Rapidly evolving technologies are further highlighting the global impact of the digital divide – the gap between those with reliable access to high-speed Internet services and those without.
The United Nations has set itself the ambitious goal of bridging the global digital divide, mainly caused by outdated technologies, insufficient services and costs, within the next decade. The UN estimates that almost half of the world’s population is still offline.
Read more from The Hill’s special coverage of the future of broadband here.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres earlier this year highlighted the “growing inequalities” surrounding services.
“The Internet of Things offers great potential for sustainable development, from energy savings to remote medical procedures, access to education to healthier nutrition,” he said.
“But digital technologies are also overtaking regulations and exacerbating inequalities,” he added. “A new fully interconnected economy means leaving no one behind and no one offline.”
Here are five creative ways companies are trying to bridge the gap.
Internet company Xfinity offers an “Internet Essentials” program including digital literacy learning materials on Wi-Fi, email, the Web, social media, and other digital concepts, available free to those who qualify and enroll in the program Accessible Connectivity Protocol from the FCC.
A 2019 report from the Technology Policy Institute examining the “Internet Essentials” program found that digital skills training motivates people to use it for “learning, job hunting, and improving job skills.”
The Capital One Digital Access program offers broadband Internet training and digital education, as well as a Chromebook or tablet device, to residents in affordable home ownership that the company has helped fund in a handful of US cities. According to a Capital One survey, the number of times a week participants accessed online job opportunities rose from 27 to 51 percent after completing the program.
To account for delays in digital literacy, some groups and companies are focusing on increasing the quality and availability of technical support. Some communities and groups are also pushing so-called “digital navigators,” or people trained to help support digital inclusion.
Among the digital navigators are the staff of places like libraries and schools, who disseminate rapid information of digital support and solve basic technological problems, such as filling out forms, sending emails and printing documents.
Surfers may also be on staff at organizations specifically dedicated to increasing digital equity or in places that help access services like SNAP through digital means, according to research by the Boston Consulting Group (BCG).
A survey by BCG and Comcast last year found that more than 85% of people surveyed after using a program operated by a digital navigator said they use the Internet more than before.
Support for women and girls
The global digital divide reflects imbalances in internet access due to a number of factors, including not only income or poverty, but also race, ethnicity and gender, and different access opportunities which can disadvantage certain groups.
Worldwide, United Nations experts estimate that 130 million women and girls are denied access to education, a lack that also affects families and communities and, according to the World Wide Web Foundation, men have 21% more likely than women to be online. At the same time, only half of nationwide policies and plans for information and communication technologies globally were noted to reference gender or women and girls.
Helping women and girls learn crucial digital skills and encouraging them to study science, technology, engineering and math through hands-on training and other initiatives “not only improves their career opportunities, but reduces the risk of gender-based violence and creates a brighter future for all,” US Special Envoy on Global Youth Issues Abby Finkenauer said last month.
Microsoft Corporation, for example, has pledged to “integrate gender equality programming” as the company and partners work to provide Internet access to underprivileged populations in Africa.
Low cost internet for students, families with students
According to 2021 data from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, approximately 1 in 5 U.S. households, or 24 million households, do not have internet at home. Most of these households, or 58%, say they simply aren’t interested in being online, but nearly 1 in 5 say the main reason they don’t have access is because they can’t afford the service from home.
Given the importance of internet access to school, be it distance learning or homework, some internet companies are working to bridge the digital divide by offering discounted internet access to students and families with students.
Internet providers Cox and Mediacom, for example, both offer a low-cost Internet package for eligible families with children in primary and secondary education.
“Access to technology at home is critical to the quality of a student’s education, yet many students in America lack Internet access,” says the Cox program.
Vendors like Xfinity offer discounted internet to college and university students. When the pandemic hit in 2020, AT&T launched a program with discounted wireless data plans for K-12 schools.
Companies are also getting creative with ways to bring high-speed Internet to rural areas.
Alphabet’s Google X lab, focused on developing emerging technologies, launched “Project Loon” a few years ago, a program that aimed to beam Internet signals to areas hard to reach by balloons. In 2017, Project Loon provided emergency cellular service in Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Maria using solar-powered balloons.
The initiative was put on hold in 2021, reportedly due to high costs.
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