What Happened to the Digital Divide?

Internet Access Here Sign

Internet Access Here Sign (Photo credit: Steve Rhode)

There was hardly a time in the late 90’s and early 00’s when broadband was discussed that the topic of digital divide was not mentioned. Government entities, policy people and even service providers talked about solving the digital divide to make sure that everybody had access to the Internet. There were committees and commissions formed in many communities to help solve the digital divide and to make sure that every child had a computer and an internet connection.

From what I can see the topic has disappeared from discussion and I rarely seeing the topic discussed any more. Does this mean that the digital divide has been solved? Certainly there are a lot more households with Internet access today than a decade ago, but do the poorest households now subscribe to the Internet?

Before one can even answer the question we need to define what broadband is. The FCC defines broadband as the ability to get a landline service with a download speed of at least 4 Mbps and an upload speed of 1 Mbps. In most markets that is one of the lower-speed products available and speeds in metropolitan and suburban areas are now much faster than that. According the numbers released by the FCC in August of 2012 there were 19 million people in the US with no access to broadband and another 100 million with access to broadband but who do not purchase it. But there are many who dispute the way that the FCC counted the 19 million figure and think that the real number is much larger.

Another way to look at the market is by households and the Leichtman Research Group did a study in 2012 that showed that there are almost 81 million homes with broadband, or just at 70% of all households. That same study said that broadband penetration rates in homes with average household incomes under $30,000 had only a 52% broadband penetration rate while homes with incomes over $50,000 had a 97% penetration rate. Obviously there are a lot of households who feel they cannot afford broadband.

Today one has to ask if landline broadband is the only kind of broadband. For example comscore reports that 133 million people owned smartphones as of February 2013, or 57% of everybody over 13 years old. Certainly there are many people whose only Internet access is with a smartphone.

A Pew Research Center study released a study earlier this year of the Internet usage of teenagers between 12 and 17. This group uses the Internet more than any other age group and 95% of teenagers access the Internet at least one per month. But 25% of teenagers only have a smartphone to use for Internet access. One has to question if smartphone usage is really broadband. Certainly you can read news, update Facebook and play games on a smartphone. But it’s sheer torture to use a smartphone to write something even as long as this blog and it’s hard to see smartphones being a broadband substitute for school kids trying to do various types of homework. The smartphone wasn’t really designed to handle files in the same way as a laptop or computer.

One thing that is clear in the figures is that the lower the income the less likelihood that a household will find broadband to be affordable. And to me that says that we still have the digital divide. But for some reason, nobody is talking about it anymore.

One statistic that I found interesting is that the Leichtman report said that 90% of households with computers have broadband. When you compare that to the statistics that say that only 52% of households with household incomes under $30,000 have broadband it is also easy to say that an awful lot of those homes don’t have computers.

I remember a decade ago there were major programs developed to get computers into households, particularly households with children. I just did a Google search and found a few such programs are still active, like one in Chicago, but getting computers into homes was a major focus for my clients and the country as a whole a decade ago. And that seems to have basically dwindled away as a priority.

I don’t know the reasons for this, but I can postulate. Broadband access seems to be ubiquitous in middle class neighborhoods and it is now the rare house that doesn’t have a computer and Internet access. Perhaps everybody just assumes that this is now true everywhere, while it is not. If the FCC numbers are to be believed there are still 119 million people without Internet access. Back the babies out of that number and there are still a whole lot of people without broadband.

It seems to me that the digital divide hasn’t gone away at all. We have just stopped talking or caring about it. Maybe it’s time to put this back on the agenda.

2 thoughts on “What Happened to the Digital Divide?

  1. Even though the general public is not discussing the digital divide, there are a lot of communities working on information technology access and use, particularly for at risk populations (low-income, under-educated, seniors and disabled). The quickest way to see what strategies are being used (and tested) is to peruse the NTIA Broadband Adoption Toolkit recently released. http://www2.ntia.doc.gov/files/toolkit_042913.pdf

    The term “digital divide” is not often used, in part because we have learned so much about the issue that solutions are narrowing down into broadband adoption, digital literacy, and access. The solutions are generally lumped together as “digital inclusion. An overview of digital inclusion is at http://www.webjunction.org/explore-topics/digital-inclusion.html.

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  2. Thanks for your blog on this important topic. And thanks for the links, Angela.

    As someone immersed in this work, I have learned that the issue of Digital Inclusion goes beyond access to Broadband and a computer. Many people who do not currently have technology availability at home are in need of digital literacy training. There are many great examples of successful programs across the country in the toolkit that Angela shared.

    Boston is currently engaged in addressing Digital Inclusion via the program called Tech Goes Home, whose expansion was funded by an NTIA Sustainable Broadband Adoption grant. The project provides the hardware and support to obtain access, but also provides relevance training. As a result, one year later, 90% of the low income homes supported are connected to the Internet.

    Addressing this issue is important, though as you noticed, has not seemed to raise the public interest and concern it once did. We need to highlight successful programs and share the economic and social benefits of having everyone in a community on-line.

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