If you’ve recently heard talk of a so-called ‘digital divide,’ you’re not alone. The term, highlighting the disparity in access to technology across society, has recently caught the attention of IT companies, policymakers, and international organizations.
What is the digital divide?
For those of us whose lives are intimately entwined with technology, both at home and at work, it may be challenging to imagine functioning in society without the technologies we rely on. However, despite the rapid evolution of technology across the past decades, there are still people all over the world who lack basic access to the internet and its associated technologies. This, in short, is the digital divide.
How wide is the divide?
In the US, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) reports that in 2017, 93.5% of the population had access to fixed terrestrial broadband of at least 25Mbps (download speed)/3Mbps (upload speed).
This figure represents a decrease in 18% of those who lacked internet access from the year prior. Despite these improvements, access isn’t universal: the data show that those living in rural areas and those in lower income households are significantly less likely to have internet access.
How do we bridge the gap?
So how do we bridge the divide? There are numerous initiatives already at play both in the US and abroad. For example:
- The FCC has retooled its approach to data collection to rely on geospatial data, ideally providing more granular information on gaps in broadband accessibility and allowing more focused efforts to promote access.
- Through the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, the FCC will deliver a minimum of $20.4bn toward high-speed broadband in rural areas in the coming decade.
- With the help of a $1.45m grant from T-Mobile’s EmpowerEd Program, Atlanta Public Schools launched its Digital Bridge Program to mitigate the ‘homework gap.’ Sixth and seventh graders were given laptops, as well as a T-Mobile 4G LTE Wi-Fi hotspot.
Worldwide, the World Bank, World Economic Forum, United Nations, and World Trade Organization have all identified the digital divide as a serious problem to tackle in the coming decade. With the consensus that the use of IT is giving nations a competitive edge, promoting access worldwide allows for greater progress toward economic and social parity between developed nations and the developing world.
As with many complex issues that have a broad socioeconomic impact, making sustained and meaningful progress toward bridging the digital divide will require funding, collaboration, and mobilization among many entities across the public and private sectors.
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