What Is the Digital Divide?

There’s a major gap between people who can access and use digital technology and those who can’t. This is called the digital divide, and it’s getting worse as 3.7 billion people across the globe remain unconnected. But what causes the digital divide, and how can we stop it?

Technology is developing faster than ever, and it’s increasingly necessary for different aspects of life, from work and school to pharmaceuticals and healthcare. Areas of the world without the right infrastructure and people who can’t afford, or don’t know how to use, technology are at a disadvantage. To avoid economic fallout and promote digital equity and digital inclusion, institutions must address and try to close the digital divide.

Aspects of the Digital Divide

As technology develops faster, it also becomes essential for more aspects of daily life, including school and healthcare. As a result, the digital divide is worsening as those with technology get ahead faster, and those without technology are left behind.

Technology Is Developing Faster

Computers and cellphones aren’t the only kinds of technology developing at exponential rates.

Although these areas are changing quickly, especially with the rollout of 5G, the digital divide is widening as technology advances and becomes crucial for many different elements of daily life.

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues around the world, many aspects of life that previously took place in person have moved online, such as education. According to a Harvard Business Review article by Bhaskar Chakravorti, fifty-five million students in the U.S. alone switched to remote learning during the pandemic. However, one in five teens reported being unable to do their homework “often” or “sometimes” because of unreliable internet access. Twelve million U.S. children lacked internet access altogether. Around the globe, students without access to the internet risk losing out on education entirely.

Technology Is Essential for More Aspects of Daily Life

This isn’t only happening in schools. Many aspects of medicine and healthcare went virtual after the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Telemedicine, virtual healthcare consultations, and video mental health appointments are all a staple of post-pandemic life. Technology is becoming crucial for the everyday medicine we’re used to, but it’s also changing the scope of healthcare altogether.

Nicholas Napp and Sophia Napp-Vega discuss the expansion of technology into healthcare in “The Digital Divide: Humanity’s Greatest Challenge?” Wearable technology like exoskeletons and smart glasses are becoming a reality, and implantable technology such as cochlear implants could even advance to function like headphones. Expanding healthcare technology also includes advances in genetic testing, which is now commonly used in pregnancy and for allergies in some parts of the world, and pharmaceutical technology.

The Divide Is Worsening

As this technology develops more quickly, those without access are left behind faster. Students without internet access fall behind their peers in school. Then, as other students keep learning, it becomes harder and harder to catch up.

As parts of the world without technological infrastructure struggle to get current, nations that prioritize equal access to technology and digital development are already looking toward the future. Eventually, the gap between those with technology and those without it will become irreparable.

Causes of the Digital Divide

The digital divide is partly caused by a lack of infrastructure. But it’s also a matter of digital literacy and how institutions support technology.


Infrastructure is a huge concern when it comes to the digital divide. Accessing a website requires a computer and an internet connection. This means broadband or fiber-optic connectivity. Or, a user needs a smartphone with data. In the United States, 5.6 percent of the population has no access to broadband internet. Students are worse off: fifteen to sixteen million (30 percent) lack broadband internet access.

Some people hope that 5G will bring internet connectivity to more individuals because broadband infrastructure expansion is a costly endeavor. IEEE’s “Connecting the Unconnected” chapter of the International Network Generations Roadmap argues that 5G mobile communications will likely miss the world’s three billion users living in remote and rural communities. This will only broaden the technological divide.

Even if users can get online, though, they may lack the technological literacy to succeed in the digital world.

Digital Literacy

The digital divide isn’t only an issue of who has access to digital tools but also who can use them safely and effectively. This is the difference between computer literacy, knowing how to turn on a computer or use a smartphone app, and digital literacy.

Digital literacy can mean a lot of things. It includes knowing what information is safe to share online, how to spot disinformation on the internet, and how digital skills can be used to improve one’s life. This information needs to be taught, which is why closing the digital gap isn’t only a matter of building infrastructure. It requires closing the knowledge gap by educating people on digital literacy.


A lack of support from institutions such as national, state, or local governments contributes to the digital divide. Governments should fund or subsidize access to broadband internet. Institutions must prioritize educating individuals about technology, use, and safety. In places where this is not the case, people are likely to land on the wrong side of the digital divide.

Impact of the Digital Divide

The digital divide not only causes individual economic disadvantages, but it can also stunt the economic growth of an entire society. What’s worse, the technology divide is deepening pre-existing inequities around the world.

Personal Economic Impact

As discussed earlier, a lack of connectivity means individuals may miss out on education and healthcare. Higher educational attainment is linked with higher earning potential, so forgoing education because of the digital divide may mean decreased lifetime earnings. And losing healthcare because of technology could mean a lower life expectancy and quality of life.

Additionally, digital skills are increasingly necessary for middle-skills jobs, which require less than a bachelor’s degree and pay above a living wage. According to a 2017 Digital Edge report, “Middle-Skill Workers and Careers,” 82 percent of middle-skills jobs require digital skills. Even outside of industries that require occupationally specific digital skills, most entry-level middle-skills jobs require digital productivity skills, such as word processing or spreadsheets. Moreover, career advancement often requires advanced digital skills like social media or computer networking.

Middle-skills jobs on average pay $20 per hour, well above the federal minimum wage in 2021 of $7.25 per hour. And jobs that require baseline digital skills pay 17 percent more than nondigital roles. Therefore, the personal economic impact of the digital divide is vast. Individuals and society both lose out from the digital divide.

Social Economic Impact

Individual economic loss on a massive scale—caused by the technology divide—negatively impacts entire economies.

The World Bank reports that increasing broadband penetration by 10 percent increases gross domestic product (GDP) by 1.21 percent in developed nations and 1.38 percent in developing countries.

Bhaskar Chakravorti agrees, stating that a 10 percent increase in U.S. broadband access in 2014 would have resulted in 875,000 additional jobs and $186 billion more economic output in 2019. Allowing the digital divide to worsen not only hurts individuals but also entire countries.

Increased Racial Inequities

Furthermore, the digital divide worsens pre-existing inequities. According to Chakravorti, in the U.S., nearly half of Americans without at-home internet access were in Hispanic or Black households. Up to 40 percent of students from Black, Latino, and indigenous communities struggle with insufficient digital literacy. As more jobs require digital skills, without proper intervention, a majority of Black and Hispanic workers could be locked out of 86 percent of jobs by 2045.

Gender Digital Divide

Further, women face some of the harshest results of the digital divide. According to UNESCO, 2 billion women globally are not connected to the internet. This is the gender digital divide. Before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, 130 million girls were denied education. Now, because of COVID-19 disruptions in education and the switch to digital learning, UNESCO estimates that an additional 11 million girls are at risk of not returning to the classroom.

Income Divide

In addition, a study of 191 countries showed that higher income and educational attainment are positively linked with access to technology. Higher GDP per capita correlates with higher information and communication technology (ICT) dispersion. This is true for developing economies and rural areas within developed nations.

Digital inequity is also an issue of digital inclusion. This occurs when the right technological infrastructure is in place, but users can’t afford broadband or can only afford speeds that aren’t useful for everyday functions. In this way, the digital divide is an intersectional issue that worsens inequities for marginalized groups.

Examples of Bridging the Digital Divide

Luckily, there are many countries, institutions, and industries working to bridge the digital divide. The European Union, the Republic of Korea, and Estonia are just three locations that are building infrastructure, prioritizing digital education, and promoting public-private partnerships to close the digital divide.

European Union

In 2010, the European Union (EU) launched the Digital Agenda for Europe, which sought to address the EU’s digital divide by 2020. Achievements reached during the decade include lower prices for electronic communication, the creation of a broadband fund to support digital infrastructure, and the passage of legislation protecting consumers’ digital privacy.

Then, in 2020, the EU revealed Digital Decade, a new digital framework that seeks to empower Europe digitally by 2030. Goals under Digital Decade include building infrastructure, providing digital services, and increasing the accessibility of digital connectivity so that European citizens and businesses can all be connected.

This prioritization of technology infrastructure by governing bodies is an important step in closing the digital divide. The Republic of Korea has done similar work.

Republic of Korea

After the Korean War ended in the 1950s, the Republic of Korea (ROK) had one of the poorest economies in the world. Now, it’s one of the most developed countries in the region and has one of the world’s most innovative economies thanks to government intervention and investment in ICT access.

The country has also prioritized technology in education. By integrating technology into every aspect of education, the ROK promotes digital literacy from an early age to help close the digital divide.


Similar to the ROK, Estonia made an intentional decision to invest in computer networking and infrastructure after its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. In 1996, the government of Estonia created the Tiger Leap Foundation to modernize education.

Since then, cooperation between the government, the private sector, educational institutions, and nonprofit organizations has built one of the world’s most digitally advanced societies.

Connecting the Unconnected

The digital divide is expanding rapidly as technology develops faster than ever before, leaving some to wonder, What is the digital divide? A lack of infrastructure is a major cause, but the digital divide is complex and nuanced. It’s also a result of poor digital literacy education, inequitable access to technology, and a lack of support from governing institutions. These obstacles profoundly weaken economic wellbeing and worsen social injustices for both individuals and society.

There’s hope for the future as countries and organizations around the world look to bridge the digital divide. IEEE’s Connecting the Unconnected Challenge is one initiative seeking to find innovative solutions to the digital divide. Find out more information here.

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