Bridging The Digital Divide
Digital technology and high speed internet has grown to become an essential service for households since becoming commonplace in the 1990s. Many federal services, commercial industries, products, services and even medical care depend more and more on working with individuals or families with easy access to fast broadband internet as well as digital devices to use it like smartphones and computers.
This need accelerated rapidly in 2020 with the COVID-19 pandemic, but despite this change, there are millions of Americans unable to keep up. Whether due to where they live, their income or their preferences, many families are finding it difficult or impossible to adapt with this growing rift – the “Digital Divide”. But what’s brought us to this point, and what can be done to fix it? This guide will answer those questions, as well as give you useful information on the general state of broadband infrastructure in the U.S.
What is the Digital Divide?
A growing social and economic concern in the United States is the “Digital Divide” – the gap between those who can use and access digital technology and those who can’t. The Digital Divide has a variety of causes and implications, but it carries major effects for different generations, income levels, localities and industries.
This divide has become an increasingly crucial one to resolve as education, jobs, social life and commerce rely more and more on people having good internet and device access. This has become even more apparent with the COVID-19 pandemic where many facets of daily life transitioned to remote operations, but even before that there’s been a rapidly growing need for every citizen to have reliable internet access.
The State of Broadband in America
High speed internet (or “broadband”) has become an essential service, critical in importance for education, job creation, economic prosperity and community engagement.
While only about 3% of residents in urban areas don’t have access to high speed internet, around 35% of people in rural areas lack that same access. And on Tribal lands, that number grows to about 40%.
FCC’s Definition of Broadband Internet
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC), an independent federal body regulating communications, internet, television and more, has a defined standard for what qualifies as high speed broadband internet.
This definition has changed over time as technology has advanced and market offerings have evolved. From 4 Mbps download speeds/1 Mbps upload speeds in 2010, the current qualifying standard of broadband internet in the U.S. as of 2018 is 25 Mbps download speed and 3 Mbps upload speed. This means, as we endeavor to expand our high speed networks into remote areas, that that minimum speed is what’s necessary for people to effectively utilize the internet for their essential needs and communications.
Causes of the Digital Divide
Education – There are some key conditions that have led to this divide becoming such a critical issue, with education being among the most consequential. It’s estimated that those who hold college degrees are about 10 times more likely to use modern digital tech and the internet to benefit their lives compared to those with a high school education or lower.
Income – Income level is another major factor contributing to the divide, as people with limited financial resources struggle to maintain internet access and the devices required to use it. Higher income families are about 20 times more likely to regularly use the internet and around 10 times more likely to own devices such as computers and high speed home internet, as digital technology is often seen as a luxury to lower income families.
Geography – Geography is another crucial aspect to this rift. Globally, more economically-developed countries have proper access to technology and broadband, whereas less developed nations lack the same advancements. Within the United States, this inequality is very apparent when contrasting urban and rural areas. Those who live in rural or remote regions may not even have access to reliable internet, as many service providers find it too costly to extend their cable or fiber optic infrastructure into those areas. As a result rural residents often don’t have internet access, or depend on slower or less dependable access methods such as DSL or satellite for their essential information access.
Attitudes – These base causes feed into newer conditions that deepen the divide even further such as motivation or interest, as those not accustomed to access to technology can often see it as a luxury or too complicated, leading to an attitude that prevents them from wanting to bridge that gap themselves. And in the case of education, developed areas with access to newer computers and high speed internet then have schools with those resources with students that have advantages over those who attend schools in less advantaged areas that haven’t been able to learn with the same digital support.
People Affected by the Digital Divide
There are specific social circumstances surrounding the Digital Divide that are felt more by certain people groups. Gender is a leading cause of the divide, particularly in developing countries where men are much more likely to have digital devices and internet access. This then leads to other genders being at an inherent disadvantage socially and financially.
Social division outside of gender is another major component of the divide, as many who aren’t online are left out of the relationships and social circles that form through digital forums and social media. Lastly, those with disabilities often wind up being victims of the divide as well, since a lack of accessibility for digital devices can leave many people unable to access the modern tech and online spaces that others are able to.
Impacts of the Digital Divide
As a result of all this, many disadvantaged people don’t have the easy access to goods or services that others do. They have fewer resources to learn, work and socialize with others, and the people impacted most severely by this divide can be broken down into several key groups.
Students – Kids are obviously majorly affected, since school children who don’t have sufficient technology or internet access in their school are at an inherent detriment compared to schools in more well-served areas. The “Homework Gap” is also a significant factor to the divide when it comes to education, as schools that assign homework requiring internet or computer access leave children whose families don’t have those resources at a major disadvantage. This then limits their ability to succeed in schools, which in turn reduces literacy levels, inhibits their eventual employment opportunities and severely affects their future prosperity, and even hinders the economy at a national level. So the effects of unequal access to education and essential resources are vast, and that’s not even considering the social exclusion that comes from lack of participation in education.
Workers – The American workforce is also a segment of the population most affected by the Digital Divide. The pace at which technology and the skills needed to use it grows is rapid, leaving behind workers who don’t have internet or the devices to use it, or who are more digitally illiterate. When employees are subject to the divide in this way, it can then have negative effects on a company’s efficiency as they struggle to succeed, become less competitive and even harm the overall national economy.
Health Care Recipients – Many health care patients are also adversely affected. Telehealth is an increasingly-viable and useful way to receive health care, and patients who don’t have the ability or desire to utilize digital means for remote care can see a negative impact on their quality of life.
The Digital Divide extends even beyond these key groups of people, as many crucial government functions and community activities rely increasingly on the internet and digital devices, shutting out those who are unable to keep up with that change. Those left out of the social exchanges and cultural advancements that are made online become excluded, and even the economy and commercial markets suffer from people not using modern technology to operate financially or shop online.
Closing the Digital Divide
So what can be done to bridge this divide and provide proper resources to everyone? In a broad sense, we need to increase affordability, reduce digital exclusion and improve network infrastructure in rural areas to increase availability of reliable internet to those living remotely.
Digital Inclusion – The broad task of digital inclusion can be performed through policies that take concrete action to boost broadband adoption, through programs that cater to people directly and tools that people themselves can utilize. Mandated affordable internet at the state or federal level can push providers to offer subscription options that lower income families can afford. And programs such as digital literacy training can help people understand technology and develop the motivation to implement it in their lives.
Digital Equity – Digital equity is another broad goal, ensuring that all individuals and communities have the information technology capacity for full participation in their society and economy that digital access can enable them to have. But among the most key measures to bridge the Digital Divide is through improving the national broadband infrastructure.
Key Initiatives to Bridge the Gap
The FCC has many initiatives itself to address the infrastructure-related causes of the Digital Divide that are either planned or currently in effect.
Several programs have been established to collect data and set up strategy for expanding broadband access nationwide. The Digital Opportunity Data Collection, for example, which seeks to aggregate fixed broadband data from across the country to update and improve mapping, identifying gaps in broadband access that need to be served. The Broadband Deployment Advisory Committee is also adding to the efforts of spreading high speed access across all U.S. regions, providing guidance on how best to accelerate deployment of that updated network infrastructure.
The FCC also has plans and funding set up to put this expansion into action, such as millions in funding to refine and maintain communications networks in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. The Alternative-Connect America Cost Model and the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund both plan on putting billions of dollars into improving and expanding rural broadband across most U.S. states. The efforts to address rural inequality of access don’t stop there, as the Connect America Fund Phase II reverse auction also plans on expanding rural broadband in 45 states, with New York state giving millions of dollars together with federal contributions to connect underserved rural areas in the state.
The New NY Broadband Program
New York is among the most proactive states for attempting to bridge this divide. Governor Andrew Cuomo’s 2021 proposal for the state is among the first state-wide plans to include measures to help resolve the issues stemming from income inequality that affect families’ lack of access to personal internet and digital public education. This includes requiring providers to include a low cost internet option for lower income families, as well as establishing government funds for schools to fulfill device and networking needs, as well as paying for internet subscriptions for low-income students.
Other states have laid out ambitious plans for 2021 to expand broadband access as well. North Carolina, for example, aims to not only have broadband internet available to 100% percent of state residents, but for 50% of the population to have access to fiber optic cable and affordable access to the internet for 100% of students outside of school, as well as increasing household adoption rates of high speed internet to over 60%.
This all represents a universal need to address the Digital Divide issue, as the need to rectify this rift has become desperately clear as the coronavirus ravaged everyone’s daily lives in 2020. But while it’s made the divide worse, hopefully it will accelerate solutions like these and others to drive the nation toward comprehensive support for bringing disadvantaged citizens fully into the 21st century digital fold.
- FCC Initiatives – Bridging the Digital Divide For All Americans
- NCDIT Broadband Infrastructure Office – Who Is Affected By the Digital Divide?
- NCDIT Broadband Infrastructure Office – Closing the Digital Divide
- Digital Divide Council – What is the Digital Divide?
- Gizmodo – Satellite Internet Will Not Solve the Digital Divide