In 2019, 54.8% of households around the world had an internet connection, up from 53.1% in 2018, according to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU). Though the internet has been around for decades, the digital divide remains a wide chasm in need of complex and practical solutions.
The digital divide affects individuals and populations around the world. Some groups, such as women and children, are more likely to lack access to digital communication devices.
The Three Types of Digital Divide
The digital divide contains three types. The first type is gender divide, where women are less likely to own a phone or access the internet, illustrating a gender gap in mobile connectivity.
The second type, social divide, refers to unequal access to the internet contributing to social stratification, as groups without internet access can’t reap the benefits of interaction with online peer groups.
The third type, universal access divide, refers to individuals with physical disabilities not having access to or the ability to use hardware and software. The reasons for this divide type can include digital illiteracy, low education levels, and poor broadband infrastructure, according to the Digital Divide Council (DDC).
What the Data Reveals About the Digital Divide
A Pew Research Center study shows that among U.S. adults with household incomes below $30,000, 29% don’t own a smartphone, 44% don’t have home broadband services, 46% don’t own a traditional computer, and 26% own a smartphone but don’t have broadband internet at home.
Pew also reveals that among non-mobile phone owners in emerging economies, 43% say that phones are too complicated to use, 31% state they can’t read well enough to use a mobile phone, 43% report that they have no need for a mobile phone, and 47% say they’d like to have a mobile phone but lack access due to security, financial, connectivity, and language issues.
According to a GSM Association (GSMA) poll, 82% of women in low- and middle-income countries own a mobile phone. However, they are 8% less likely than men to own one, translating to 165 million fewer women than men having a mobile phone. Women in this sector are also 20% less likely to own a smartphone.
The poll also shows that just 54% of women access mobile internet, and that women are 20% less likely than men to use the service, a percentage that translates to 300 million women. Studies show closing this gender gap in mobile internet use by 2023 could add $700 billion in GDP growth in these countries over five years.
The Benefits of an Internet Connection
Internet connections can improve quality of life and help individuals achieve goals, especially among vulnerable populations. The benefits of an internet connection for consumers include increased economic development, greater income potential and lower unemployment rates, reduced food and health vulnerabilities, improved access to government services, and enhanced participatory governance, according to the ITU.
Benefits also include a greater ability to keep in touch with others, improved access to news, enhanced educational opportunities, greater access to financial services, and improved access to health information and resources, according to GSMA.
Causes and Examples of the Digital Divide
Factors such as low literacy and income levels, geographical restrictions, lack of motivation to use technology, lack of physical access to technology, and digital illiteracy contribute to the digital divide.
Factors Influencing the Digital Divide
Individuals may lack access to the internet because of low literacy levels, as college graduates are 10 times more likely to reap the daily benefits of computers and the internet than non-college graduates. Low income levels can also be a factor; individuals with a $75,000 annual income are 20 times more likely to access the internet compared with individuals with a $30,000 annual income, and computer ownership and high-speed internet are 10 times more common for wealthy families than low-income families. Other factors include a lack of motivation on how to use technology, lack of physical access to technology, digital illiteracy, and geographical restrictions, according to the DDC.
In low- and middle-income countries, there are four key barriers to mobile ownership and mobile internet use for women. These barriers are affordability, low literacy and digital skill levels, safety and security concerns, and lack of family approval, according to GSMA.
The Cost of the Digital Divide
The digital divide affects the economy, as telecommunications and internet connectivity enable a variety of economy-boosting activities like online shopping, according to the DDC. It also affects education, as access to information and communication technology (ICT) has been linked to advanced scientific research and academic success. Additionally, it affects social spheres, as internet access fosters communication and connection between family and friends.
Strategies to Bridge the Digital Divide
Governments, private companies, and nonprofit organizations can take steps to bridge the digital divide and increase individuals’ internet access.
10 Strategies to Address the Digital Divide
The ITU and UNESCO have proposed 10 strategies to address the digital divide. They recommend the promotion of digital inclusion in broadband plans and digital economy efforts. They also propose increasing efforts to improve digital literacy and digital skills. Additionally, the two groups propose an incorporation of public access policies into universal access and service (UAS) initiatives.
A fourth strategy is the support of innovative policies targeting underserved and marginalized groups. They also recommend agencies ensure that initiatives take into consideration network coverage and infrastructure needs. The two groups also point to creating safeguards to protect children online as an important strategy.
Additionally, they recommend the support of efforts to provide broadband connectivity to refugees and displaced individuals. They also propose the limiting of environmental impacts in national broadband plans. Encouraging and evaluating ICT innovations is another proposed strategy. Finally, the organizations recommend the promotion of broadband affordability.
Closing the Gap
The benefits of bridging the digital divide, such as increased economic development and improved productivity, far outweigh the costs of improving access to broadband connectivity. The key to bridging the digital divide is recognizing the fact that each individual should have equal access, regardless of gender or income level.