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The Global Struggle to Bridge the Digital Divide
Posted On July 19, 2016
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The Council of Economic Advisers issued “Mapping the Digital Divide,” which stresses that “closing the digital divide can increase productivity and open ladders of opportunity. …” Although the report notes that the U.S. “has long been the world leader at creating and deploying the Internet,” it also focuses on the challenges that remain. “[T]here is still a substantial distance to go, particularly in our poorest neighborhoods and most rural communities, to ensure that all Americans can take advantage of the opportunities created by recent advances in computing and communications technology.”

Efforts to Reduce the Gap

Free Wi-Fi 1In May 2016, California-based nonprofits iFoster and Foster Care Counts released research showing that teens in foster care face an “acute digital divide”: Less than 20% of teens in foster care own a computer, compared to 90% of U.S. teens overall. The research focuses on the “positive impact that laptop ownership can have on teens in the foster care system, offering a simple and straightforward solution for helping to bridge the digital divide.” Several Silicon Valley companies and foundations have formed a coalition that hopes to get laptops into the hands of all California teens in foster care.

Other organizations are addressing this need too. In San Francisco, the Calvary Hill Community Church, using funds from Rev. Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow PUSH Coalition (RPC), opened FAITHTECH Labs to serve the needs of neighborhood children. FAITHTECH Labs is part of the coalition’s 1,000 Churches Connected Program. Libraries have been involved in these types of outreach and access efforts since the early days of microcomputers.

The Toronto Public Library is lending free Wi-Fi hotspots to its community in six of the city’s low-income neighborhoods. The library set aside $100,000 for lendable internet access—with Google contributing an equal amount to support the program. “ACORN, a national organization of low- and moderate-income families with 70,000 members in nine cities across the country, is pushing the Canadian Radio and Telecommunications Commission to mandate a $10-per-month high-speed home internet product for families and individuals living below Statistics Canada’s low income measure (LIM),” the Toronto Star reports.

Lendable mobile Wi-Fi hot spots are on the rise in public libraries across the U.S. as well, in major cities such as Seattle and New York. The California Advanced Services Fund (CASF) authorized $315 million to be collected from a small fee on phone bills to support the deployment of broadband service into unserved and underserved areas. CASF funded 56 projects and reached 304,835 households before running out of money. The state legislature is now considering the Internet for All Now Act of 2016, which would authorize $50 million per year for 7 years for total additional funding of $350 million to CASF to serve the estimated 300,000 California households still without high-speed access to the internet.

A survey from Public Libraries & the Internet finds, “With 99% of public libraries offering public Internet access, public libraries provide a vital community link to the Internet, technology, and information. Public libraries are essential providers of employment, educational services and resources, and e-government.” Despite funding and other “challenges in their efforts to provide access and instruction services, they are embracing their role bridging the digital divide, and they continue to expand their services and innovate in their practices.”

Will the Digital ‘Poor’ Always Exist?

A recent analysis of network data by University of California–Davis’ Martin Hilbert finds that “the bandwidth divide [continues] to be dynamic. … [T]he bandwidth divide is linked to the income divide, which is notoriously persistent. The bandwidth distribution among all countries is undergoing a new process of global concentration, during which North America and Europe is being replaced by Asia as the new global leader.” Hilbert writes, “In contrary to the common argument that the digital access divide is quickly closing and that the focus should shift to skills and usage … access to digital communication is a moving target unlikely to ever be solved.”

The digital divide is a fact of life in rural areas of the U.S.—on the prairies and in small towns, as well as on reservations and for tribal nations. The Guardian notes that “the low population density means that phone and internet companies simply don’t upgrade their equipment often enough to keep pace with progress. In Navajo [Nation], much of the vital infrastructure was never installed to begin with.” The Financial Post reports that “new data suggests there’s also a divide between neighbourhoods in Canadian cities, where residents in adjacent areas experience vastly different speeds. …” More data is needed to explain this. “The data could reflect the socioeconomic characteristics of a neighbourhood … differences between internet service providers, network traffic or whether a resident lives in a ‘fibre desert.’ …”

Free Wi-Fi 2“Since the mid-19th century,” a study in the Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media notes, “scholars and policy makers have expressed concern for segments of the population facing disparities associated with differential patterns of information dissemination and underlying social inequities that influence how information is used.” The challenge in closing this divide is the subject of an interview with Federal Communications Commission (FCC) commissioner Mignon Clyburn in The New York Times: “Tens of millions of people are caught in the divide, and what we know is many are low-income and in rural areas. In total, 10 percent of Americans, or 34 million people, lack access to what we define as high-speed internet. … [There are] 7.8 million low-income consumers who only have access through their mobile device. There are limitations with what you can do on your smartphone, and 48 percent lose coverage over the course of their contract because they can’t afford it at some point. So they are getting counted for having broadband on their phones but they don’t have continual coverage,” she says.

An independent research study commissioned by the WBA “reveals the majority (57%) of the global urban population remains unconnected, with more than a third (37%) living in some of the world’s wealthiest cities.”

The term “digital divide” was popularized by New York Law School’s Allen Hammond and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration’s Larry Irving in the mid-1990s. During the Clinton administration, the internet was the “information superhighway,” a free ride on the Route 66 of the future, and the digital divide was envisioned as unequal access (i.e., no on-ramps) to computers and the internet. Now, 20 years later, our understanding of the complexity of the internet, as well as of access, voice, and power, has changed.

The discussion has moved—along with the internet—to address issues of technology skills, how technology is being used, cultural differences, the fairness of coverage, and the diversity of perspectives available. It encompasses the gaps that exist for marginalized people across the globe. The vision of an information superhighway has become entangled with territorial battles among corporate giants, technological developments, diverse and divisive politics of legal and legislative bodies, geographic challenges, and financial realities. Still, progress is being made in an area that, similar to most critical issues of our time, is far more complicated, complex, and dynamic than was ever envisioned only 20-some years ago.

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Nancy K. Herther is a research consultant and writer who recently retired from a 30-year career in academic libraries.

Email Nancy K. Herther

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