9 The Digital Divide

Wilmon Brown, Ph.D.

Oklahoma State University


Abstract: A digital divide is an economic and social inequality regarding access to, use of, or impact of information and communication technologies. However, economic or other resource gaps, differences in cultural tastes and preferences of different social classes are factors contributing to disparities in internet use. The digital divide arguably reflects structural factors in advanced societies that give rise to social inequalities in general. This chapter begins with an introduction to the history of expanded internet access across the U.S. and then covers who the digital divide consequentially affected by the expended access. Finally, organizations and resources designed to aid in the closing of the digital divide are presented.


A digital divide is an economic and social inequality regarding access to, use of, or impact of information and communication technologies (U.S. Department of Commerce, 1995). Existing literature indicates that the digital divide at the individual level springs from many different sources. Comparisons between educational and occupational groups, income brackets, age groups, and genders have revealed systematic variation in both internet access and the frequency of its use (Hampton, 2010; Lehdonvirta and Räsänen, 2011; Rice and Katz, 2003; van Deursen and van Dijk, 2014). Economic or other resource gaps, differences in cultural tastes and preferences of different social classes are factors contributing to disparities in internet use (Emmison & Frow, 1998; Hargittai & Hsieh, 2010).

The digital divide encompasses differences in both access (first-level digital divide) and usage (second-level digital divide) of computers and the Internet between (1) industrialized and developing countries (global divide), (2) various socioeconomic groups within single nation-states (social divide), and (3) different kinds of users with regard to their political engagement on the Internet (democratic divide) (Schweitzer, 2015).

The digital divide is characterized by two crucial problems:

  1. limited and costly infrastructure to support internet access
  2. limited digital literacy in low/middle-income communities to use resources

Low/middle-income communities have limited access to digital technologies due to high costs and a general lack of infrastructure, ranging from intermittent supply of electricity to limited availability of Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) facilities (Chipeva et. al, 2018; Ziemba & Becker, 2019).

The digital divide arguably reflects structural factors in advanced societies that give rise to social inequalities in general.


Xanthios, S. (2017). An Introduction to the Digital Divide. Retrieved from https://medium.com/@spirosx/an-introduction-to-the-digital-divide-33dc670f8c16.

How did the digital divide begin?


McNally, C. (2019). How Does Fiber-Optic Internet Work? – A Simple Explanation. Retrieved from https://www.reviews.org/internet-service/how-does-fiber-optic-internet-work/.

The first great step in moving the United States to the digital age was the passing of the High-Performance Computing Act of 1991 (Lindberg & Humphreys, 1995). The High-Performance Computing Act (HPCA) has also been called the Gore Bill. This bill, created and introduced by then-Senator Al Gore, led to the development of the National Information Infrastructure and the funding of the National Research and Education Network (NREN). The purpose of NREN was to provide internet access to all K-12 students. Al Gore was passionate about providing the same research and information tools to students that were used by businesses and the government. Teachers could use this access to share concepts, ideas, and methodologies with other teachers. Students could use it to communicate with other students and experts in various fields.

The High-Performance Computing Act funded a high-speed fiber-optic network that would eventually become the Internet (Cline & Haynes, 2001). Fiber-optic cables work by light bouncing repeatedly off the walls while traveling down the cables. Fiber-optic cables are now the primary method of transmitting information over long distances because of three main advantages over old-style copper cables (Ko & Qi, 2014):

  • Less attenuation: (signal loss) Information travels roughly 10 times further before it needs amplifying—which makes fiber networks simpler and cheaper to operate and maintain.
  • No interference: Unlike with copper cables, there’s no crosstalk (electromagnetic interference) between optical fibers, so they transmit information more reliably with better signal quality
  • Higher bandwidth: Fiber-optic cables can carry far more data than copper cables of the same diameter.

The Gore Bill led to the funding of the Mosaic browser, to which many scholars attribute the beginning of the internet boom of the ’90s (Wiggins, 2010). The HPCA helped fund the National Center for Supercomputing Applications at the University of Illinois, where the Mosaic browser was developed, as well as many other technological initiatives that laid the foundation of today’s modern computer networks and the internet.

Between 1991 and 1996, the number of personal computers in the United States jumped from 300,000 to over ten million (Weiss, 2007). By the mid-1990s the development of internet browsers like Mosaic and Netscape were leading more adventurous users out into a new realm called cyberspace (Weiss, 2007). Email was becoming an increasingly useful application, and officials in the Clinton Administration were beginning to wonder if access to information technology was being fairly distributed. In summer 1995, the new National Telecommunications & Information Administration prepared a report called Falling Through the Net: A Survey of the ‘Have Nots’ in Rural and Urban America (Rapaport, 2009).

In January 1996, the New York Times took up the call, running an article proclaiming, “A New Gulf in American Education, the Digital Divide.” The story compared the availability of computers and internet access at two nearby California Schools. (Students at the less affluent school had to make do with a six-year-old IBM PC, while students at the other, more affluent school were able to go home and work on their own Apple Macintosh computers.) In October 1996, the New York Times reported a story from Georgia titled, “A Nation Ponders Its Growing Digital Divide.” This piece reported that “only 9 percent of American classrooms have access to the internet.” Soon after, the Reverend Jesse Jackson referred to the Digital Divide as “classic apartheid,” while the NAACP’s Kweisi Mfume called it “technological segregation.” Al Hammond and others at the National Telecommunications and Information Administration took the “Digital Divide” one step further, using the term “electronic redlining” (Rapaport, 2009).

Who does the digital divide effect?

The effect of the digital divide is a myth for many people. For those lucky enough to be on the right side of the divide, this issue may be novel. There has been a multitude of studies aimed at understanding not only what the digital divide is, but whom it affects. Many researchers have defined the evolving digital divide in terms of levels (Dolan, 2016). They describe it as a continuum influenced by overlapping factors, such as digital inequity (Dolan, 2016), as “a New Digital Divide” driven by the intersection of race and gender (Jackson et al., 2008), and even as “Digital Divide 2.0” (Vie, 2008).

Researchers found that quantifying the digital divide was a more difficult task because there are various contributors to the divide. In its early stages, the negative effect of the digital divide had disproportionately excluded men. With men being most of the online U.S. population, gender was a notable predictor of internet access. In 2017, The International Telecommunications Union reported that the proportion of women using the internet was 12% lower than the proportion of men; this gender gap widens to 32.9% in the least developed countries (Singh, 2017). And even when a woman gets on a phone or is online, she might face additional hostility. A Web Foundation report states that “women around the world report being bombarded by a culture of misogyny online, including aggressive, often sexualized hate speech, direct threats of violence and harassment involving use of private information for defamation (Web Foundation, 2015).”

By 2001, women had surpassed men as most of the online U.S. population. 2009 Census data suggests that potential disparities in gendered connectivity have become nearly nonexistent; 73% of female citizens three years and older compared to 74% of males could access the internet from their home (Gorski, 2001). This was a very encouraging discovery, as one factor that predicted a lack of internet access has seemingly been resolved. While there is more work to be done, the digital divide is beginning to close.

Economic Disparity.

The Pew Internet and American Life Project was a project that started in 2000 and continues. It is a project that has spanned more than a decade to understand the role of the internet in the American lifestyle. The Pew Internet and American Life Project produces reports exploring the impact of the internet on families, communities, work, and home, daily life, education, health care, and civic and political life (Pew, 2018). The project’s reports are based on nationwide random phone surveys, online surveys, and qualitative research. This data collection is supplemented with research from government agencies, technology firms, academia, and other expert venues. The Project releases the data from 15-20 research projects each year, varying in size, scope, and objective. According to the Pew Report, “Digital Differences,” only 62% of people in households making less than $30,000 a year used the internet, while in those making $50,000-74,999 that percentage jumped to 90. Smartphones have helped bridge the divide, as they provide internet access to populations previously at a digital disadvantage. Pew reports that, among smartphone owners, “young adults, minorities, those with no college experience, and those with lower household income levels” are more likely to access the internet primarily through their phones. There are still gaps in high-speed internet access. Only 49% of African Americans and 51% of Hispanics have high-speed internet at home, as compared with 66% of Caucasians. Internet speed has important effects on media access, especially when it comes to streaming video, so this gap is significant.

In a Pew survey of teachers, teachers of low-income students tended to report more obstacles to using educational technology effectively than their peers in more affluent schools. Among teachers in the highest income areas, 70% said their school gave them good support for incorporating technology into their teaching. Among teachers in the lowest income areas, that numbers were just 50%. 56% percent of teachers in low-income schools say that their students’ inadequate access to technology is a “major challenge” for using technology as a teaching aid. 54% of all teachers said their students had adequate internet access at school, but only 18% said their students had adequate access at home. Interestingly, urban teachers are more likely to say students have poor access to the internet at school, while rural teachers are more likely to report that students have poor access at home (Zickuhr, 2012).

Access to resources.

92% of individuals aged 12–17 years go online daily, while 97% of them play computer, web, portal, or console games and 75% of them own a smartphone (Lenhart, 2015). However, not all students have an equal opportunity to access and use computers at home and in schools (Dolan, 2016). Historically, this access disparity has been called the “digital divide,” a definition that focuses on the “haves” and “have-nots” regarding physical access to a computer (Dolan, 2016).

Roughly three-in-ten adults with household incomes below $30,000 a year (29%) don’t own a smartphone. More than four-in-ten don’t have home broadband services (44%) or a traditional computer (46%). And many lower-income Americans are not tablet owners. By comparison, each of these technologies is nearly ubiquitous among adults in households earning $100,000 or more a year.

The disparity in online access is also apparent in what has been called the “homework gap” – the gap between school-age children who have access to high-speed internet at home and those who don’t. In 2015, 35% of lower-income households with school-age children did not have a broadband internet connection at home, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data.

In 2017, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai reiterated his commitment to bringing high-speed internet services to lower-income communities (Pai, 2017). To review the Federal Communications Commission’s progress toward closing the digital divide, please access the embedded map below.

Clickable Map

Bridging the Divide.

Surveys indicate that in the United States, more than 80% of all teachers believe that online learning improves education. While many consider access to technology at home to be critically important to the quality of a student’s education, it is alarming that one-third of all students in America, mostly from low-income households, lack that access in their home settings. Having a computer and internet service at home is no longer a luxury – it is a necessity (Leander, Scharber & Lewis, 2017; Grigoryeva, Abukenova & Gill, 2018). There are numerous initiatives that are designed to address the digital divide, below are two examples.

Cox Communications.

Internet providers are working to provide affordable Internet and devices to low-income students and their families through programs such as the Connect2Compete program by Cox Communications. Cox’s program is open to families with K-12 children who qualify for free or reduced school lunches through the National School Lunch Program (NSLP), Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Also, Cox has partnered with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to support its ConnectHome initiative. Families with K-12 children who live in Public Housing, as well as K-12 families who receive Tenant-Based Vouchers, Project-Based Vouchers or Section 8 Project-Based Rental Assistance (PBRA), are eligible for Cox’s Connect2Compete discounted internet service offer. Since 2012, nearly 200,000 people have been connected to the internet through Cox’s Connect2Compete program – most of them for the very first time. This is one of the many programs that has been used to bridge the digital divide. In a 2015 survey of parents enrolled in the program, the grades of more than 50% of the students have improved and nearly 50% say their children are more interested in school.

Close the Gap.

Access to information and communication technology (ICT) is essential in the developing world because it is key to improving a country’s educational and economic prospects. However, the cost of new equipment, limited infrastructure and the lack of information technology (IT) knowledge and proficiency mean that many people still have no access to IT. Today, information is seen as one of the major drivers of economic and social development and ICT makes access to information available on an unprecedented scale. The digital divide is not only a divide between people who have access to ICT and people who don’t. It’s also a divide between people who know about ICT and those who don’t, between people who realize the opportunities presented by ICT and those who don’t. It consists of an infrastructure gap, a knowledge gap, and a psychological gap.

Close the Gap (http://close-the-gap.org/) is an international non-profit organization that aims to bridge the digital divide by offering high-quality, pre-owned computers donated by European companies to educational, medical and social projects in developing and emerging countries. Close the Gap collects decommissioned computers from companies and arranges for other organizations to clean the hard disks and then check and configure the hardware according to the requirements of its end-users. The computers are then shipped to the destination country by sea or air transport. Since 2003, Close the Gap has already received more than 250,000 computers from companies all over Europe.

Close the Gap not only provides computers to developing countries, but it also builds partnerships with organizations worldwide to deliver comprehensive software and hardware solutions to its recipients. Today, Close the Gap has supported more than 2,500 projects all over the world. However diverse the projects, they all have one common denominator: a focus on advancing both the individual and the community within a spirit of socio-economical education. By following this principle, Close the Gap is participating in the United Nations Millennium Development Goals.


The digital divide started because of a very progressive effort. The purpose of the National Research and Education Network was to provide internet access to all K-12 students. This effort, while well-founded, generated a divide in access to the internet. This subsequent divide had many contributing factors, including income and gender. Since the identification of the digital divide in 1996, efforts have been made to remedy it. Programs such as Close the Gap and Connect2Compete have been implemented to bridge the digital divide. The authors of this chapter believe that knowledge is power and that as individuals learn more about the prominence of the digital divide, the call to action will increase. Understanding learning in the digital age means understanding the solutions and problems that arise as the world becomes more digital. Many opportunities to aid in bridging the digital divide exist.


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Learning in the Digital Age Copyright © 2020 by Wilmon Brown, Ph.D. is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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