy League and all these different organizations and a lot of them, candidly, they aren't afraid of bayonets or 105 howitzers going off but they are scared about entering into cyberspace.

A: They are intimidated by the Internet and by the computer. And the largest group of those people in this country today who are not users of the Internet are over 50 years of age. So there is a tremendous opportunity there to bring a friendly and a good experience by providing them with a solution that is easy to use.

Q: So how do you get those old knuckle draggers like you and me to come up to the 21st century and embrace this new technology?

A: Well one way is to give them a reason to come on board. And that is one reason we are focusing on the affinity groups. If there is a kindred spirit that exists within the VFW, as an example, and there is an incentive to find out what is going on in the VFW, it gives people a reason to get up and try it. Once that is in place, it's our job to make sure that when they do get access to the hardware that it is simple, it's easy, it's one single push of a button that gets them into the Internet and up pops the VFW news. So it is one click to your affinity group.

Q: What's next? Obviously once you have penetrated this VFW market of 2.6-million you're not going to stop there?

A: We use this as an example. You know there is a tremendous opportunity here when you are looking at the number of new users to the Internet doubling in a couple of years.

Q: The numbers are growing geometrically. When I started writing for in January of 1998, they were jazzed because we were getting about ten thousand hits a day. Now, we get over a million hits a day -- and that's in less than three years!

A: And you're talking about 750 million or more new users in the next four to five years worldwide. So we're looking at getting a market share of that awesome number. How big? We don't know yet.

Q: Given the cyber environment this is obviously a global enterprise. How do you expand it beyond the continental United States?

A: As we speak, we have business going on in India, Africa, Malaysia, and Korea -- all are interesting in doing all that they can to bridge this digital divide. In India, for example, only 1.6 percent of the people have access to the Internet.

Q: But isn't that a function of cost and availability?

A: Only partially. They have only just now redesigned their government's position on telecommunications. They have opened it up to more commercial entities. That will have a big boom on the Internet. A perfect example is they sell a hundred thousand of those little motor scooters on a monthly basis to the tune of about a thousand dollars a piece. So the money exists to actually access computers and connectivity. It is a matter of bundling it in a way that makes it appealing to them.

Q: Everybody wants a piece of the action on this. How do you bridge that gap with the large corporations who have some kind of philanthropic activity and may be funding some PBS program or something -- what is the hook to them so that they can realize a return on investment?

A: I grew up in the management consulting world where I worked with large corporations over the years to build appropriate business cases that yield large returns. At the end of the day, it's the bottom line that gets them excited. And if we can show a way for them to take their current contributory dollar and use it in a way to give them a return -- whether it is in public relations or advertising or in market share growth -- that's what is intriguing to them. Many of these companies have set aside funds and are actually looking for sound business cases to invest in. The more return to them, the more their appetite for investment.

Q: I used to own an advertising agency and I used to tell my account executives their job was to reach and influence the greatest number of likely prospects for the least amount of money. Gross body count doesn't mean anything if the prospects couldn't -- or wouldn't -- buy whatever it was we were peddling. Business thinks that way. How do you co-mingle that philanthropy with the conventional business model without eroding either one or the other?

A: Let's look at two different market spaces. India is a perfect example. Now, believe it or not, there is a cola war going on in India. And the concept is to influence as many possible buyers of Coca-Cola or Pepsi as feasible in the India marketplace.

Given radio, television, the Internet, etc., there are all kinds of opportunities to brand a computer. Co-brand an Internet space to bring the colors and the logos of individual cola partners to bear in the India market. If you can show a way to take the dollars that would typically go into contribution -- and make it into contribution with a return -- branding actual hardware that goes into the marketplace could have a significant impact on the number of people that walk by that hardware everyday.

Q: Is this going to result in web space cluttered with a lot of banner ads?

A: Our intent is to actually move away from that. If you think about what we are doing with the VFW, the only marquee would be the veterans' marquee. If we are fortunate enough to work a deal with one of the corporate sponsors, their space would come up in conjunction with the VFW. So you might see the VFW and the NFL -- or whatever sponsor is most appropriate for the VFW. We would move away from banners because the contributory impact of the NFL would be the advertising dollar.

Q: It is one thing to create a product. Distribution always becomes the real challenge. What are you guys doing to develop strategic partnerships? I know that is a big deal with the Internet.

A: We are working across the entire value chain. From the computer to the connectivity to the content. We have signed agreements with various Asian manufacturers both in Korea and, potentially, in Taiwan from a distribution perspective of the hardware. All with an idea of pre-loading into that hardware the actual software that makes the life of a new user simple -- the one click effort. Our relationship with PSINet, I have already addressed, and we are in the process of aggregating content providers on a worldwide basis. We have also created a series of relationships with technologies that we are introducing into the computer -- into the hardware itself that makes life easier. State of the art browsers, for example, and state of the art search engines that are all built into the computer for ease of use and fun.

Q: How do you stay on top of that? Because two weeks after I pay two grand for something, I guarantee you can get it for $995.

A: (laughing) Yeah. We have the benefit of working with the actual manufacturers on the hardware side. Which means we are not at the jeopardy of market switches as relates to other name brands. So, by working closely with the manufacturer, we have the benefit of understanding the full cost structure.

On the technology side, we have built relationships with a series of Asian partners and we continue to peruse the entire landscape for breakthrough ideas. We're not looking for bleeding edge, we're not looking for the things that are in a beta test -- we're looking for proven technologies to integrate them into our product line. We're aggregating and integrating, not inventing.

Q: Just recently at that convention I attended, they had radios that pick up on-line webcasting -- and even some cars are now coming out with car radios that let you listen to on-line stuff. Five years ago, that was unheard of.

A: You're absolutely right. And I think we're just seeing the tip of the iceberg in terms of those kinds of products being introduced as it relates to digital technology and Internet technology. I think what you are seeing is, once a radio opportunity comes to bear to the marketplace, it's our job to make sure if it's appropriate for first time users, that it is integrated effectively into our product offering.

Q: Such as?

A: The most recent one we're focusing on is a voice over Internet telephone.

Q: I had a call on the air from a listener using that new technology -- that seemed real cool -- but the quality was terrible.

A: And in most instances it remains terrible. However, what we are finding is that with new compression technologies, with new switch technologies that are being created on a worldwide basis, that the tests that we have been running on a multitude of products -- not just one in particular, but on a multitude of products -- are giving, from what we can tell, extraordinary quality from a telephone. Even a long-distance telephone call to Asia from the United States is very functional, especially at the low prices you get.

Q: Are we rapidly approaching the point where everything is going to flow through the computer -- phones and everything?

A: I think what you are seeing in the entire industry is, when you look at Globalpathways' position, we are really building a product offering that has the convergence that is taking place in the industry coming to bear on our products.

Hardware companies are taking positions in content companies, content companies are buying ISPs -- most recently the AOL-Time Warner merger that is being discussed. AOL took 5 percent of Gateway -- what we're seeing happen on a convergence basis is extraordinary. And its happening not just here but all through Asia with companies like Pacific Century trying to dominate the set top box Internet interface. So, given that, the probability is extraordinary that we're going to see a continued convergence until the computer-TV screen will be the controller of all our information.

Q: In regards to your efforts with the VFW, I'm curious: What has been their response?

A: Their response has been very, very good. What we're talking about is a new concept -- and perhaps a new opportunity -- for them to really reach out to their membership. Don't forget that a lot of these organizations still communicate with their membership, however large it is.

Q: Through newsletters?

A: Yeah -- by letter, newsletters, the magazine once a month. They are still at that level. Particularly the veterans group because most of the veterans who are members are over fifty. You see a huge number of non-Internet users -- and I think that's what excites the organization when you talk about an opportunity to provide a solution to bridging that gap with their membership and allowing their members the opportunity.

Q: Obviously, one of the really cool things is the immediacy of the product. With these monthly publications -- particularly if you're calling on your membership to assist with a lobbying effort for something -- they often don't get the word until the game is over.

A: Exactly. The opportunity for the leadership to talk to their members on a daily basis is very exciting.

Q: And to get immediate feedback from their members on whatever they are trying to collect data on.

A: The holds true for the unions, the AARP -- this goes for many other groups -- not just in this country -- but worldwide.

Q: The blessing and the curse of email. Philanthropreneurism is potentially an extension of privatization. How do you see this eventually being used to eliminate certain government bureaucracies?

A: Whether we eliminate the need for it, or create a better opportunity for those who are in need, are two different discussions. I don't see us in competition at all with government agencies that are trying to bridge the digital divide from their point of view. I really believe there is enough help needed for all of us to participate.

What I do believe, however, is that when affinity groups or associations or even international governments have an opportunity to work with somebody who has an entrepreneurial point of view -- who is aggressive and understands how to aggregate products and services around the world at the most effective cost potential to that group -- it is much quicker, and a much faster and more cost effective solution than trying to go through the heavy weight of government bureaucracy.

Q: You have just identified the exact antithesis to government bureaucracy and you guys can do it better, faster and cheaper.

A: That's what it's about. How fast can we pull together the appropriate technologies, bundle them into a service offering, build a business case, create the funding from appropriate sources, and get it into the market place in the hands of the people who need it. In the time that it takes the governments to make the decisions and, in all due respect, I understand what they have to go through but the entrepreneur can't live with that. They have to blow that away and do what they have to do to put the product in the hands of the user.

Q: How do you synthesize the philanthropy with the entrepreneurs?

A: For example, when we take a look at the veterans, the VFW, is there a point in time when we should be putting in our hardware and ISP at a cost basis? The answer is probably yes. Because the market may only bear a certain price for the first two components.

Our effort then would be to work with them on a downstream level to say: Can we make money together, the VFW and ourselves, downstream so that the profits can underwrite further the needs of their organization? So we work with the organizations, we work with the governments to create a profit flow to them that they then re-invest back into their marketplace. That brings you the best of both worlds. It's a profit building company that has an eye beyond the bottom line to put the benefits of that profit back into the hands of their constituency.

Q: I remember about eight years ago talking to Robert Poole about privatization and how it caught on. Do you see philanthropreneurism catching on and becoming the next hybrid that is going to be copied and copied and copied?

A: I think we are in a situation that has such a huge market opportunity with the explosion of new Internet users and new technology users and the preponderance of them, on a worldwide basis will, in fact, be needy from a financial perspective. Given that state, I believe the whole concept of philanthropreneuring will be one that will be aggressively pursued by a lot of organizations. They'll say: What can we do to get to the users who currently can't afford, today, our product and services?

Q: The biggest problem with the Internet is there is so much "stuff" that, whoever you are, you need some kind of help in doing the triage to get to the stuff you want and need. I really see you guys have done a good job in establishing that triage to sift through the chaff to get to the wheat.

A: We have spent a lot of time in studying the user interface and in working with people around the world from a user group perspective. Trying to understand exactly what people liked to do -- not those who are on line -- because, in essence, these people have never been on line before.

And what we have found is the 'mouse' is not an intuitive apparatus and is difficult for a lot of people to use -- whereas pushing buttons is something people understand and know how to do. So we are redesigning the entire interface to make it easier physically as well as sorting through the preponderance of information -- whether it is a Yahoo or whatever portal is being developed -- and sifting that down to a very modest twelve to fifteen pieces of information at any one time. And, if you think about it, there are twelve keys on your telephone and we handle that pretty nicely. So the number of a dozen different entry points into a portal is something that people are very used to handling and that is what we are building our model around.

Q: The biggest problem you have is the culture shock. Everett keeps mentioning all these guys who are over fifty (like him and me, by the way). How do you overcome that cultural aversion to, "Awwww, I don't want to do that!"

A: What we have found is the affinity group pressure -- it's almost like applying peer pressure to get people to enjoy coming on line. If there is a reason to come on line -- if my buddies are all coming on line -- then I better get up in the morning and find out what's happening. And I'll get up and push that one button -- even if that's all that I do is push that button -- and understand what's going on in the affinity group I relate to. That's good enough to get people started.