Today, almost everyone in the United States has the option of purchasing an Internet connection. Yet tens of millions of Americans do not share in many of the social and economic benefits that Internet use affords. An increasing number of communities are taking action to address this issue.
Beyond the digital divide
The term “digital divide” first appeared 20 years ago to describe the gap between those who have access to the Internet and those who do not. The goal of connecting more people to the Internet quickly became a vital centerpiece of U.S. technology policy. But in recent years, as more consumers have come online and started using their connectivity for more activities, this focus on the physical availability of technology has become less useful.
The problem is that merely having access to technology does not mean that everyone can take advantage of its benefits. As discussed in previous AARP Public Policy Institute research, other factors, such as digital skills, availability of relevant content, and cost and quality of Internet service, can also affect an individual’s ability to benefit from technology. Various statistics on technology use hint at the scope of the problem:
- An estimated 70 million Americans lack the digital skills and confidence to use the most useful applications.
- Roughly 15 percent of U.S. adults — about 47 million people — and 39 percent of adults age 65 and older do not use the Internet.
- About a third of those not online say the Internet is not relevant to their lives, and another third say it is too difficult to use.
Communities incur a variety of costs when residents lack sufficient connectivity or do not understand technology or its relevancy to their lives. Where such barriers exist, communities have less productive households and bear higher costs in providing public services.
A digital inclusion strategy can help
Many experts suggest reframing the discussion on the digital divide to focus on digital inclusion. The concept of digital inclusion is about overcoming all challenges to technology use — rather than just one — so that everyone can experience the social and economic benefits that technology enables.
A growing number of communities are implementing digital inclusion strategies. These strategies can vary widely. Some community initiatives simply provide access to technology and general skills training. The more interesting initiatives strive to promote technology use for broader benefits, such as improving health outcomes, reducing social isolation or increasing employment opportunities. These initiatives seek to provide tangible evidence of how their work affects people’s lives. Their efforts focus on specific populations within the community, such as unemployed workers, low-income youth or people at risk of social isolation, and target their assistance to address the group’s specific technology needs.
More communities need to implement digital inclusion strategies to ensure that every resident is able to benefit in today’s increasingly digital society.
Christopher Baker is a senior strategic policy adviser for the AARP Public Policy Institute, where he works on policy issues related to the availability, affordability and application of essential telecommunications, technology and energy services. Follow Chris on Twitter
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