The persistent digital divide

12 Nov 2018
Zoomed out photo of earth in darkness with light from cities

Marcus Leaning  FRSA, Professor of Digital Media Education, discusses the societal importance of internet access and how access differs across the world.

Who should be able to access the internet? Is it a privilege or is being able to access the digital services now so central to our day to day lives that we should consider it an essential service, akin to having access to drinking water and mains electricity? Is not having access to the internet a social disadvantage?  

The initial development of the internet took place in the late 1960s to early 1970s but it was not until the mid-1990s when the rapid growth in the number of people buying home computers, the emergence of companies providing internet access and the development of a graphical system for navigating and accessing information put access to the internet into the hands of many. From the earliest days it was understood that the internet could offer advantages to those able to access it in terms of being able find information, use services and communicate more quickly and easily. From the end of the 1990s attention began to focus upon those who were not able to access it and concern rose that such people were on the wrong side of what became known as the ‘digital divide’.

Fundamentally, the digital divide is a form of social stratification – not having access to the internet is a form of disadvantage as we are denied the advantages that those with access enjoy. However being on the wrong side of the digital divide is also a consequence of other forms of disadvantage; access requires the financial capital to avail ourselves of the hardware and to afford the costs of connection and also the educational capital of being able to use the technology. Thus access to digital media in part determines our social opportunities but is simultaneously determined by our social opportunities.

Because of significant governmental, third sector and commercial enterprise efforts, access in many western societies is now virtually universal – according to OFCOM nine in ten of British adults are now online and this rises to 99% of 16-24 year olds. Smart phones are the most common means of accessing the internet with 85% of UK adults possessing one - other means of access include desktop computers, laptops and tablets but there is also an increasing integration of internet technology into other devices such as cars, toys, watches and even clothes. There are similar figures in most developed countries. However, in less developed countries access is far less comprehensive.   

The International Telecommunications Union defines internet access as use of the internet from any location in a three month period. If this definition is accepted then the picture across the world is varied. Even with this definition (which counts people that we could consider to have very sporadic access), of the 55% of the world’s population who are now online some 70% of these people live in only 20 countries. Some regions of the world are far below the international average - of the 1.21 billion people living on the continent of Africa only 35% meet definition of having access. Eritrea  is one of the least connected countries on earth with only 1.1% of its population meeting the ITUs definition. The only country with less of its population connected to the internet is North Korea where reports indicate only .1% of the population are online.

Attempts to address these issues have been in development since around the turn of the century: the problem is seen as a priority by the UN in its Sustainable Development Goals and its 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development; the US State Department, together with the World Bank, launched the Global Connect Initiative in 2015 and the World Economic Forum launched its Internet for All project. These and numerous other projects seek to extend the internet to all regions of the world through developing existing forms of infrastructure, developing new means of connection (such as the use of drones and high level balloons to allow internet connections in remote regions) and reducing the cost of internet connection.

In addition to these figures describing the overall rates of access, there is discrepancy within countries as to who has access. When we consider the demographics of access rates we find large differences.

Perhaps the most important factor in determining access is wealth. Worldwide people with higher household incomes are more likely to have internet access than those with lower incomes. In developing countries the often high cost of internet access facilitates this division as in some countries the cost of a broad band subscription is  well above the average household income.

In many countries women have lower technology participation rates than men and this pattern is replicated with internet access. Worldwide the proportion of women using the internet is 12% lower than that of men. This discrepancy is larger in less developed countries and, with a few exceptions, has actually been increasing in the past five years.

Age plays a large factor in determining a person’s likelihood to be able to access the internet. In many countries being over 65 means you are less likely to be online. A number of developed countries there held numerous successful initiatives to facilitate engagement by older users, which is helping to close the gap. However, in many developing countries there is less attention paid to the issue.

In terms of education, research has indicated a relationship between education level and internet usage. The more educated a person is the more likely they are to have both the material access to the internet and the educational skills to use it to further their own interests. It is also widely recognised that having access to the internet and being digitally literate also contributes to educational success.

In many countries access and speed of connection is worse, or in many cases non-existent, especially in rural areas when compared to cities. Such aspects further entrench disjuncture between rural and urban communities and such disparities are very evident in developed countries as well as developing ones.

So, while efforts to address the digital divide have been ongoing now for nearly 20 years and vast sums of money have been invested in ameliorating the problem, there are still significant problems in establishing and ensuring access to all members of society. Consequently, resolving the persistent digital divide needs to remain a focus in countries across the world to create a fairer, equal opportunity society.

Marcus Leaning teaches on BA (Hons) Media and Communication. He was recently awarded a National Teaching Fellowship for making an outstanding impact on student outcomes and the teaching profession in higher education. He will further discuss the impact of the digital divide in his inaugural lecture Whatever Happened to the Digital Divide? on 29 November. Book your place here.

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