“Digital divide” refers to various related problems that result in some segments of the population having inadequate access to online content. Many of us have computers and broadband service at home. Many others either lack computers or have inadequate means of using online content.
Gaps show up in economic inequality, age, and urban vs rural communities. Public libraries are at the forefront of attempts to bridge these gaps. I have written about the digital divide before, but it’s time for an update.
The digital divide and income
No surprise that the digital divide shows up in economic class. People with less money have less of a chance of owning a computer. If they have a computer, they have less of a chance of subscribing to an Internet service provider.
The digital divide has shown up in schools as a homework gap. Internet access has become an important instructional tool for schools, but 15% of households with children in school lack a high-speed connection to the Internet at home.
That figure rises to about 33% in households with an annual income of less than $30,000 and drops to 6% in those with more than $75,000. Lack of digital access makes it difficult for some teens to finish their homework. Black teens especially report trouble.
The prevalence of cell phones has provided a partial solution. Students can and do use their phones for homework. They can also use public wi-fi.
The digital divide and age
While income determines more than any other factor whether someone has or lacks access, age is the second largest factor. More than 95% of households that include someone between ages 15 to 34 have computers, and more than 80% have Internet service. Just over 70% of households where everyone is at least 65 have computers and only about 63% have Internet.
With the age gap comes a skills gap, although it’s not entirely age-related. I remember being a substitute teacher in a high school computer lab, and I needed to have one of the students help me find the on/off button. My father, who had already bought a computer by that time, found the story very amusing.
People who grew up with typewriters can use a computer keyboard, with some adjustment, but probably find the mouse, touch screen, or voice recognition entirely unfamiliar.
Many older people without computers have no need or desire to use them. Others, faced with a need for computer skills, find the whole concept intimidating.
The digital divide between urban and rural areas
Almost 60% of rural residents report problems with access to high-speed Internet.; 24% consider the lack a major problem. Unlike in urban areas, the digital divide does not break along economic lines.
As many high-income rural residents report major problems with broadband access as low-income residents. It appears that rural areas are not wired for broadband as much as urban and suburban areas and that they have fewer Internet providers and slower Internet speeds.
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) estimates that 24.7 million Americans lack broadband service. Microsoft has conducted its own survey and concludes that the correct number of those who lack broadband is closer to 162.8 million people.
This divergence results from different ways of compiling and interpreting data. As far as the FCC is concerned, if anyone in an area has broadband service, everyone in the area has it. Microsoft studied Internet speeds of people who use its software and services. Its data is much more granular.
Ferry County, Washington, for example, has broadband service in its county seat of Republic, which has a population of just over 1,000. But the county itself covers more than 2,200 square miles. Most of it is undeveloped forest land, where broadband service doesn’t reach.
The FCC considers 100% of Ferry County served by the Internet. Microsoft estimates only 2% of the population of the county has it without driving into Republic. The county’s unemployment rate is double that of Washington state as a whole.
Libraries and the digital divide
I’m tired of reading articles where some journalist discovers, “Gee whiz! The library has more than books!” Even before the Internet age, libraries provided skills-driven educational opportunities. When the Internet first became publicly available, libraries became early adopters.
By now, we need computers for such tasks as applying for a job or finding where to get a lawnmower repaired.
People who have home computers with Internet access use the Internet at home. Others need to go somewhere else. People who own laptop computers can take them to any number of places. McDonalds and Panera, for example, offer free wi-fi.
Some places only allow people to stay for about half an hour unless they keep buying something. And only people who both own computers and know how to use the Internet can do anything there.
And so most people will find the public library the best alternative to using the Internet at home. Especially if they use it for more than entertainment or social media. Libraries have computers for public use, albeit usually for only an hour or so at a time. They also have librarians who can help not only use the computer but find the best and most reliable information.
Libraries in large cities have fewer visits per 100,000 people than other libraries, but their visitors use library computers more. Rural and suburban libraries have higher rates of library usage compared to population. Rural patrons use library computers a lot, and suburban patrons less so.
It’s not necessary to be in the library to use library resources. Libraries often check out computers and wi-fi hot spots that patrons can take home. The Seattle Public Library, at least, checks hot spots out to homeless shelters.
About a quarter of rural Americans say access to high-speed internet is a major problem / Monica Anderson, Pew Research Center. September 10, 2018
Digital divide is wider than we think, study says / Steve Lohr, New York Times. December 4, 2018
Libraries evolve to bridge digital divide / online Master of Library and Information Science, Morgridge College of Education, University of Denver. November 21, 2018
Nearly one-in-five teens can’t always finish their homework because of the digital divide / Monica Anderson and Andrew Perrin, Pew Research Center. October 26, 2018