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The primary concern is exclusion; social and otherwise. Each year, being digitally connected becomes ever more critical to economic, educational, and social advancement. Those without the appropriate tools (in terms of PCs and Internet connectivity) and applicable skills will become increasingly disadvantaged.
As ICT becomes ever more pervasive those elements of society without access will be further disenfranchised in terms of:
- Fewer employment opportunities
- Restricted access to information and support
- Increasingly basic facilities such as email, consumer services, financial services, etc.
Reasons behind the Digital Divide
At the most basic level the digital divide arises where individuals or groups of individuals have no or inadequate access to PCs connected to the Internet. It follows that addressing this problem by providing access should be a constructive measure in terms of reducing the divide. That being said the underlying causes of the divide are in all probability more complex. Research in the USA has identified the following issues:
- Income differences. There are wide disparities amongst income groups. The better off are far more likely to have PCs and Internet connections than others. Those with income in excess of $75K are 20 times more likely to have Internet access than those at the lowest income level.
- Education. The better educated are statistically more likely to have and use connected PCs. In particular those with college degrees or higher are ten times more likely to have access. Only 6.6% of people with an elementary school education or less use the Internet.
- Location. Rural areas relative to cities generally experience lower levels of connectivity. Rural areas in particular lag behind cities in terms of broadband access.
- Age. People over the age of 50 have been less likely to use PCs and the Internet. Less than 30% of this group were "connected" in 2000. Those over 50 and in employment are three times more likely to have access than individuals not in employment.
- Single parent families. Two parent families are more than twice as likely to have Internet access than single families. Further, the oportion in respect of female-headed single families in cities is significantly lower.
- Disabilities. Although 25% of the able bodied have never used a PC the proportion for the disabled rises to 60%. In general the disabled are half as likely to use PCs and have Internet access. Among those with a disability, people who have impaired vision and problems with manual dexterity have even lower rates of Internet access and are less likely to use a computer regularly than people with hearing and mobility problems. This difference holds in the aggregate, as well as across age groups.
- Race and ethnic groups. Large gaps exist regarding Internet penetration rates among households of different races and ethnic origins. Further, large gaps remain when measured against the National average for Internet penetration.
Differences in income and education do not fully account for this facet of the digital divide. Estimates of what Internet access rates for this group would be had they had income and education levels in line with the Nation as a whole show that these two factors account for approximately 50% of the differences.
To the extent that the digital divide is a function of PC and Internet access it is appropriate to question the qualitative aspects of "access". Internet kiosks for example may provide cheap Internet access and whilst appropriate for certain tasks they arguably provide a less satisfactory experience for other Web activities. The real question therefore becomes whether the type of access provided lends itself to the full range of activities available to "connected" users. It is possible that the divide will not be bridged unless home access becomes fully available. To the extent that this is impracticable an alternative would be to provide common access points capable of providing an "appropriate" experience.
The digital divide is not just a function of access; speed of access is also important or is likely to become so. Until recently for most users the speed of access has been limited to traditional modems. Although modem technology has increased significantly over the last ten years and is now capable of offering data throughput of up to 56K bits per second that speed is a small fraction of what is likely to be required in the next few years. Unless this factor is recognised there is a danger that the current digital divide could be reduced merely to find that it re-opens due to a vast difference in speed available to some but not all users. In short the digital divide of the (not too distant) future may be one of access speed.
Closing the Gap
As indicated above, measures to provide appropriate access are likely to have a beneficial impact. Indeed US data from August 2000 claims that schools, libraries, and other public access points continue to serve those groups that do not have home access. The use of those facilities however is not uniform and they are more likely to be used by some groups than other.
Equally given the complex nature of the underlying problems it is unlikely that improved access will of itself provide the whole answer.
With respect to the UK it would be inappropriate to assume that the same underlying factors creating the divide in North America obtain albeit that there are likely to be strong similarities. Research is necessary (if it has not already been undertaken) to identify the true causes. Once identified targeted action can be taken by addressing the detailed needs of specific groups in particular locations.
If, following research, home access was found to be significant element of the divide new strategies would need to be formulated to address that requirement. For example "cut-down" or recycled PCs could be offered in conjunction with community based Internet access lines.
The infrastructual reasons for the lact of effective ICT in less econmically developed countries is the fact that there is a lack of secondary euquipment, suitable electric power, and training. This therefore leads to people not being as experienced in the technology they are using. Also, they depend alot on Multinational Corporations meaning they have to wait for the money then just using the money straight off. Also, it is much easier to purchase as you are buying a physcial package rather than downloading the package. Also, if you don't have internet access, this will be very useful. Also, microcomputers and personal computers have become very popular in terms of ICT because of the reduction in price.
Computer-aid projects havn't been so successful. Extensive under-ultilization of equipment and major computer based projects have failed. It hasn't been as successfull in the majority of countries when it should only be the minority. These projects have failed because of the lack of secondary equipment, suitable electric power and training. Also, the governments of the countries involved havn't set up any strategic buying plans so everything comes in bluk or too little software comes meaning more or less people need training. Also, there is a lack of avaiable resources to maintain the ICT.
Identified computer skills that are lack are; systems analysis, programming, maintainace, consulting, operational levels from basic use to management. The lack of buisness skills which are identified as a major problem is the fact that buisness' are buying software which no one is trained in. They need to plan which software to buy, and whether their staff are trained in this area of ICT. Also, the employee's have a lack of skills to begin with meaning they can't use the software.