For the past three years, I’ve been invited to speak on the topic of “the digital divide” to several Management Information Systems(MGT 3180) classes at Clemson University.
One definition of the digital divide, from an article in Wikipedia, reads as follows:
“A digital divide is an economic and social inequality with regard to access to, use of, or impact of information and communication technologies(ICT). The divide within countries (such as the digital divide in the United States) may refer to inequalities between individuals, households, businesses, or geographic areas, usually at different socioeconomic levels or other demographic categories. The divide between differing countries or regions of the world is referred to as the global digital divide examining this technological gap between developing and developed countries on an international scale.” Source:https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Digital_divide
In my talks to Clemson students, I have enhanced the definition by including other factors besides economic and social inequality that leave individuals and groups on the wrong side of the divide. Based on my study of the reality of access to information and communication technologies in Oconee County and around the country, I have identified the following barriers:
(1) Lack of availability of high-speed Internet access in specific areas due to sparse population, which has made installation of fiber economically questionable for “for profit” providers. There are upscale communities in Oconee County, South Carolina and other American counties where households must rely on satellite providers, such as Hughes Net, or cell tower Internet service from cell phone companies like Verizon, due to the absence of other options. These households regularly exhaust their data plans each month and cannot make full use of the most up-to-date options. See http://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/08/technology/how-to-give-rural-america-broadband-look-to-the-early-1900s.html?emc=edit_th_20160808&nl=todaysheadlines&nlid=55294413&_r=0
(2) Statutes in numerous American states that prevent the public sector, read municipal or county governments, from providing direct service to private customers. The “for profit” companies in the market have successfully lobbied their state legislatures to keep governments out of the market. If “for profit” providers do not choose to offer high-speed connections,* businesses and homeowners are handicapped in their ability to make full use of communication resources. See http://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/29/technology/broadband-law-could-force-rural-residents-off-information-superhighway.html?hpw&rref=business&action=click&pgtype=Homepage&module=well-region®ion=bottom-well&WT.nav=bottom-well
*minimum speed as defined by the Federal Communications Commission is now 25 megabits per second. See http://www.cnet.com/news/sorry-your-broadband-internet-technically-isnt-broadband-anymore/
(3) Disabilities that prevent certain individuals and groups, irrespective of economics, from fully accessing the Internet. Assistive technology is a growth industry as the American population ages, with failing eyesight, loss of hearing, impaired manual dexterity, et cetera. Of special importance is technology that converts spoken word to text, which enables the physically disabled to interact with web sites.
(4) Religious beliefs that prevent the use of modern technology. Of special note are the Old Order Amish, the most conservative of the Amish groups. Their homes are not even connected to the electrical grid, much less the Internet.
(5) Lack of basic literacy, which prevents a sizeable group of Americans from using the Internet. Inability to read and write and spell is definitely a handicap in the unforgiving online world.
(6) Lack of basic computer skills, including the use of keyboards and mice. In some cases this is a factor of socioeconomics, but in other cases, older members of society have failed to keep up with technological advances.
(7) Obsolete technology, irrespective of socioeconomics. Some individuals are reluctant to discard obsolete equipment and upgrade to more modern cellphones, personal computers and laptops. Moreover, the refusal to upgrade from slower Internet connections, such as DSL, to faster connectivity handicaps some households in their attempts to fully access communication technologies.
I also mention the role of public libraries in providing access to the Internet, noting that Oconee County Public Library offers a total of 33 public Internet terminals at its four libraries, wifi access at each location 24 hours a day, plus wifi access at three community centers: Mountain Rest Community Club, Long Creek Community Center, and Fair Oaks Youth Association building in Fair Play.
Homework requirements at public schools in South Carolina and counties throughout the United States now require access to both devices and the Internet. The mifi “hotspot” with Chromebook (or similar device) option, checked out to students whose families cannot afford hardware or an Internet connection is another possibility. I note that the Pickens County(SC) School System is offering this option to certain students this fall. For more about the necessity for students to be able to access the Internet for homework assignments, see http://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/23/technology/fcc-internet-access-school.html
The bottom line I leave with the Clemson students, who are aiming for business careers, whether as employees or entrepreneurs, is to make sure that the city or town that they choose as a place to live and work has adequate internet connectivity. See articles on Chattanooga, Tennessee at http://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/17/realestate/commercial/chattanoogas-innovation-district-beckons-to-young-entrepreneurs.html?ref=technology and http://www.slate.com/articles/podcasts/placemakers/2016/08/can_chattanooga_tennessee_bridge_its_digital_divide.html
See also the March 2016 Council of Economic Advisers’ document entitled “The Digital Divide and Economic Benefits of Broadband Access” at http://permanent.access.gpo.gov/gpo67605/20160308_broadband_cea_issue_brief.pdf