The Digital Divide: What it is and How it Impacts us

Digital Divide Definition

The term “digital divide” refers to the gap between those who have access to information and communication technologies (ICTs) and those who don’t.

While the term “digital divide” came into play in the mid-1990s, it is still a hot-button public policy debate—above all, since it touches on social, political, and economic issues.

Why Is the Digital Divide an Important Issue?

In today’s increasingly digital world, access to technology and the Internet has become essential for communication, education, employment, and many other aspects of daily life. Those who lack access to technology or the skills to use it effectively are at a disadvantage, as they are unable to fully participate in the opportunities and resources offered online. This creates a significant divide between those who have access to digital tools and those who do not, exacerbating existing social and economic inequalities.

The digital divide not only limits individuals’ ability to access information and services but also hinders their educational and career prospects. Bridging the digital divide is crucial to ensure equal opportunities for all and to prevent further marginalization of already disadvantaged groups. It requires efforts from governments, communities, and organizations to provide equitable access to technology and digital literacy training, empowering individuals to participate fully in the digital age.

What Causes the Digital Divide?

The digital divide is a complex issue that has been shaped by a range of factors, including economic, social, and geographic disparities. One of the primary causes of the digital divide is the lack of access to technology that many low-income households and rural communities face. High-speed Internet and advanced technology tools often come with hefty price tags that low-income households may not be able to afford. Additionally, rural communities may not have the infrastructure in place to support advanced technology and high-speed Internet.

This lack of access to technology could lead to significant educational and employment barriers for individuals as they struggle to keep up with the demands of the digital age. Education and awareness about the benefits of digital inclusion could be key in bridging the digital divide, as well as policies aimed at expanding broadband access and reducing the cost of technology.

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Digital Divide Examples

The digital divide is evident in various scenarios, highlighting the disparities in access to technology and the Internet. One example relates to education, where students from low-income households may not have access to reliable Internet connections or necessary devices for online learning. This could hamper their ability to participate fully in virtual classrooms and access digital educational resources, potentially putting them at a disadvantage compared to their peers who have seamless access to technology.

Another example is the job market, where individuals without access to technology or digital skills might struggle to compete for employment opportunities that increasingly rely on digital literacy. They may face barriers in accessing online job portals, submitting electronic resumes, or participating in virtual interviews.

Additionally, the digital divide is evident in rural areas where the lack of broadband infrastructure limits access to high-speed Internet, potentially impacting both personal connectivity and economic development.


Who Is Affected by the Digital Divide?

The digital divide exists in a deeper way among low-income groups and communities. So, it is both a local issue and one that underdeveloped countries around the globe face. The gap is small in developed countries and large in developing countries.

The digital divide affects a range of people, young and old:

  • Those who live in rural areas without a digital infrastructure
  • Low-income households who can’t afford high-speed Internet
  • Students and workers who do not own a computer
  • Workers who are unable to keep up-to-date on technology due to lack of access to technology
  • Those with medical issues who don’t have access to telehealth appointments
  • People living in underdeveloped countries

Geographical Digital Disparities

There are also geographical differences across the United States, as well as within the states themselves.

The following tables illustrate this digital disparity. Some compelling takeaways include:

  • The average percentage of homes without internet for states with the highest connectivity is 9%; for states with the lowest connectivity, it’s 20%—that’s over twice as much.1,2
  • The average percentage of homes without a computer for states with the most computers is 4%; for states with the least, it’s 11%—that’s nearly three times as much.3,4

While states such as Connecticut, New York, and Maryland rank better than average in connectivity, there are cities within these states whose households have over 50% less connectivity than the states themselves

Five States with Lowest Internet Connectivity, 2017–20211

StatePercentage of Households without an Internet Subscription (U.S. Average = 13%)
New Mexico20.0%
West Virginia19.2%

Five States with Highest Internet Connectivity, 2017–20212

StatePercentage of Households without an Internet Subscription (U.S. Average = 13%)
New Hampshire9.9%

Five States with Fewest Computers per Household, 2017–20213

StatePercentage of Households without a Computer
(U.S. Average = 6.9%)
West Virginia12.4%
Alabama/New Mexico (tie)10.3%

Five States with Most Computers per Household, 2017–20214

StatePercentage of Households without a Computer
(U.S. Average = 6.9%)

Discrepancies in Connectivity by Selected Cities and States, 2017–2021

 Percentage of Households without an Internet Subscription (city)5Percentage of Households without an Internet Subscription (state)6
Brownsville, Texas33.313.1
Flint, Michigan29.013.6
Newark, New Jersey25.610.6
Cleveland, Ohio24.813.7
Baltimore, Maryland20.410.3
Hartford, Connecticut20.311.1

Racial Disparities

Income level is a significant factor with regard to who is affected by the digital divide. Race is also an issue.

The good news is that the gaps have been narrowing in recent years. Following is the percentage of households who did not have high-speed Internet by race in 2017 and 2021:

Asian alone, non-Hispanic10%77%8
White alone, non-Hispanic16%914%10
Black alone, non-Hispanic22%1117%12
Hispanic (of any race)22%1318%14

Are Virtual Schools Widening the Digital Divide?

The rapid shift to virtual education in response to the COVID-19 pandemic has raised questions about the potential impact of virtual schools on the digital divide. While virtual schools provide a flexible and accessible form of education for many students, they may also be exacerbating existing disparities in access to technology and the Internet. Students from low-income households or rural communities may not have access to the devices, reliable Internet, or digital literacy skills needed to participate fully in virtual classrooms, leading to unequal learning opportunities.

Virtual education may also be a factor in what is called a “homework gap.” This is the gap between school-age children who have access to high-speed Internet at home and those who don’t.

Students who face digital hurdles when they try to do their homework may not be able to complete their homework at all, which could contribute to poorer grades. Teachers say this problem may also lead to delinquency.

How Are Students and Schools Overcoming the Problem?

Overcoming this problem is a huge challenge. Some schools are lending or giving out laptops and tablets. Some students use their smart phones. And some principals are trying to find hotspots that people who don’t have Internet could use.

Students might drive to a parking lot near a library to use their public WIFI. Yet not all students could even do this. So, some schools send packets of materials to students or DVDs. Then the parents take a picture of a completed assignment and email it to the teachers.

How to Combat Digital Divide?

One way to bridge the Digital Divide is through Digital Inclusion which sets up Smart Cities. In spite of how complex the issues are, some Smart Cities are trying to ensure access through infrastructure. Some are making an effort to set up public Wi-Fi networks. And other cities are finding innovative ways to get Internet coverage to those who lack access.

One example launched by G3ict and World Enabled is the Smart Cities for All initiative. It was set up to define the state of ICT accessibility in Smart Cities worldwide. The goal of their plan is to eliminate the digital divide for the elderly and persons with disabilities in Smart Cities around the world. To do this, they are partnering with leading organizations and companies and then working to create and deploy the tools and tactics needed to build more inclusive Smart Cities.

Google’s sister company, Sidewalk Labs, is also trying to come up with a solution, albeit for those who could afford it. Their plan is to build a tech-loaded community called Quayside on the waterfront in Toronto, Canada. In Quayside, they plan to embed all sorts of sensors everywhere possible. As a result, there should be a constant stream of data about things such as traffic flow, noise levels, air quality, energy usage, travel patterns, and waste output. 

This type of community shows that smart tech sensors could be useful. Cityblock, a spinoff of Sidewalk Labs, is focusing on low-income communities with serious health problems. Their vision includes an option for members to join a “neighborhood health hub.”

There are also individual organizations providing grants to communities that typically have issues with the digital divide. The National Fund for Workforce Solutions, for example, donated $130,000 in grants to five communities to equip workers with the digital access, literacy, and skills they need to secure and grow in economy-boosting jobs in a rapidly changing labor market.

Has There Been Any Government Support to Bridge the Divide?

Advocates and government workers in the broadband and digital equity space report a renewed interest in bridging the divide. One of the reasons is that COVID-19 highlighted the unequal access to technology and the Internet that has long existed. It also shows us just how reliant on the Internet we are. Telehealth visits, for instance, are only available to those with access. So, many older adults and underserved communities are among the hardest hit.

There have been a number of initiatives at the federal level to combat digital disparities in the United States.

  • In 2021, the U.S. government passed an infrastructure bill that, among other things, aims to narrow the digital divide. The initiative strives to assist households in reducing the cost of Internet service by mandating that recipients of federal funding offer an affordable plan accessible to all. This may be achieved through measures such as enhancing price transparency and fostering competition in areas where current service providers are not meeting the demand adequately. 
  • The FCC’s Affordable Connectivity Program offers monthly discounts on broadband service to eligible households. As of September 2022, more than 14 million households had enrolled—about a third of the estimated eligible households. 
  • The Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) Program provides $42.45 billion to expand high-speed Internet access in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and U.S. territories.
  • The Digital Equity Act provides $2.75 billion to establish three grant programs to help ensure that all people and communities have the skills, technology, and capacity needed to succeed in our digital economy.

Changes are also being made at the state level. For example, Maine lawmakers approved a bond package with $15 million to expand broadband in the state. California’s Digital Divide Program provides four grants of up to $250,000 each to help beneficiary schools located in an urban or rural low-income small school district. 


The digital divide remains a significant challenge in our increasingly connected world. As technology continues to shape various aspects of our lives, the disparities in access to technology and the Internet may have profound implications for education, employment, and overall quality of life.

While progress has been made in narrowing the digital divide through various initiatives, more work needs to be done. Governments, non-profit organizations, and private sector companies must collaborate to ensure equitable access to technology, Internet connectivity, and digital literacy training for all individuals, especially those from marginalized communities.

Bridging the digital divide is not only a matter of fairness and justice but also crucial for fostering inclusive economic growth and societal well-being. By addressing the digital divide, we could create a more equitable and digitally connected future for all.

© Education Connection 2024. All Rights Reserved.


Sources for school statistics is the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics.

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