Benefits of Closing the Global Digital Divide

As the world progresses toward the Fourth Industrial Revolution, the need to bridge the digital divide becomes more apparent. The Fourth Industrial Revolution is enabled by technological advances that will combine the physical, digital, and biological worlds, thereby changing how people live.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, we have begun to see this revolutionary digital shift as a greater percentage of our lives has migrated online. These changes present the opportunity to create a more inclusive existence by expanding the digital landscape to offer more resources to more people who need them.

However, as these changes progress increasingly quickly, the digital divide is widening. Countries like Japan, Taiwan and South Korea have all invested heavily in digital infrastructure and digital services, encouraging their citizens to adapt and engage with digital technologies. Unfortunately, not every country is affording its communities the same opportunities.

The benefits of closing the global digital divide include fostering economic growth, individual success, and better social relations. Without equal access to digital technology, developing countries, underserved communities, and rural areas may not be able to catch up to these advances.

Consequences of the Global Digital Divide

At its core, the global digital divide prevents already underprivileged and marginalized communities from benefiting from the digital age.

This causes ever-increasing economic disparities that compound over time. Examples include the inability to get a well paying job (because such jobs increasingly rely on knowledge and use of digital technology), poorer health and more limited access to healthcare, and far fewer opportunities to gain economic independence.

The Causes and Effects of the Global Digital Divide

Barriers to equal access to digital information range from reliable electricity to the affordability of broadband internet, to the cost of digital devices. Without access, underserved communities such as those in developing countries, low-income neighborhoods, and rural areas, lack the digital literacy that more privileged areas enjoy.

This is, in part, because these communities often lack basic infrastructure like roads or electricity. Therefore, it’s costly for service providers to provide service, and they see little financial reward in doing so.

This results in a vicious circle. These areas lack opportunities and thus cannot progress. And without progress, they’re barred from more opportunities.

One way to combat this is with connectivity credits. These would provide incentives for digital service providers to outfit these areas with the tech they need. These projects assess the difficulty and cost of connecting poor, underdeveloped communities and areas that are physically difficult to navigate. In exchange for keeping communities digitally connected, service providers could be offered credits such as tax breaks.

The Effects of the Global Digital Divide on the Economy

The digital divide most severely affects unemployed, less educated, low-income, and otherwise marginalized individuals. The socioeconomic disadvantages of these communities means they are in greater need of digital tools, particularly for educational and professional purposes. Without incentive programs such as connectivity credits and tax breaks, internet providers are unlikely to invest in these communities, especially in low-income neighborhoods and sparsely populated rural areas.

The lack of basic digital infrastructure has a knock-on effect. More and more businesses are adopting information and communication technologies (ICT) targeting all aspects of business from productivity to customer experience. This makes areas lacking in technology infrastructure highly unattractive.  They need broadband and digital services as well as employees with digital skill sets—all of which these areas struggle to provide.

The Negative Effects of the Global Digital Divide on Individuals and Communities

One aspect of the digital divide is broadband connectivity. Broadband is crucial to the success of individuals and communities. Reliable, high-speed internet is the most efficient way to access information, participate in communities, and make connections professionally and personally.

Internet and wireless services are constantly making progress and evolving. The most prevalent advancement in digital technology now is the fifth-generation cellular network (5G). Its increased wireless network capacity benefits wireless technology, communication, and data transfer, a.k.a. the Internet of Things (IoT). 5G offers benefits like increased speed and more reliable data transfers, especially when using millimeter wave technology. The combination of  IoT and 5G is particularly powerful as it allows more computing power to be pushed to the cloud, which in turn can make for simpler, cheaper, but more functional devices at the edge.

In areas without access to broadband, the advantages of cloud computing are lost. Again, this demonstrates the vicious circle: low-income communities would benefit from cheaper technology, but unless the digital divide is bridged, it will continue to be unavailable to underserved communities.

Benefits of Closing the Global Digital Divide on the Equality of People

Equal opportunity is achievable only if there is digital equity. This includes reliable internet connectivity such as a broadband connection, digital technology such as mobile phones, and access to education about digital skills.

The advancement of 5G technologies is resulting in faster, more reliable connectivity that can be much easier to deploy that more traditional wired connections, such as cable modems. As connectivity becomes simpler and cheaper, the demand for services such as e-health, energy infrastructure, agriculture, traffic management, and more digital services will increase. These services can evolve and improve, becoming remotely accessible, which means more people can benefit from them.

When everyone has equal access to these services and tools, it creates job opportunities, economic growth and better outcomes for all.

The Benefits of Digital Empowerment

Access to digital tools helps people to help themselves. As companies and communities shifted to accommodate for the COVID-19 pandemic, everyone became more dependent on technology. Digital skills became a necessity, and digital tools even more so. When people have access to these tools and have learned how to use them, they can apply that knowledge to further their own education and employment opportunities.

Broadband internet access and digital empowerment is vital to both individual and community success. The benefits are most evident in the following areas:

  • Education: Students in rural areas and low-income or otherwise underserved communities will have the same access to information as students in more privileged areas.
  • The economy: More people with the same access to education and information means more job candidates and opportunities.
  • Public health: Individuals can access information about their conditions, symptoms, and actionable steps, taking a greater role in their personal health and wellbeing. They may also be able to work with previously inaccessible specialists through the use of telemedicine. During the COVID-19 crisis, usage rates for telemedicine soared for those that had access to it.

As we have experienced over the course of the pandemic, digital literacy and digital empowerment has tangible effects on peoples’ lives. Strong, stable and affordable internet connectivity is a key component in successful digital empowerment.

The Effects of the Digital Divide on Those without Access to Technology

Access to tools and information also exacerbates the digital gender gap. According to the United Nations’ International Telecommunication Union, the gender gap between male and female internet users is rapidly growing in most parts of the world. This gap is widest in South Asia, where, according to the GSM Association, women are 70 percent less likely than men to use mobile internet.

Lack of digital equity makes it more difficult for women to access education and health, and impacts financial inclusivity. This became more apparent during COVID-19, when female students often had to prioritize household duties over their virtual education.

As UNICEF reports, digital technology can help girls overcome barriers they face in the physical world. But when girls lack this technology, their employment opportunities suffer and the barriers they face are higher.

Similar problems affect all those who are digitally excluded, whether male or female, rural or urban. And combating such inequalities means ensuring that everyone is afforded the same access. When governments focus on those who currently do not have equal access, those gaps can start to be bridged.

Benefits of Closing the Global Digital Divide on the Economy

Both developing countries and developed countries stand to benefit from digital equity, as outlined in the digital technology roadmap. Digital equity improves national economies. When governments invest in their communities, individuals have the opportunity for better education and, subsequently, better jobs. This drives economic growth and allows people to give back to their communities.

According to research commissioned by the Good Things Foundation, closing the digital divide in the UK would save people time, increase their earnings, and make them more employable. It would allow for more efficient health services, and higher wages would mean increased tax revenue for the government. For businesses, increased incomes would drive more purchases of goods and services. Closing the digital divide thus benefits individuals, governments, and businesses alike.

Efforts to Expand Internet Access across the Globe

The United Nations (UN) has a plan to bridge the digital divide and increase digital access for all people, both in developing countries and developed countries.

By 2025, the UN intends to achieve the following goals:

  • a funded national broadband plan in all countries
  • affordable entry-level broadband services in developing countries
  • sixty percent of young adults and adults should have a minimum level of expertise in sustainable digital skills
  • digital financial services used by 40 percent of the global population
  • gender equality across all targets
  • policies to develop digital skills and address/correct accessibility issues

These goals are intended to address the problems that are causing the global digital divide, and prepare for the future. The digital world will continue to change, and these goals are designed to help everyone grow with it.

Strategies for Bridging the Global Digital Divide

While the UN’s strategy to close the digital divide is a work in progress, governments and other organizations can take their own steps to help bridge the gap.

Developed countries can extend initiatives to low-income countries to reduce the international digital divide. These include partnering with other governments and the private sector to encourage government policies, digital infrastructure, stable network providers, and strong cybersecurity.

How Plan International is Bridging the Digital Divide

Development and humanitarian organization Plan International works primarily with impoverished or otherwise underserved communities. They focus on the gender digital divide. The organization implements their school program, Girls Get Equal, to help girls in Asia, Africa, and the Americas gain digital skills and digital literacy.

Their program also advocates for online safety. This helps to ensure that young girls not only have the tools and freedom to utilize digital technology, but they can do so while knowing how to limit discrimination or harassment.

The Role of the Private Sector in Bridging the Digital Divide

Governments and nonprofit organizations can do much to bridge the digital divide. However, government initiatives take time to plan, fund, and implement. In the meantime, the private sector can step in to create a positive impact in underserved communities.

According to the World Economic Forum, the private sector has been taking the lead in addressing the digital divide. Because the private sector gains much from widespread digital access and the healthy economy digital equity fosters, businesses as well as individuals and communities benefit from private sector initiatives. However, it is vital that governments monitor and regulate private sector activities to avoid the creation of monopolies that limit, rather than encourage, digital growth.

The World Economic Forum’s EDISON Alliance seeks to create a more equitable digital landscape by cultivating partnerships between government and industry. Through this and similar initiatives, the private sector can benefit not only itself but the larger community.

The Future of Digital Livelihood

The 5G forecast is a highly relevant factor in bridging the digital divide, as it predicts how we will access and use digital tools. With those projections, we can prepare ourselves and our communities’ infrastructure for what we’ll need to access 5G.

During the COVID-19 crisis, the world had to adapt to a more digital way of living. We saw an acceleration in network usage as working from home, at-home schooling, telehealth, and online shopping all became staples of everyday life. Fast, reliable internet is no longer a luxury but a necessity.

The benefits of closing the global digital divide reach beyond the scope of the pandemic. Though Covid-19 was the cause of this surge in the need for and use of digital services, that momentum will continue.

Progress means advancements not only in technology but also in government policy and accessibility so that everyone can gain from new technology. That way, the world—not just a select few—will be able to move forward into the Fourth Industrial Revolution.   

Interested in becoming an IEEE member? Joining this community of over 420,000 technology and engineering professionals will give you access to the resources and opportunities you need to keep on top of changes in technology, as well as help you get involved in standards development, network with other professionals in your local area or within a specific technical interest, mentor the next generation of engineers and technologists, and so much more.