Digital Divide

Digital Divide is the term used to describe the uneven distribution of information and communication technologies (ICTs) in society. The digital divide encompasses differences in both access (first-level digital divide) and usage (second-level digital divide) of computers and the Internet between
(1) industrialized and developing countries (global divide),
(2) various socioeconomic groups within single nation-states (social divide), and
(3) different kinds of users with regard to their political engagement on the Internet (democratic divide).
In general, those differences are believed to reinforce social inequalities and to cause a persisting information or knowledge gap amid those people with access to and using the new media (“haves”) and those people without (“have-nots”).[1]

Aspects of Digital Divide[2]
There are manifold definitions of the digital divide, all with slightly different emphasis, which is evidenced by related concepts like digital inclusion, digital participation, digital skills and media literacy, and digital accessibility.

Digital Divide Perspectives
source: Wikipedia

A common approach, adopted by leaders in the field like Jan van Dijk, consists in defining the digital divide by the problem it aims to solve: based on different answers to the questions of who, with which kinds of characteristics, connects how and why to what, there are hundreds of alternatives ways to define the digital divide. "The new consensus recognizes that the key question is not how to connect people to a specific network through a specific device, but how to extend the expected gains from new ICTs." In short, the desired impact and "the end justifies the definition" of the digital divide. Some actors, like the US-based National Digital Inclusion Alliance, draw conclusions based on their particular answers to these questions, and defined that for them, it implies:
1) affordable, robust broadband Internet service;
2) Internet-enabled devices that meet the needs of the user;
3) access to digital literacy training;
4) quality technical support;
5) applications and online content designed to enable and encourage self-sufficiency, participation and collaboration.

Well before the late 20th century, digital divide referred chiefly to the division between those with and without telephone access; after the late 1990s the term began to be used mainly to describe the split between those with and without Internet access, particularly broadband. The digital divide typically exists between those in cities and those in rural areas; between the educated and the uneducated; between socioeconomic groups; and, globally, between the more and less industrially developed nations. Even among populations with some access to technology, the digital divide can be evident in the form of lower-performance computers, lower-speed wireless connections, lower-priced connections such as dial-up, and limited access to subscription-based content. The reality of a separate-access marketplace is problematic because of the rise of services such as video on demand, video conferencing and virtual classrooms, which require access to high-speed, high-quality connections that those on the less-served side of the digital divide cannot access and/or afford. And while adoption of smartphones is growing, even among lower-income and minority groups, the rising costs of data plans and the difficulty of performing tasks and transactions on smartphones continue to inhibit the closing of the gap. Proponents for closing the digital divide include those who argue it would improve literacy, democracy, social mobility, economic equality and economic growth.[3]

The Global Digital Divide[4]
The global digital divide describes global disparities, primarily between developed and developing countries, in regards to access to computing and information resources such as the Internet and the opportunities derived from such access. As with a smaller unit of analysis, this gap describes an inequality that exists, referencing a global scale.

The Internet is expanding very quickly, and not all countries—especially developing countries—are able to keep up with the constant changes. The term “digital divide” doesn’t necessarily mean that someone doesn’t have technology; it could mean that there is simply a difference in technology. These differences can refer to, for example, high-quality computers, fast Internet, technical assistance, or telephone services. The difference between all of these is also considered a gap.

In fact, there is a large inequality worldwide in terms of the distribution of installed telecommunication bandwidth. In 2014 only 3 countries (China, US, Japan) host 50% of the globally installed bandwidth potential (see pie-chart Figure on the right). This concentration is not new, as historically only 10 countries have hosted 70–75% of the global telecommunication capacity. The U.S. lost its global leadership in terms of installed bandwidth in 2011, being replaced by China, which hosts more than twice as much national bandwidth potential in 2014 (29% versus 13% of the global total).

The global digital divide is a special case of the digital divide, the focus is set on the fact that “Internet has developed unevenly throughout the world” causing some countries to fall behind in technology, education, labor, democracy, and tourism. The concept of the digital divide was originally popularized in regard to the disparity in Internet access between rural and urban areas of the United States of America; the global digital divide mirrors this disparity on an international scale.

The global digital divide also contributes to the inequality of access to goods and services available through technology. Computers and the Internet provide users with improved education, which can lead to higher wages; the people living in nations with limited access are therefore disadvantaged.[66] This global divide is often characterized as falling along what is sometimes called the north-south divide of “northern” wealthier nations and “southern” poorer ones.

Causes of the Digital Divide[5]
Even though access to computers and the internet continues to grow, the digital divide dramatically also continues to persist at an alarming rate due to the following:

  • Education: Education is a significant investment in healing the digital divide. Low literacy levels are widening the digital inequality gap. College degree holders are perceived to be 10X more likely to tap into the full potential of the internet and computers in their day to day lives compared to individuals with high school education or lower.
  • Income Levels: The income gap plays a considerable role in magnifying the digital divide. High-income earners ($75,000) are 20X more likely to access the internet than low-income earners ($30,000). Wealthy families are 10X more likely to own computers and at home high-speed internet connection than low-income families. For low-income population money is scarce. Their earnings are channeled towards basic needs. They view technology as a luxury.
  • Geographical Restrictions: More economically developed countries have access to a wide variety of technology and high-speed broadband connection because of the richness of their economies. Less economically developed countries lack the necessary technology and infrastructure to set up a high-speed internet connection. In-country geographical restrictions also widen the digital divide. Urban regions are more likely to have access to 4G or fiber optic internet than rural or mountainous zones.
  • Motivation and General Interest: There is a portion of the global population that has the necessary income; education and computer literacy but have zero interest to learn about computers and the potential of the internet. Some view it as a luxury. Another group finds it too complicated to comprehend.

How Digital Divide Impacts Society[6]
The digital divide has its most direct impact on K-12 students in communities of color, which can lead to long-term negative consequences. Without access to high-speed internet or adequate digital skills, remote students face major challenges in learning. According to Pew Research, 15 percent of U.S. households lack high-speed Internet access; that number jumps to one-third among low-income households.

This gap has been compounded by the pandemic. As many schools have adopted distance learning during the COVID-19 crisis, existing gaps in digital literacy may lead to lifelong impacts in learning loss and economic well-being at disproportionate levels if action is not taken to bridge the digital divide, according to a recent McKinsey & Company report.

The study finds that low-income communities who experience “learning loss and higher dropout rates [during the pandemic] are not likely to be temporary shocks easily erased in the next academic year… They may translate into long-term harm for individuals and society.” McKinsey estimates a GDP loss of $173 billion to $271 billion per year by 2040 if learning gaps aren’t addressed.

Lack of high-speed Internet access can negatively impact economic growth, household income, educational performance, healthcare access and employment searches. Access to information allows communities to prosper. The right of access to information and connectivity speaks to our prosperity as a region.

Overcoming the Digital Divide[7]
The digital divide, as a whole, remains an enormous and complicated issue - heavily interwoven with the issues of race, education, and poverty. The obstacle, however, is by no means insurmountable if broken down into specific tasks that must be accomplished. Aside from the obvious financial barriers, the following would help narrow the gap:

  • Universal Access: As the use of computers and the Internet increases, so does the necessity for access. In the public sector, policy makers and community members must recognize the importance of such resources and take measures to ensure access for all. While increased competition among PC manufacturers and Internet Service Providers has substantially reduced the costs associated with owning a computer and maintaining a home connection, for many households the costs remain prohibitive. Like basic phone service, the government should subsidize Internet access for low-income households. At the same time, the private sector must commit to providing equal service and networks to rural and underserved communities so that all individuals can participate.
  • More Community Access Centers, Continued Support of Those Already Existing: Community access centers (CACs) are a critical resource for those without access to computers and the Internet at school or work; such programs should continue to receive funding in order to expand and strengthen. According to data collected in 1998, minorities, individuals earning lower incomes, individuals with lower educations, and the unemployed - the exact groups affected most by the digital divide - are the primary users of CACs. In fact, those using the CACs "are also using the internet more often than other groups to find jobs or for educational purposes" (NTIA Falling through the Net 99). Community access centers, therefore, are clearly worthwhile investments.
  • Additional, Well-Trained Technical Staff: Computers and other technologies alone are not enough. Communities and schools must train and preserve additional, and more qualified staff, alongside new technologies to promote the best application of resources. In addition to understanding the new technologies, the staff must be able to teach others.
  • Change of Public Attitude Regarding Technology: At the same time, much of society needs to change its attitude concerning technology. Rather than perceiving computers and the Internet as a superfluous luxury, the public should view them as crucial necessities. The public must come to realize the incredible power of new technologies and embrace them as tools for their future and the future of their children.

See Also


  1. What Does Digital Divide Mean? Britannica
  2. Aspects of Digital Divide Wikipedia
  3. Explaining Digital Divide Techtarget
  4. The Global Digital Divide Penn State
  5. What are the Causes of the Digital Divide? Digital Divide Council
  6. How Does Digital Divide Impact Society? SD Foundation
  7. Overcoming the Digital Divide: What Needs to Happen? Stanford