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What is the Digital Divide?

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Popularized in the 1990s, the term “digital divide” refers to the irregular and imbalanced access to information and communication technology (ICT). There are two levels of digital divide – the first-level divide refers to the unequal access that different sections of society have to technology, while the second-level divide refers to the unequal usage of such technology.

Factors Affecting Digital Divide

Different socio-economic groups spread across households, workplaces, businesses, age, gender, caste and creed have different gaps between them with regard to the opportunities and availability of communication and information through the internet. The digital divide has become a tool of measurement for understanding the telecommunication infrastructure in various countries as well as the ability of individuals and businesses to optimize its opportunities. The post-industrial world witnessed a reinforcing of social inequalities because of the digital divide through the increasing knowledge gap between different socio-economic groups.

Evolution of the Term

While in the late 20th century, the phrase simply meant the lack of access to the usage of telephones among people, it was only in the 1990s with the rise of the internet and access to broadband services that the term came to be in use. An urban-and-rural divide is how sociologists initially interpreted this divide to be but with the performance difference in computers, choice of internet service providers (dial up versus wireless) and the growth of subscription based content, the digital divide is far more complex as a measurement tool.

It was during the term of President Bill Clinton that a report was publicly issued that spoke about addressing this phenomenon called the "digital divide’" which first brought to light the indispensable need for all Americans to have access to the internet. The metaphor "digital divide" was popularized in the mid-1990s when the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) published a report titled "Falling through the Net" which alarmingly brought to light the low education attainment levels among those who didn’t have access to ICTs. This further led to surveys as a follow up that highlighted a staring gender gap tilted towards favouring men. Between 1997-1999, the phrase had commonplace usage among people from the tech and high-tech industries, non-profit organizations and futuristic policy makers. Currently, for various countries, trying to bridge the digital divide is a way to combat illiteracy and economic inequality while strengthening the cores of democracy and social mobility.

Access Lines

Access lines are the most prominent ways in which digital divide can be observed. The level of telecommunication service availability per 100 inhabitants is the first and most pivotal method of measuring the international digital divide. Most countries have witnessed a growth with China rising from 6.6 million in 1990 to 87.4 million in 1998 (as per OECD report). But there are still countries with the lowest GDP per capita where there were only 1.6 lines per 100 inhabitants, in 1998. The other way of this measurement is by quantifying the number of internet hosts around the world. While Europe and North America together comprise 87% of the world’s total internet hosts, Africa accounts for only about 0.25%, where the majority is from South Africa.

Effects of the Digital Divide

Policy makers increasingly note how a big margin of digital divide reflects a country with a lower ability of innovation, lower percentages of economic growth and lower managerial capacity towards knowledge management. As a result of this, countries now aim to focus on low income homes and make internet service provision largely inexpensive, sometimes with subsidized phone and broadband costs. Involving the education and HRD ministries, the access to cheaper laptops and computers is an initiative taken up by many policymakers with its provision in schools and colleges, on a per student basis. The other mass initiative taken up by providers of ICTs on a policy basis is to erase digital illiteracy by eliminating the fear of technology in those who belong to stratas of the historically disadvantaged especially by way of economic position in society. This digital literacy gap especially in rural sectors have inspired multinational giants to concentrate on digital classrooms and the expansion of connectivity right from the curriculum level.

Through the active participation of innovators, advocates and legislators across the private and public sectors this equity issue over information and communication access can be bridged, while its mass impact on political and cultural growth can lead to homogeneous diffusion of opportunities and knowledge among countries.

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