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Gates Foundation Plans Web Access Grants

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation says it will expand its program to give people access to the Internet in libraries and other public places to two Eastern European countries and the African nation of Botswana.

The foundation on Thursday announced grants totaling $17.5 million to Botswana, Latvia and Lithuania as a step in a seven-year plan to support increased Internet access in public libraries in other countries.

In 1997, the foundation began putting money into Internet access in the United States at a time when only one in four libraries was connected. Now that virtually all American libraries are online, the foundation has turned some of its attention to the rest of the world, where it says 87 percent of the world's population lacks access to the Internet.

The Global Libraries initiative has been moved to the foundation's new global development department because foundation officials see a connection between access to information and escaping poverty.

"Technology can help alleviate poverty by improving the way people can use government services, connect with work opportunities, grow a business, learn about health issues that affect them and communicate with others across the world," said Martha Choe, director of the foundation's Global Libraries initiative.

The grants to Latvia and Lithuania are the foundation's first forays of any kind in Eastern Europe, although foundation officials said they expected the global development department to announce other grants in the region.

The grants, which will be matched with government contributions from the three countries, will pay for computers, training and planning.

In addition to library Internet connections in the United States, the foundation has previously supported libraries in Chile, Mexico and Canada.

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