The global digital divide refers to differences in Internet and other telecommunications access and usage across countries. The global digital divide encompasses two concepts. First, there is a divide in access and usage across definable groups within countries, and second, there is a divide in access and usage across countries themselves.
Individual country statistics routinely show an intracountry digital divide. In a Pew Internet and American Life study and nearly all the countries surveyed in a 2008 OECD study, Internet use within OECD countries decreases with the age of the user, increases with the education of the user, and increases with the income of the user. Globally, households with children are more likely to use the Internet and urban/suburban users more likely to have access than rural users. And in many countries men access the Internet more than women. This same study also found that Internet access varies with firm size. Larger firms (firms with more than 100 employees) are twice as likely to have Internet access than smaller firms.
According to Internet World Stats, the latest number of world Internet users in 2008 is 1.5 billion, which represent 21.9 percent of the world population. According to recent studies, there are several major contributors to the inter-country, or global, digital divide among these users including differences in income, literacy, infrastructure, and the regulatory climate. As expected, the lower income developing countries have lower access to the Internet. In these same countries, illiteracy also complicates Internet usage. When the Internet is accessed, users must share a very low bandwidth. As a result, text-based Internet pages are the most likely to be successfully accessed. The irony is that these pages often cannot be read because of low literacy levels and translation difficulties. These users are deprived of the audio and video components of the Web that would be most beneficial to them due to low bandwidth. In 2004 a single user in Japan has access to more bandwidth than the 45 countries with the lowest bandwidth combined.
The focus of reducing the global digital divide has changed over time from expanding landlines to increasing dial-up access to expanding broadband via fiber optic cables. In OECD countries, broadband subscribers increased by 11 times 2000–06. Expanding broadband into developing countries is still a prominent interest of telecommunications companies and governments. A variety of public and private telecommunication structures has developed connecting to one vast network. Public policy analysts fear that monopoly pricing and limited access by private firms will continue to isolate vast geographical areas. One OECD study suggests that the solution to the global digital divide is through liberalizing telecommunications markets while keeping a sound regulatory framework.
Studies of the global digital divide often focus on both Internet access and PC availability. Moves to expand laptop and PC availability to developing third world countries will help increase access to broadband and reduce the global digital divide. However, the popularity of mobile communications in developing countries may suggest that satellite technology is the medium of the future. Mobile phones are less expensive for developing country citizens and providing access is cheaper for firms than building or repairing landline infrastructure. It is therefore easier to use satellite transmission to extend access in these areas. A Nielson report in July 2008 finds that while the United States leads in overall mobile Internet usage (of total users), other nations, such as Russia, Brazil, and India, are now using mobile devices as the primary mechanism for getting online.
Closing the global digital divide requires coordination via companies that produce the broadband and satellite access, telcos and ISPs that provide the access to the consumers, and governments. Provision of access alone will not close the divide. The price of that access for the consumers, their income, their literacy level, and their willingness to learn new technologies are also factors. Continuous technological improvement and competitive markets reduce the price of access. There are many groups seeking to reduce the other burdens of access and provide the tools necessary to equalize access to these markets, such as funds and equipment, accords between governments, and cooperation between private companies.
- Menzie D. Chinn and Robert W. Fairlie. “The Determinants of the Global Digital Divide: A CrossCountry Analysis of Computer and Internet Penetration,” Oxford Economic Papers (v.59, 2007);
- Internet World Stats, www.internetworldstats.com (cited March 2009);
- OECD, “Internet Address Space: Economic Considerations in the Management of IPv4 and in the Deployment of IPv6,” www.oecd.org (cited March 2009);
- OECD, “Regulatory Reform as a Tool for Bridging the Digital Divide,” www.oecd.org (cited March 2009);
- OECD, “Understanding the Digital Divide,” www.oecd.org (cited March 2009);
- Pew Internet & American Life Project, October 24–December 2, 2007 Tracking Survey, www.pewinternet.org (cited March 2009).
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