Digital divide throughout the world and why it causes inequality
ICT (Information and Communication Technologies) offer many advantages: greater access to information, cost reduction in the labour sector, greater connectivity between people, etc. However, digitalisation is not happening equally all over the world, because imbalance exists and this is known as the digital divide.
In just a few days, the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus locked us up in the house meaning we had to study, work and look into each other's eyes through a camera. Access to the Internet has enabled many of us to get on with our lives despite the pandemic thanks to modalities such as remote working and online education, but the reality isn't the same all over the world. In fact, the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the specialised agency of the United Nations (UN), warned at the end of 2021 that almost half of the earth's inhabitants — some 2.9 billion people — do not even have access to the Internet.
What is the digital divide?
Inequality in access to the Internet and ICT is known as the digital divide and affects 52 % of women and 42 % of men worldwide. This gap becomes even wider when we talk about regions: according to data taken from the Internet portal World Stats as of December 2021, in Africa only 43.1 % of its inhabitants had Internet access, compared to 88.4 % of Europeans and 93.4 % of Americans.
The data shows the technological gap that separates some countries from others, despite the fact that 3G and 4G networks, while awaiting the massive expansion of 5G, are already reaching almost every corner of the planet. Here, it is important to distinguish between access to the Internet and digital literacy, that is, the learning process that enables a person to acquire the skills to understand and benefit from the educational, economic and social potential of the new technologies.
Causes and types of digital divide
The digital divide was initially attributed to underdevelopment and was perceived as something temporary that would disappear with the popularisation of technology. Instead, the divide persists today despite the mass marketing of electronic devices with Internet access. The causes can range from the high price of the above-mentioned devices to the lack of knowledge about their use or the lack of infrastructure for their access. In this regard, we review the types of digital divide:
- Access divide. It refers to the possibilities that people have to access this resource. This is where socio-economic differences between people and between countries come into play, since digitisation requires very costly investments and infrastructure for less developed regions and for rural areas.
- Use divide. It refers to the lack of digital skills, which impedes the handling of technology. In this regard, and to give an example, the ITU points out that there are 40 countries in which more than half of their inhabitants do not know how to attach a file to an email.
- Quality of use gap. Sometimes they have the digital skills to find their way around the Internet, but not the knowledge to make good use of and get the most out of it. For example, with regard to access to quality information.
A few years ago, ITU established the Digital Access Index (DAI), which measures the overall ability of a country's citizens to access and use ICT. This index takes into account various variables grouped around five categories, which are as follows: quality, infrastructure, knowledge, accessibility and use.
Consequences of the digital divide
Technological discrimination is a form of poverty and social exclusion, depriving some citizens of essential resources for development and wealth generation. We have seen this a lot during the COVID-19 pandemic, as many students and workers found it difficult to work from home and follow classes online. We review the main effects of the digital divide below:
Lack of communication and isolation
People in remote areas who do not have access to the Internet are disconnected. Something similar happens to urban residents who are disconnected which causes social isolation.
Barrier to studies and knowledge
The coronavirus crisis has shown the effects of the digital divide in education: teachers and students out of the loop because they lack sufficient technology and digital skills. It also increases lack of knowledge by limiting access to knowledge.
Accentuates social differences
Digital illiteracy reduces the chances of finding a job and accessing quality employment, which has a negative impact on the workers' economy.
As we saw at the beginning, the digital divide negatively affects women more than men, which violates the principles of gender equality.
Strategies on bridging the digital divide
The UN includes the reduction of the digital divide (SDG 9) in its Sustainable Development Goals. That is why, in many places initiatives have been launched to facilitate access to technology. Here we mention some of the most relevant ones:
- Digital literacy programs. They instruct people in less-favoured areas of Internet use to improve their personal well-being.
- Alliance for Affordable Internet (A4AI). This project, led by an international coalition of governments, businesses and civil society, aims to lower the cost of broadband in specific areas in Africa, Asia and Latin America.
- Free Basics. This initiative, promoted by Facebook and six other technology companies, aims to provide free access to a number of websites through a mobile application.
- Starlink. This project, promoted by tycoon Elon Musk, is launching satellites into space to provide high-speed Internet and global coverage at affordable prices.