Concerning ‘Digital Divide,’ the term ‘Digital’ here refers to Information and Communication Technology (ICT) while ‘Divide’ means differences, disparity or gap. In general, it is a phenomenon wherein those who have access to ICT are benefited by the use of it and their economic well-being is ensured in the form of highly paid jobs and more business opportunities in comparison to those who do not have access to ICT and remain aloof of these benefits and hence in a disadvantageous position.

The divide does not affect only economically but socially as well. The term also refers to gaps between groups in their ability to use ICTs due to varying literacy and technical skills, and the gap in availability of quality, useful digital content. The divide is seen as a socioeconomic problem. A digital divide is an economic and social inequality in the access to, use of, or impact of information and communication technologies (Wikipedia).

The term “digital divide” was introduced by Larry Irving, Jr., former US Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Telecommunication and Communication in the mid-1990s in order to focus public attention on the existing gap in access to information services between those who can afford to purchase the computer hardware and software necessary to participate in the global information network, and low income families and communities who cannot.

The concept of digital divide has several dimensions like global divide which refers to differences in availability of the ICT between countries which is reflective of existing economic realities in the world. The developed nations (primarily Canada, the United States, Japan, and Western Europe) with the resources to invest in and develop ICT Infrastructure are reaping enormous benefits from the information age, while developing nations (primarily Latin America, Africa, and Southeast Asia) are trailing along at a much slower pace thereby creating a divide. Another dimension is national divide which refers to digital disparity within a country.

ICT is seldom available in villages where it is needed most and income level is also playing a key factor in this because who can afford are reaping its benefits while as who cannot afford are still devoid of it. Another significant factor is the level of education, as ICT is basically a print medium. Connectivity Based Divide an emerging dimension and is based on the usage of more sophisticated, advanced telecommunication technologies — that include broadband, WLANs, PDAs and other new information and telecommunication technologies are emerging. So while developing countries are still in the process of implementing basic telephony services, advanced countries are focused on rolling out wire line and wireless broadband services.

Critics believe that following are the reasons which are responsible for the existence of this kind of divide:

  • The non-availability of a reliable ICT infrastructure to access the internet like number of PCs and teledensity. that is available with select countries and developing countries have to import the necessary structure which at times they are unable to afford.
  • The problem of connectivity i.e., availability of a fast, reliable and cost effective internet connection. Then there is the cost of accessing the internet which includes telephone tariff and line rental and cost of Internet Service Provider (ISP). Because of poor quality of services available due to backward technology it becomes difficult to exploit benefits of ICT.
  • Education is one of the major factors hampering diffusion of ICT amongst masses. Only those who are not only literates but computer literates can really benefit from ICT. In developing countries where Governments are still trying to universalize elementary education computer literacy is a far cry. Hence, the divide is bound to exist.
  • Even though internet is a vast reservoir of knowledge & information. However this knowledge should be comprehensible to those who actually require it i.e., there must be availability of web content in the language of the user.
  • E-readiness of society. E-readiness is the capacity of the society to incorporate ICT in all its pursuits. The e-readiness of the society primarily depends upon availability of skilled human resource that is capable of using, improving, innovating and adapting the new technologies. The different segments of the society viz. the households, business, the government etc. should be willing to accept and absorb ICT. Lesser the readiness, wider the divide and vice versa.

Impact of Digital Divide

There should not be any kind of divide in the society, all should be equal & every benefit should go to all but it is still confined to law of equality and is a distant dream. In fact there are various kinds of divide in the society & digital divide is one of them. Due to the impact of the ICT the world is becoming a global village and has helped in giving us a better quality of life. The divide’s impact on various spheres of humankind are as:

  • On Employment: ICT has created a new class of skilled workers who are highly paid. Future of creation of jobs, the nature, content and quality of work, the location of work, the education & skills required etc. is to be determined by ICT. There is evidence that employment ratios are highest in those countries where the use of ICT is most widespread. ICT has created new jobs like webpage designers or call centre workers which were non-existent few decades ago but at the same time automation is making certain jobs obsolete like manual record keepers will become obsolete. Hence, those who are skilled in ICT are benefited. In such a scenario if there is digital divide, then those who are at the disadvantaged side have lower job prospects due to lack market driven skills.
  • On Development: ICT offers tools that accelerate development and may become shortcut to economic growth. The countries with the right mix of skills, infrastructure, and policies could become important locations in global markets for ICT products generally. Countries as diverse as Brazil, China, Costa Rica, Israel, Malaysia and Romania have all been able to gain niches in such markets. This benefit of ICT is denied to those countries that stand at the other side of the digital divide. Thus, the existing gap between the developing and developed countries keeps on widening. ICT has spread at an astonishing rate. This has created disruptions and divisions in the world.
  • On National and Social Interest: Access to the ICT is an important component of civil life. Telephone (including mobile services) is often considered important for of security, and in emergencies. Internet is an important source of many vital information regarding career, civic life, safety, etc. Many social welfare services are delivered through ICT and is improving social mobility by enabling people to remain in touch with others. The existing digital divide works unfairly to all those in the lower socioeconomic status and all the above mentioned benefits do not accrue ultimately it is national and social interest which suffers.

Measures That Can Bridge the Divide

Those who are on the less favorable side of the divide have less opportunity to take part in new ICT based economy, in which more and more jobs are related to computers. Since, now more people are regularly making use of ICT, people who lack accesses to it are at an increasing disadvantage. Therefore increasing the number of people who have access to ICT is of vital importance. So now it is imperative to bridge the divide. The solution lies in the problem itself and ICT is the very tool that can be used to bridge this divide. Various steps which can narrow down the divide if not completely close it are as:

  • Providing internet access. Due to the infrastructure required, public places like schools and libraries offer a community approach because everyone has access to common facilities. Increasing Internet connectivity in public places would effectively improve the internet access and use by those who cannot afford computers.
  • Education matters most of all. The promotion of education and literacy generally, and digital literacy in particular, is a basic step to bridge the divide. Educational differences underlie the different rates of penetration of ICT and Internet usage. Efforts have to be made to provide computer education along with schooling. Providing computer only is insufficient, teachers need to be trained in ICT. Besides the school goers, large part of the existing workforce also needs to be trained in ICT.
  • Exploring the various forms of ICT. Besides the Internet, there are other information and communications technologies which can be helpful. International Telecommunication Union has reported that mobile phones diffuse faster than the Internet. Thus, mobile phones can become alternative routes of getting information because they are not as demanding as computers and the PC based Internet in terms of cost and skills. Even illiterates can use them.
  • Government policies and support. Enhanced governmental support in the form of budgetary allocations, lower taxes and a regulatory framework are essential for the transition to the ICT society. Access to information, goods and services via the Internet would allow countries and communities to participate, as well as buy and sell goods and services, in the ‘new information economy’, regardless of their geographic location
  • Universal Access. As the use of computers and the Internet increases, so does the necessity for access. In the public sector, policy makers and community members must recognize the importance of such resources and take measures to ensure access for all. While increased competition among PC manufacturers and Internet Service Providers has substantially reduced the costs associated with owning a computer and maintaining a home connection, for many households the costs remain prohibitive. Like basic phone service, the government should subsidize Internet access for low-income households. At the same time, the private sector must commit to providing equal service and networks to rural and underserved communities so that all individuals can participate.

Mukhtar Ahmad Farooqi