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The information revolution means nothing to the 3 billion people who have never made a phone call or live on less than 200 yen a day. But as they struggle to survive, the rest of the world moves ahead. The digital divide widens. Fortunately, the decision by Softbank Corp. and a unit of the World Bank to set up a joint venture to help Internet entrepreneurs in developing nations is the first plank in a bridge across that chasm.

Softbank and the International Finance Corp., an arm of the World Bank, announced last week that they will invest $500 million in a fund to help Internet startups in developing nations. Softbank Emerging Markets will provide technological, legal and management support to entrepreneurs in the developing world who are trying to carve out their own turf in cyberspace. Softbank brings the expertise it has accumulated in its hundreds of Internet ventures, as well as links to those companies. The IFC carries the stamp of international approval.

While the project fits well with the IFC’s mission — promoting private-sector initiatives in less developed nations where private capital is reluctant to go — it might pose a problem for Softbank, which must answer to shareholders. In addition, the sums involved are modest: In the United States, entrepreneurs received $14.69 billion in venture capital in the fourth quarter of last year alone. Last week, Softbank announced it was launching a 150 billion yen fund for Japanese startups.

The partners concede their limits. At first, they hope to team up with entrepreneurs in a dozen countries and then expand over the next 10-15 years to 100 countries worldwide. It may not sound like much, but growth in the network economy is exponential, not arithmetic. Planting seeds is important. Softbank and the IFC may find these investments the best — and most important — they ever make.

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