Ways to overcome the seven fault lines of the digital divide
How do we make sure there’s no digital divide in the digital economy?
The story of closing the digital divide is all too familiar. We’ve heard of families in rural areas who are unable to access high-speed broadband services. Or we’ve listened to friends talk of their marvelous holiday cottages equipped with all mod cons, but shock horror, no decent broadband to boxset binge the latest streaming hits on a rainy afternoon.
Many see broadband as a basic right, carrying a similar status to that of access to fresh drinking water or electricity; and the argument has gained considerable weight during the pandemic.
The reason for the gaping holes in coverage is usually that it isn’t commercially viable to connect sparsely populated areas. The remedy is government policies and funding to incentivize widespread fiber broadband rollouts and to ensure that remote and rural communities are not just connected but that they receive high-speed broadband. However, this strategy alone does not guarantee that everyone will have an equal opportunity to participate in the digital economy.
During the pandemic, when all but essential activities were closed and commuting and travel were restricted in many countries, people were still able to work, learn, access public information, stream entertainment and socialize online from the safety of their homes. Those who lacked digital connectivity were unable to access any of these resources and even those living in city centers reported feeling isolated so that their physical and mental health suffered.
Digital connectivity is not just the glue holding together the economy; it’s crucial to social cohesion too. And that is why commercial viability alone can no longer be the gating criterion for broadband rollout.
Extending the physical infrastructure also needs to go hand in hand with ensuring accessibility in terms of digital literacy and skills for all social groups. Without it we can only tap into a fraction of our socio-economic potential.
Seven fault lines of the digital divide
The digital divide cannot be defined simply in terms of geography or location. The presence of a high-speed broadband network outside your front door doesn’t guarantee participation in the digital economy.
A range of issues determine whether you can access, understand and use the available services. These include, but are not limited to, level of income, literacy, gender, ethnicity, age and physical abilities. It’s worth noting that groups experiencing these issues often face multiple barriers, more than one divide; for example, indigenous communities are more likely to live in remote areas and have lower than average incomes.
The future must be one of digital inclusion
When these fault lines are tackled, the result generates a more inclusive society and extends civic participation and equality of opportunity. By closing the digital divide, many social and economic barriers weaken, and people become more connected and engaged.
While developing markets can gain socio-economic benefits by ensuring that women and youth are included in the digital economy, developed markets need to look to the elderly, low income and indigenous communities and the physically impaired to ensure that no one is left behind.
Fault line 1 - Geography and location
Geography (developed or developing markets) or location (rural versus urban) usually determine network access. Urban regions are more likely to have access to 5G, LTE or fiber optic access because there’s a business case for commercial rollouts. Consequently, geographical barriers require government intervention to ensure that rural areas are not ignored. The US Federal Communications Commission’s Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) has committed US$20.8 billion to roll out broadband to America’s rural communities.
In Europe, the EU has made over €20 billion available from the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) for ICT investments, which include extending high-speed broadband rollout. Member states have their own programs too.
Practical example: Working with CSPs, the Belgian government has allocated €6 million distributing free modems or laptops to the most vulnerable families and it supports programs that strengthen their digital skills. Learn more by listening to Madam Petra De Sutter, Deputy Prime Minister of Belgium, who discusses some of the digital initiatives taking place.
Fault line 2 - Income
The digital divide is often seen as a rural problem, but you could live in the capital city in a G7 nation and have gigabit fiber or 5G outside your front door and be unable to afford the packages if you are unemployed or a low-income family.
The coronavirus pandemic highlighted the seriousness of the problem as work and education went online. One laptop and a low-bandwidth package was not enough to support the adults and children who all needed to be online at the same time.
Practical example: BT Home Essentials offers lower priced tariff plans to families receiving state benefits so that they can get online. It’s based on eligibility criteria and provides support to those in the most need.
Fault line 3 - Gender parity
According to the United Nations, in 2019 only 48% of women use the internet globally, compared to 58% of men. This gender gap ranges from 3% in developed markets to 53% in least developed countries (LDCs). Internet connectivity and digital services can empower women, give them access to public services and health information and provide an opportunity for greater financial independence.
It can also help them make a social-economic contribution at a local and national level. According to a 2015 study by the McKinsey Global Institute, empowering women to participate equally in the global economy could add $28 trillion in GDP growth by 2025.
Practical example: Nokia and UN Women are collaborating to promote gender empowerment in Middle East and Africa through key initiatives. These cover economic, health and social opportunities.
Fault line 4 -Age
According to a 2020 study by the ITU, 71% the world’s youth (aged between 15 and 24 years) were using the internet (compared with 57% of other age groups). However, in least developed countries (LDCs) this figure drops to 38% for youth (22% for the rest of the population) and acquiring digital skills for greater social mobility and economic integration remains an issue.
Practical example: In 2021, Nokia launched a two-year program in Morocco with UNICEF, the Moroccan government (the Ministry of Youth and the Ministry of Education) and Orange Morocco to empower less advantaged young people, particularly girls, to provide practical, entrepreneurial solutions for their communities.
According to a 2019 study by the Pew Research Center, 25% of Americans aged over 65 do not use the internet, while Age UK reports that around 42% of the those aged over 75 don’t use the internet. In order of importance, the most common barriers were lack of digital skills (79%), followed by lack of trust in the internet (39%) and not having access to equipment or broadband (30%).
Practical example: Telefonica O2 Germany and the Digital Opportunities Foundation offer Digital Mobil im Alter (Digital mobile for seniors). Their aim is to educate older people how to use video calls and voice messages on their smartphones and tablets to overcome physical distances and remain connected. It also tells them about the challenges of dealing with the internet, such as avoiding scams, phishing and identifying fake news.
Fault line 5 - Ethnicity
Indigenous communities face a particular set of challenges created by their remote and/or rural location and lack of digital content in their native languages. More fundamentally, however, they suffer greater levels of poverty, lower levels of education and healthcare provision and in the past, they’ve been subject to exclusionary government policies.
Practical example: Nokia worked with Choice Wireless and the indigenous Navajo Nation of North America to get the community online and provide digital access to services to help provide a better future.
Fault line 6 - Physical abilities
As digital services become pervasive, they are sometimes the only way of accessing services. Other channels, for example phonelines, will often suggest you visit a website or FAQs section to shorten queues. Advances in user interfaces, such as speech-to-text services and voice-activated intelligent personal assistants have been a huge step forward for the partially sighted and physically disabled, but again, obtaining digital skills and understanding what’s available and how to leverage these opportunities need focus.
Practical example: In the physical world, smart cities and industries provide a clear opportunity for government and business to consider differing abilities when designing services. Find out what a partially sighted person thinks this future should look like.
Fault line 7 - Education
Many experts feel current educational institutions are not designed to develop the creativity and innovation required in a workforce for the 21st century. Education needs to prepare the future workforce in developed and developing markets for the digital economy.
Broadly, digital skills correlate to years spent in education. Those with tertiary education (college, university) are more likely to leverage the potential of broadband and connected devices. Low literacy levels widen the digital inequality and often lead to lower incomes. It’s important that mandatory education develops digital skills and competence, but it is equally important to ensure life-long learning and skills development to adapt to workplace demand.
Practical example: As a result of the pandemic, USCcellular and Nokia worked together with the Boys & Girls Club in Omaha to help enable remote education.