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Area of Impact: Digital Divides

Traditionally, the “Digital Divide” has been defined as the gap between those that have Internet access and those that do not.  Internet connectivity is growing around the world and many commenters have expressed hopes that it will be an empowering and equalizing force between social groups and countries.  However, the ability to meaningfully participate in and benefit from the Internet in the future will likely be determined by more than the sheer ability to connect.  

Indeed, many see the “digital divide” of the future transforming into a question about the practical ability to use the Internet for opportunity and advancement relative to others. As one participant noted, "The word ‘access’ is not enough. There may be more ‘use’ but not productive use for opportunity and development.”  

Those with access only through slow connections or smartphones, the poor, remote communities, and regions in lagging Internet skills and advanced infrastructure are seen as particular at risk in falling behind compared to the wealthy in countries and more developed regions as a whole.  

Additionally, power requirements and higher levels of investment required for Internet infrastructure and technology deployment (including data centres) could also put the developing world at a future competitive disadvantage. Furthermore, as the use of the Internet transforms through the growth in Internet of Things applications and uses, there is also concern that preparedness for and the ability to take advantage of IoT may become a new and fundamental divide in the future.

Furthermore, a number of participants from developing regions raised concerns that new or wider divides may emerge within countries across socio-economic status, gender, literacy level, and age.  Connectivity through limited-access platforms, limited local language content and locally developed services, and government constraints on Internet use, were raised as potential drivers towards new digital divides.

For some, the ultimate question is the extent to which individuals and societies will have the opportunity to create, innovate, and contribute to the Internet, rather than simply consume it. Many participants believe the way the digital divide evolves over the next 5-10 years will have a significant impact on how the Internet looks and is used globally.

Key Challenges and Uncertainties Raised by our Community 

  • Potential for persistent gaps between the connected and unconnected.
  • “Digital divide” transforming from not just about who has access, but the equality in the nature of access and opportunities.  
  • Potential for growing gaps in the ability of different communities, social groups, nations, regions, genders etc. to meaningfully participate in and benefit from the Internet.
  • Disparities in the quality of access and open access (i.e. connection speeds, restricted-use platforms, mobile only access etc.)
  • Developed countries attaining gains in the ability to benefit from the Internet at a rate that developing countries can not.
  • Divides in the preparedness for and ability to use evolving Internet technologies, such as the Internet of Things.
  • Disparate and unequal opportunities for innovating on and with the Internet / some left as Internet “consumers” with little opportunity to be Internet “creators.”
  • Power and other requirements for Internet infrastructure and technology deployment (e.g. data centres) putting the developing world at a competitive disadvantage.  

Questions from our Community:

  • Even if we achieve a world where everyone has Internet access, will all segments of society have an equal opportunity to meaningfully participate in and benefit from the Internet?
  • Will countries that are ahead in Internet technology, infrastructure, and innovation simply accelerate their lead in the future or will developing regions equalize the gap?
  • Will differences in connection technology, quality, and level of Internet openness lead to fundamentally different Internet experiences and levels of opportunity for users in the future?