The digital divide refers to the gap between individuals or communities that have access to modern information and communication technologies (ICT) and those that do not. In Canada, there are significant disparities in internet access and usage rates between rural and urban areas, as well as between low-income and high-income households. This divide can have a negative impact on economic opportunities, education, health care, and social inclusion.
Did you know?
Only 62% of Canadians living in rural areas have access to an internet connection with broadband speeds of at least 50 megabytes per second (Mbps) for downloads and 10 Mbps for uploads. Meanwhile, 91.4% of Canadians have unlimited access to the internet at a minimum of these speeds.
What is causing the digital divide?
Statistics Canada has shown a strong correlation between household income and access to high-speed internet. A similar link has also been made between rural addresses and poor internet connectivity. Other demographic factors affecting ICT use include education, age, gender, language, and culture.
The digital divide is a global issue. While each nation is taking a slightly different approach to addressing it, international bodies such as the United Nations, the World Economic Forum, and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers have all weighed in on the necessity of addressing the problem. Some common themes emerge when you look at them together:
- A lack of access to high-speed internet: Rural users are often underserved by utility companies, and low-income users are often priced out of the market.
- Limited education and training on technology use: K–12 curricula have not kept pace with the shift toward digital literacy as a core skill.
- Shortened device life cycles: Planned obsolescence and time-limited support are taking devices out of circulation that would otherwise make their way to users in need of affordable used hardware.
- Language barriers: The internet is largely Anglocentric, and users often need English language skills to access technology training.
In practice, this divide has real impacts on individual Canadians:
- People living in rural and remote areas of the country, particularly in the Far North, where internet is slow or nonexistent, were often unable to telework or access virtual education during the COVID-19 pandemic.
- Low-income families who upgrade less frequently find themselves using devices that don’t have the latest security patches and are more vulnerable to cybercrime as a result.
- As more and more public discourse moves online, individuals without access to devices and internet connectivity are silenced.
It’s impacting generations
The Government of Canada has been working to close the digital divide for nearly a quarter of a century, primarily through programs making access to information and communication technologies (ICT) easier for elementary and high schools, rural and Indigenous communities, and low-income families. While the COVID-19 pandemic correlated with an improvement in digital skills, work still needs to be done in this regard.
A lot can happen in 25 years. Equitable ICT access has become a multi-generational social issue. Children from impacted families may not have access to computers or high-speed internet at home, which can put them at a disadvantage in school and limit their opportunities for future success.
Ironically, many of the ICT industry’s efforts to close the digital divide have had the opposite effect. To increase the size of the market, companies have reduced the level of digital literacy needed to consume services. This has increased the number of technology consumers but it has not allowed them to develop the digital skills required to become informed contributors.
Since 2017, educators in postsecondary institutions have been reporting that gaps in foundational technology skills among students are affecting academic performance. Global technology leaders have raised similar concerns about skills gaps in the postmillennial workforce. Think about it: How much do you know about the inner workings of the device you’re reading this on?
The digital divide leads to disparities in access to information and technology, which negatively affects an individual's or community's ability to participate in the global economy. This results in a lack of job opportunities, reduced productivity, and decreased competitiveness in the marketplace, both domestically and internationally.
As more and more services migrate toward online business models, the digital divide worsens existing social and economic inequalities, making it even harder for marginalized individuals to access resources and opportunities. How can we mitigate this problem?
Individuals, organizations, and communities can help close the digital skills gap in a number of concrete ways:
- Increasing access to technology: This can be achieved through initiatives such as providing low-cost computers and internet access to underserved communities and increasing the availability of public Wi-Fi hotspots in areas where broadband access is limited.
- Providing digital literacy training: Many individuals who lack access to technology also lack the necessary skills to use it effectively. By providing digital literacy training, we can help ensure that everyone has the knowledge and skills they need to participate fully in our increasingly digital world.
- Promoting equitable policy-making: Governments and policy-makers can play a crucial role in addressing the digital divide. They can develop and support policies that promote equitable access to technology and the internet, such as universal service funds (like Canada’s Broadband Fund) or targeted subsidies for low-income households.
- Encouraging private sector investment: The private sector has a critical role to play in addressing the digital divide. Companies can invest in infrastructure and services that help bridge the gap between those who have access to technology and those who do not. This can include partnerships with governments, non-profits, and other stakeholders to expand access to technology and the internet.
Overall, addressing the digital divide requires a multi-faceted approach that involves collaboration between the government, the private sector, and civil society organizations. By working together, we can help bridge the digital divide.
Some food for thought
1. Who do you know that is impacted by the digital divide?
2. How can you contribute to mitigating it?
3. How can you improve your own digital skills?
- Course | How Data Literate Are You? (DDN302)
- Course | Achieving Digital Dexterity (DDN217)
- Course | Digital in Practice (DDN202)
- Course | Discover Digital for Executives (DDN204)
- National Broadband Internet Service Availability Map
- The Government has “no credible strategy” to tackle digital exclusion – Committees – UK Parliament
- Broadband Fund: Closing the Digital Divide in Canada | CRTC
- Programme Société Numérique – Societé Numérique (societenumerique.gouv.fr) (in French only)