What Is Digital Inclusion? The Global Effort to Bring Everyone Online

If you’re reading this article on a digital device, you’re probably not surprised by how easy it was to find or how quickly it loaded. But for millions around the world, this article is out of reach. While easy access to the information, services, and opportunities of the digital world is commonplace for many, millions more lack access or the digital literacy required to realize these benefits.

Digital inclusion is the compelling vision—and the steps needed to realize it—that all people should have access to the power of the digital world to better their lives. To understand digital inclusion is to grasp the state of internet coverage worldwide, the negative social consequences of digital exclusion, and the barriers[1]  blocking greater inclusion. Importantly, digital inclusion also describes the set of solutions that aim, around the globe, to narrow the digital divide.

Definition of Digital Inclusion

Digital inclusion describes the effort to ensure that every individual and community has access to Information Communication Technology (ICT), along with the skills to make use of it.

Access as a Starting Point

The most immediate frame for understanding digital exclusion is to consider the number of people in the world who don’t have reliable internet access. A 2020 UNESCO report on world broadband use estimates that internet penetration has only reached 53.6 percent of world users. In the least developed countries, the number drops below 20 percent. Even in developed countries like the United States, more than one in five people living in rural areas lack access to broadband coverage.

But expanded coverage doesn’t matter if internet service options are so unaffordable or narrow in scope that they don’t prove useful for potential users. According to the same UNESCO report on broadband, individuals in nineteen countries pay 10 percent or more of gross national income for 1.5 GB of mobile broadband data. Nine of those countries pay 20 percent or more. For reference, two hours of standard definition video streaming on Netflix consumes around 1.5 GB of data.

Importance of Digital Skills

While handing someone a computer with an internet connection may seem like an obvious solution to increase inclusion, it takes much more than that to close the digital divide. To make the most out of the internet, individuals need to understand how to use their devices and how to safely and effectively navigate online. These skills are known as digital literacy.

Digital literacy skills include competency in how to guard personal privacy online, how to stay safe in online interactions, and how to effectively search for and discern information. Even in nations with high internet penetration, literacy in these skill areas can be lacking. According to the Pew Research Center, only 67 percent of surveyed U.S. adults correctly answered a question about phishing scams and even fewer correctly answered questions about cookies and net neutrality.

Relevance of Digital Engagement

Even after hardware is installed, coverage expanded, and digital literacy taught to communities, digital inclusion depends on individuals finding enough value in the digital world to join it. Individuals will have little use for potentially costly data that doesn’t provide content in the relevant language or goods and services in their area. And some definitions of digital inclusion suggest that the true measure of success is the degree to which users gain autonomy over digital technology or use it to advance their interests and rights.       

Why Digital Inclusion Is Essential

Lack of access to ICT plays a significant role in social and economic outcomes for people in both developed and developing countries. Moreover, digital inclusion plays a major role in achieving digital equity, when every individual has the digital skills and resources needed to fully participate in the social, economic, and civic aspects of society.

The Technology Divide Is Widening

As the pace of technological change increases at an accelerating rate, the digital divide will only become wider. Those who can take advantage of the cost savings, economic opportunities, and many other benefits of the digital world will see greater returns. Those who lack access and already experience economic disadvantage will fall further behind. Many aims of public policy, such as expanding financial inclusion, improving health outcomes, and protecting human rights, are also closely tied to digital access.

The data paints a stark picture of the consequences of digital exclusion. Students with access to a computer have a 6 to 8 percent greater chance to graduate from high school. Households with access can realize savings of $12,000 per year through online purchases. Job seekers with digital literacy skills benefit from the 82 percent of middle-skill jobs requiring digital skills.

Digital Exclusion Affects the Already Disadvantaged

The digital divide particularly affects those groups that already face disadvantages.

In the United States, access decreases as income declines. And access alone does not imply quality. More than one in four U.S. adults earning less than $30,000 annually have internet access only through a mobile device. More complex digital activities like banking and helping children with homework can be difficult given the limitations of a mobile browser on a small screen.

The digital divide also follows gender lines. According to the previously mentioned UNESCO broadband report, men use the internet 17 percent more than women worldwide. In the least developed countries, that ratio skyrockets up to nearly 43 percent.

Race and ethnicity are also determiners of digital access. Black and Hispanic adults are less likely than White adults to have home broadband services and a computer at home. And according to a BLS study, Black and Hispanic workers were less likely to work from home.

Older adults also face disadvantages. Only 60 percent of adults older than seventy-five report using the internet, and only 41 percent subscribe to home broadband. During the pandemic, as digital services like home delivery became important and necessary, older adults without access risked greater economic and social isolation. People with disabilities also experience lower levels of digital inclusion.

The Pandemic Offers Further Examples

The COVID-19 pandemic brought digital inclusion into even greater focus. Stay-at-home orders forced many to access medical care remotely. Of thirty-four states that expanded telehealth policies during the pandemic, sixteen had “below-average” broadband-speed coverage.

Students without digital access already encountered challenges in navigating the internet, downloading course materials, and using the applications needed for class. But the pandemic forced many schools to implement learning from home. Students without devices or a broadband connection in their homes (or close by) faced significant learning challenges—often these students were already fighting to overcome economically disadvantaged backgrounds.

Main Barriers to Digital Inclusion

While advances made in areas like the Internet of Things (IoT) and 5G are revolutionizing the way the world connects, millions are left on the sideline due to the barriers to digital inclusion.

Infrastructure as a Barrier

Though the technology exists to provide broadband coverage to nearly the entire world, the economics of deployment often hinder coverage expansion. For those in rural, remote, and underdeveloped areas, this lack of infrastructure can make broadband adoption impossible.

Deployment depends on viability and cost, factors that the IEEE’s International Network Generation Roadmap[2]  discusses in its section on “Connecting the Unconnected.” In some areas, rugged landscapes pose expensive deployment challenges. Low customer density in many rural and remote areas means that businesses have little profit-incentive to invest. Further, the availability of and regulatory environment around spectrum, the radio frequencies that carry digital signals, can affect whether access for end users is affordable.

And of course, to make infrastructure worthwhile, users need to have appropriate ICT devices.

Barriers Beyond Technology

Though access to the right devices and broadband coverage is the first step in closing the digital divide, factors beyond technology also impact the success of digital inclusion.

As mentioned above, to leverage digital services and opportunities, a user needs a certain degree of digital literacy. Access without literacy may result in a net negative for users who fall victim to complex online scams or who lose their banking data through unsecure browsing. In addition, broadband adoption sometimes lags due to fear of digital technology and the change it can bring to a community.

And as mentioned above, content relevance can also present a challenge. For instance, in remote rural communities, relevant content may look like agricultural and weather data more than it looks like social networks and international news apps.

Implementation of Digital Inclusion Initiatives

In asking, What is digital inclusion? it’s easy to focus on the worrying width of the digital divide and the barriers to its narrowing. But countries and communities around the world have taken important steps to help people gain access to ICT.

Global Focus on Digital Inclusion

As the world has shifted to the digital space in the past several years, the global community has realized the importance of helping everyone participate in digital life. Governments and governmental organizations like the United Nations and the European Union have undertaken efforts to enhance digital access. The UN Refugee Agency recently launched a digital inclusion program aimed at enhancing inclusion of refugees.

In the United States, low-income individuals can apply for federal subsidies of their internet access, including emergency subsidies during the pandemic. The United Kingdom’s Gigabit Project aims to provide high-speed coverage to communities across the country. Several countries have Universal Service Obligation Funds, which entail the government providing support for the entire population to have ICT access. Many governments around the world also run digital literacy programs to equip citizens for effective digital engagement. 

Prominent Strategies and Initiatives

The effort to bring people online isn’t a single-track strategy—innovative solutions are abundant. TV white space, one often discussed option, uses the unused bands of radio spectrum to help expand internet coverage. Community networks have also gained significant attention. These are grassroots, bottom-up networks where several individuals in an area share their internet connection with a broader community.

The private sector has also taken a role in advancing digital inclusion. Tech companies have made a big push to expand digital access, from supporting infrastructure investments to launching basic, walled garden internet service in parts of the world. Two companies are now developing a global constellation of satellites that would provide broadband access to remote areas of the globe. Companies from Microsoft to Mawingu Networks, a local Kenyan broadband provider, are working to extend access through fixed wireless technologies like TV white space.            

The Future of Digital Inclusion

As the world works for a future where digital equity is the norm, initiatives that aim for inclusion will be measured by their success in empowering individuals and communities. Computing may take a more local focus through technological advances like edge computing and content that’s crowd sourced from communities. Individuals will use their internet access not only to connect with the distant reaches of the digital world but to improve the lives of their families and neighbors. The IEEE’s “International Network Generation Roadmap” captures this ethos with a vision for a platform that “is supported by standards, is open, and enables empowerment of the local community.”

A World Where Digital Equity Is Commonplace

The digital divide may seem daunting, but the growing, global focus on addressing it is equally impressive. As the world strives for digital inclusion, more and more individuals will discover that access to ICT can change their lives and their communities for the better. In time, asking, What is digital inclusion? may be a matter for history more than a matter for the present.

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