Is the digital divide widening or narrowing?
Access to modern information and communications technology, most specifically the internet, is one of the central accelerators to development in any country today. The digital revolution which was kickstarted by the internet has not only brought about convenience in sharing of information but it has also led to the automation of many tasks that are currently handled digitally. Today, businesses and government organizations deliver most of their services through the web, making access to the internet an indispensable human resource. In fact, the UN Human Rights Council considers access to the internet as a basic human right. Unfortunately, despite the numerous strides that have taken place in the technology realm in the last two decades, access to the internet still remains firmly elusive to billions of people worldwide. This brings about the concept of the digital divide.
The digital divide
Prior to the late 20th century, the concept of digital divide was interpreted solely as the gap between those with and without telephone access. However, from the late 1990s, digital divide began enjoying a wide interpretation, consequently referring the existential gap between those with access to modern information and communications technology and those that don’t or have restricted access. And since the internet is at the core of modern information and communication systems, the term ‘digital divide’ almost always refers to the split between those with and without access to the internet. To explore the dynamics of the digital divide in the last two decades, we’ll consider some of the ways in which the gap has both narrowed and widened over the years.
The narrowing of the digital divide
In the year 1995, less than 1% of the world population had access to the internet. At this time, the idea of the internet, leave alone its usage was confined to big research organizations and was only used by the elite of society. Fast forward five years later by the turn of the century, world internet usage had grown to 8% of the world population. In 2005 a hallmark was reached when it was reported that a billion people had accessed the internet. Today, the metrics lie slightly above 50% of the world population and the figures continue to rise.
In terms of raw figures, the digital divide is shrinking steadfastly at a rate of 5% annually and internet growth statistics show that by the year 2028, 100% of the world population will have internet access. This continuous progress is highly attributed to the efforts of both government and private business organizations that continue to build the capacity in terms of infrastructure and formulate policies that support the adoption of the internet.
The widening of the digital divide
Despite the exemplary growth in the number of people accessing the internet over the years, there still remains approximately 3.5 billion people worldwide today who have no internet access. A huge percentage of these people are located in less developed countries and more particularly in the rural areas where the infrastructure development is very poor. The development of satellite communication technologies presents new possibilities for achieving universal internet access especially in these less developed regions with low internet penetration.
Besides infrastructure, another influencing factor to the widening digital divide is the censorship or restriction of the internet by certain autocratic governments to achieve selfish political interests. A perfect example of this happened in December 2016 when the Gambian government blocked the internet during the presidential election period. Besides this incident, there are well-documented reports of many governments in Asia, Middle East and beyond which restrict internet access to their citizens in the pretext of avoiding social protests. All these pose a formidable challenge to achieving universal internet access.
The new digital divide
Over the years, the incessant debate on the dimensions of the digital divide has shifted gears to not only include the level of access to the internet but also in the way the internet is used and the quality and cost of this use. Technocrats are now vouching for the implementation of broadband internet connections rather than the traditional dial-up internet that is less efficient. Broadband internet such as 4G and 5G internet brings about capabilities of accessing and disseminating large amounts of data in a relatively short period of time. Even though this technology has not gained traction in many countries worldwide due to its high cost of establishment, it has proven to be the future of the internet.
Besides this, some technology analysts have brought up a new aspect of the digital divide that exists between people who understand the technology they are using and those who know just enough to get by. This new dimension of the digital divide seeks to encourage people and governments to not only focus on achieving universal internet access but to also have the necessary digital skills to ensure full command of their technology. Technology can get awry especially when it’s not well understood by the users and this has been demonstrated by the prevalent cyber-attacks that currently plague the internet limiting its capabilities.
Bridging the Gap
So far, we have seen how modern information and communication technologies are vital to realizing a quality civil life and a truly free and democratic world society. Regardless of where we have reached in this journey of narrowing the digital divide, there are still certain things that must be done if we are ever going to overcome the digital divide. The first and most important thing is to change the public’s attitude regarding the internet and to make them understand its importance in realizing a prosperous society. Once that is achieved the government must move swiftly in implementing the necessary infrastructure and competency to ensure this technology is accessible and secure for use by the public.
In summary, going back to the question, “Is the digital divide narrowing or widening?” the true answer lies not only in the level of access of the internet but also on the cost, quality, and level of understanding when using this technology.