Understanding and Closing the Digital Divide
In the Bronx, one of the five boroughs of New York City, 38% of residents do not have home Internet service. In the rest of New York City, there are 29% of people without home Internet. This is a higher percentage than most people realize. When looking at other parts of the country, along with developing parts of the world, the gulf between those who have and who don’t have access becomes even more severe.
What is the Digital Divide?
The digital divide is a term used to describe the gap between people who have easy access to computers and the Internet and those who don’t. A few decades ago, this didn’t present a critical hurdle to those without access to technology. However, we increasingly rely on computers and the Internet in many facets of society from business to education, entertainment, and simply keeping in touch.
What Contributes to the Digital Divide?
To understand the digital divide, it’s important to understand some of the main contributing factors. One of the first is education level. Those who have a higher level of education will generally be more likely to use computers and the Internet. Those who have college degrees or higher are 10x more likely to have Internet access at work than those who have only a high school education according to DropoutPrevention.org.
Income has a direct correlation to the digital divide, as well. Those who have a higher income are far more likely to have quality Internet access at home. Not everyone can afford the Internet, and some view it as a luxury they can’t pay for because of their income. Those who have an income of $75,000 or higher are 20x more likely to have access to the Internet when compared with those who have a $30,000 annual income. Wealthier families are more likely to have computers, as well, according to Pew Research.
The digital divide is generally broken into three main “types” and it’s important to understand these from both a national and global digital divide spectrum.
First, there is the gender divide. Research shows that women are not as likely to own a phone or access the Internet when compared with their male counterparts. This shows that there is a gap in mobile technology that needs to be addressed.
The second type of digital divide is known as the social divide. This refers to unequal access to the Internet because of social stratification based on factors such as wealth, income, race, education, and power.
The third type of digital divide is known as the divide of universal access. Many locations throughout the world–even rural areas within developed nations like the U.S.–simply have poor broadband infrastructure. A high-speed connection to the internet is thus less available in those locations.
Why the Digital Divide is More Apparent Than Ever
The digital divide is nothing new. It’s been a problem for decades as technology continues to advance. However, it’s received more public attention over the past year because of the coronavirus pandemic. Many companies had to shut down normal operations, which meant that people could no longer come into their offices to work. Employees who were able to work from home remotely could keep their jobs.
Of course, this wasn’t feasible for all workers. Not only did some people live in areas without quality broadband Internet, but some may not have had a home computer. Millions of people don’t have the digital literacy that’s required to find online work. Many white collar jobs are done behind a desk while on the computer or the phone. The pandemic has had less of an impact on these jobs thanks to remote working technology. It’s possible for many white collar workers to still work while at home. Blue collar jobs, on the other hand, typically require physical labor, such as working in the service industry, have been affected far more by the pandemic. The pandemic has thus shone a light on just how wide the digital divide remains.
Digital Divide in Education
Even before the arrival of the pandemic, close to 25 million people in the United States did not have access to broadband Internet. Even in those cases when kids were able to get online, those who were from low-income families were more likely to be sharing a single device. There may be just a single device in the household for everyone to use, which makes it impossible for multiple children to be online for schooling at the same time.
The state of Connecticut understood that there was a massive problem when it came to the digital divide in education. The arrival of COVID was the impetus that created the Everybody Learns Initiative in the state. To help remedy the problem, the state provided a laptop to all students in grades K-12 and are paying for their Internet by using $43 million of their CARES Act funding. The state announced that they had near-universal access for device distribution and connectivity. Before this, nearly 40% of the homes in some Connecticut cities did not have home Internet access.
This type of program has the potential to ensure that children are on equal footing when it comes to getting an education. Other states should learn from Connecticut in how this program was implemented, so they can create their own programs to follow suit.
The Global Digital Divide
The coronavirus has exposed the global digital divide. Globally, only 55% of households have an Internet connection. Part of this is due to the cost. In sub-Saharan Africa, one GB of data costs about 40% of the monthly wage according to Itu.Int. This is only enough data to stream a standard definition movie for an hour. KhanAcademy.org states that in Somalia, the percentage of households with Internet is 2%. In 2015, Secretary of State John Kerry said that North Korea had the lowest rate of access in the world and the most centralized control. Geography, politics, and infrastructure costs are the main issue in these countries.
In South Asia, only 33% of households have home Internet, and this number drops to 19% in sub-Saharan Africa. To help ensure students still have an education, many countries are using other types of technology for remote learning. For example, in Indonesia and India, television and programs like Sesame Street are being used. Botswana is using basic phones to help improve numeracy skills.
Bridging the Digital Divide
Technology continues to push forward and become more ubiquitous in the world going forward. Not only does it need to be understood and embraced, but it needs to be more widely accessible. It’s becoming essential for work, for education, and to connect socially. Focused efforts need to be made—and soon—to help close this chasm.
ITU and UNESCO have proposed strategies they hope will help to bridge the digital divide. One of the recommendations is to promote digital inclusion in broadband plans and digital economy efforts. They also want to increase efforts to improve digital literacy and digital skills. They believe that incorporating universal access and services could also help to close the gap.
Because many marginalized and underserved groups do not have access to computers and the Internet, it’s important to create policies that help to target these communities. The groups have also recommended that agencies consider infrastructure needs and network coverage in areas that aren’t up to par. Not only do they promote these methods of closing the gap, but they also believe that it’s important to create safeguards for children who will be accessing the web.
UNESCO and ITU also believe that it’s important to provide broadband connectivity to displaced people and refugees. It’s also important to make broadband more affordable. As discussed above, one of the reasons that fewer people have quality Internet—or any Internet service at all—is because of the cost.
Some states in the US have started to work on better bridging the digital divide. Colorado, Maine, and North Carolina, for example, provide planning and technical assistance to aid communities to find local solutions to access. Virginia and California have provided grants for middle-mile infrastructure, which is meant to help decrease the cost of deploying the last-mile service to businesses and homes. Tennessee and Minnesota have grants that help to fund technology that delivers broadband speed Internet service.
The Divide Remains for Now
The digital divide remains a pressing problem, which will require intervention from local governments, entrepreneurs, and leaders within the tech industry in order to adequately address. The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed just how deeply we rely on technology, and how critical the goal of ensuring equal access truly is.