There’s a border that runs right through the center of the internet. On one side, there’s everyone with access to a high-speed internet connection. On the other, there are those of us who wrestle with slow speeds, data limits, or the inability to get internet at all.
This border is known as the digital divide. One side has access to all the excitement that happens online and the economic growth that goes with it. The other is far less visible and, in many ways, getting left behind.
What Is the Digital Divide?
The digital divide refers to the unequal access to information communication technologies, and the knowledge necessary to use them, between people, regions, demographic groups, and economic groups.
The digital divide is possible to observe at various scales. You can look at a city, a region, a state, a country, or the entire world. I’m going to focus on the US. Despite being one of the most connected countries on the planet, America’s digital divide remains quite stark.
Factors Impacting the Digital Divide in the US:
- Location: Urban and Suburban areas are more likely to have broadband access (though many urban residents rely on limited mobile data plans, rather than cable or fiber). Many rural residents can only purchase dial-up or satellite. There are also regional differences. In general, the Northeast and the West Coast have a higher degree of internet access than the South or Appalachia.
- Race: Americans of Asian descent and White Americans are most likely to have high-speed internet access. Hispanic, Black, and Native Americans are less likely.
- Income: Affluent Americans are more likely to have high-speed internet access than Americans who make less money. Faster internet plans require a higher monthly payment. The same is true of smartphone and hotspot plans.
- Age: Older Americans are less likely to have high-speed internet access or to be familiar with (or trust) online tools and services. Remember, the digital divide refers not only to access, but to digital knowledge as well.
- Education: People with a higher degree of education are more likely to go online. It’s worth pointing out that these people are also more likely to make more money and to move to a location where high-speed internet is readily available. But there’s something to be said for the reality that someone who reads or types more slowly is going to be less inclined to sit in front of a computer.
Many of these factors impact the digital divide within and between other countries as well.
Why the Digital Divide Matters
The internet has become integrated into many aspects of life. People or places without reliable access find them impacted in many vital (but not always obvious) ways.
1. Finding Work
When it comes to finding a job, it’s who you know, not what you know. It’s also where you live. Finding a job isn’t easy, but it’s even harder when the time it takes to load a job posting is measured in minutes or your connection is so spotty you can’t be sure the resume you submitted even went through.
In these situations, there are also fewer jobs to apply for. People are less inclined to start businesses in places without fast or unlimited internet. Slow connections hinders a company’s ability to communicate with clients, manage a website, or sell products online. So when someone from a rural area does land a job, it often requires moving to someplace less rural, doing nothing to improve the availability of internet access back home.
And you can imagine what happens in a place lacking both internet access and work when the internet kills off industries.
The internet can be a great resource when you’re trying to learn something, whether formally or informally. You can earn a college degree online, assuming your internet connection can download coursework, stream video, and support video conferencing.
But first you have to get a diploma or GED. Many high school courses now exist online, and K-12 education in general increasingly supplements in-class learning with digital materials. Slow internet increases your chances of falling behind.
Then there’s informal education. You can try your hands at just about any hobby by visiting YouTube. But if you can’t stream videos, there goes that. There are also a wealth of sites providing written materials that you’re still less likely to find if search results are slow to load.
3. Staying Healthy and Fit
Areas without broadband internet tend to be poorer. They’re more likely to be food deserts and lack access to gyms or other forms of recreational fitness.
But that’s not all. Without reliable internet, people here can’t take advantage of the growing number of health-related gadgets and services. Most wearables don’t do much without a connection to the cloud service that powers them. Then there are the websites and telecommunication services that, were internet access more equitably spread, could actually improve healthcare in rural areas.
4. Having Fun and Staying Engaged
There’s great pressure to keep up with the latest TV shows, movies, music, and memes just to stay a part of the conversation at work, with friends, or online. While you can somewhat do this with a satellite TV subscription, you’re going to miss out on a lot without the internet.
Some of the best shows these days exist exclusively online on Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime Video, and Crackle. Hoping to catch a song on MTV, BET, or CMT is going to involve a lot more time and luck than firing up YouTube or Spotify. And if you’re learning about a memeon a daytime talk show, then the meme is probably already dead.
Then there’s gaming, which is its own beast. Many games are only available digitally. Even if you do have a disc, prepare to download a huge patch as soon as you put it in. In some cases, you could burn through a satellite internet plan’s entire monthly allotment of data downloading updates to a single game. If you do have some data left, there’s probably not enough bandwidth to play online.
What Can You Do?
Erasing the digital divide isn’t easy. In many parts of the world, and the US is no exception, monopolies or duopolies determine internet access. These companies lobby government to keep their control of the market.
We as consumers don’t have the ability to vote with our wallets, and we aren’t yet organized or informed enough to change things politically. But there are things we can do.
Steps You Can Take:
- Move back home. A community is less likely to change when the people most empowered to do something migrate their talents elsewhere (easier said than done, I know—I’m not likely to move back to the rural area I’m from either).
- Donate resources to public libraries, where people without home broadband go to get online
- Organize existing businesses and organizations in an area to advocate for broadband access. In the process, the areas around them may get access as well.
- Spread awareness. People don’t always know what they’re missing out on. Change sometimes just needs someone to step in, educate others, and advocate for a particular area. Individuals, companies, or other organizations may make donations to help once they’re aware of a cause.
- Campaign for broader political change. This is no easy task. As we’ve seen with net neutrality, SOPA, and the like, internet-related matters are hard to mobilize people around. While this may ultimately be an issue that requires generational change among our leaders, it’s still important for younger representatives to have established consensus.
- Support organizations that are already doing the work. There are regional or academic projects such as the Mississippi State University Extension Service Intelligent Community Institute, national non-profits like EveryoneOn, and international initiatives i.e. Global Digital Divide.
Which Side Are You On?
I grew up on the less connected side of the digital divide. In 2008, we still played StarCraft online not because it was awesome (though it was), but because it didn’t lag on dial-up. It was faster to go to the library for YouTube than to try to load a video at home.
The digital divide remains a regular part of my life. I now live in the land of broadband and LTE, but when I go back to visit my folks, my phone loses signal halfway there. With a roaming phone and a slow satellite internet connection, video chats, text messages, and even phone calls are no longer something I can take for granted.
In theory, as a web writer, I can work from anywhere. That isn’t the case. With 5G on the horizon, we have another opportunity to close the digital divide. But that will only happen if we make it a priority.