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Digital Divide

By: Margaret Rouse
| Last updated: November 16, 2021

What Does Digital Divide Mean?

The digital divide is the gap in social and economic equality that occurs when some segments of a given population do not have equal access to Information and Communications Technology (ICT) and reliable high-speed Internet service.

The digital divide is problematic because it creates a disparity in economic opportunity between those people who have access to broadband internet and those people who do not.

The term, which originated in the 1990s, was first used to describe a knowledge and access gap between those individuals who could use a computer to access the internet and those who could not. Over the years, legal usage of the term in some parts of the world has broadened to include disparity that occurs when some of a nation's demographics have access to dependable broadband service in the home and some do not.

The COVID pandemic highlighted the negative consequences of the digital divide in many countries. During lockdown, the effects of the digital divide were statistically observable by how some demographic groups experienced difficulty working from home, attending school remotely and accessing telehealth services.

To bridge the gap between those citizens who have access to fast, reliable internet and those who do not, the United Nations recommends that governments work with private industry to encourage and educate citizens about ICT technologies, invest in fixed and mobile broadband infrastructure, and support the development of ICT skills in a non-discriminative manner.

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Techopedia Explains Digital Divide

The use of computers and the Internet as a utility (and not a luxury) creates a division in society that favors those people who are able to use digital technology to improve their education and employment possibilities -- and those who cannot. In response, the governments in many countries are working with private industry to establish educational and economic development initiatives that will bridge the digital divide.

Mobile technology is expected to be a principal driver for closing the digital divide and achieving digital equality now that 97 per cent of the world population lives within reach of a mobile cellular signal.

Digital Divide and Education

When the coronavirus pandemic forced schools to operate remotely, it highlighted the digital divide in the United States and other countries around the world as. During the pandemic, close to 80% of the world’s student population was affected by school closures in 138 countries. Equity in access to information and communication technology (ICT)-based learning became a major concern, as learners from rural areas and lower economic backgrounds tended to have significantly less access to desktop computers and reliable internet service outside of school.

Digital Divide and Health Care

In healthcare, the digital divide has been observed through wide disparities in patient portal adoption and telehealth care access. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the divide was illustrated quite dramatically by those citizens who were able to use patient-facing online appointment schedulers to get tested for the virus or make an appointment to be vaccinated and those who could not – or did not know how to -- access telehealth services.

In 2021, the digital divide is still one of the major roadblocks to people getting COVID-19 vaccines in many rural and mountainous zones around the world. In countries that lack the necessary infrastructure and last mile technology to provide individual homes and small businesses with high-speed internet, the digital divide is even greater.

Closing the Digital Divide

In the United States, the Telecommunications Act of 1996 acknowledged the digital divide and directed the Federal Communications Commission to “encourage the deployment of advanced telecommunications services to all Americans in a reasonable and timely basis.” A quarter of a century later, the digital divide is still a serious problem.

In the U.S., most broadband technologies are deployed by the private sector – and while the number of new broadband subscribers continues has continued to grow, rural and mountainous areas still tend to lag behind urban and suburban areas in deployment and service speed. While cost was initially an obstacle to providing wired broadband internet service to everyone who wanted it, 5G fixed wireless access (FWA) and LEO satellite swarms are expected to help with that.

Over the years, several initiatives have been proposed by public, nonprofit and private organizations to close, or at least reduce, the digital divide at the national and international level. These initiatives include the One Laptop per Child Project (OLPC) introduced by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the Linux4Africa project powered by the Freiburger Open Source Software Netzwerk (FreiOSS.net) -- as well as many national plans launched by governments across Europe, America and Asia.

Legislation also has the potential to help bridge the gap. When the United States Congress passed an Emergency Broadband Benefit during the pandemic that gave a $50 per month broadband stipend to low-income families, more than 1 million households signed up during the program’s first week. Congress and the Biden administration want to make this subsidy a Permanent Broadband Benefit (PBB), modeled on other programs for groceries and home phone service.

In the summer of 2021, President Biden announced a plan to invest $100 billion in broadband infrastructure. Broadband services, which can be delivered through cable, fiber, satellite and fixed wireless access (FWA) technology, allow users to send and receive data at volumes and speeds that support a wide range of application use simultaneously -- including voice and streaming video. In 2021, the FCC announced it is considering changing its definition of broadband to address the need for video data transfer rates of 100 Mbps and multiple home users sharing the same connection. (Currently, the Federal Communications Commission defines broadband speeds as being 25Mbps for downloads and 3Mbps for uploads.)

History of the Digital Divide

The term digital divide was originally used in the 1990s to describe the gap between early adopters of computer technology and those people who had no interest in learning about computers. In some media coverage, the term was applied to businesses, as well as individuals.

The metaphor became popular in the media during the mid-1990s when the U.S. Department of Commerce published a research report called “Falling Through the Net: A Survey of the ‘Have Nots’ in Rural and Urban America” (1995). The report revealed widespread inequalities in national ICT access, with migrant or ethnic minority groups and older, less-affluent and less-educated people living in rural areas being especially excluded from Internet services.

That pattern was confirmed by follow-up surveys, which also indicated an initial gender gap in favor of men and an age gap that favored the young.

Conclusion

The term digital divide is used to describe socioeconomic discrepancies that exist both in-country and between developed, developing and emerging nations. Closing the digital divide is critical to making socioeconomic growth around the world more equitable and sustainable.

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Personal Computer/Home NetworksBuzzwords and JargonInternetPersonal Tech

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