The term “digital divide” was popularized in the late 1990s and described a growing gap between those individuals with access to the internet and other information and communications technology, and those without. Since then, concerted effort has been made to provide physical access to close this gap.
Today, most households, workplaces and classroom computers are internet enabled. Data from 2015 showed that more than 80 percent of Idaho’s civilian population ages 3 and up used the internet, more than double the rate in 1998. Digital technology has evolved rapidly to incorporate a wide range of uses from emailing to blogging to online and blended learning in classrooms. Digital hardware and software are constantly in flux with the more recent shift to mobile devices and cloud storage.
As access to information and communications technology becomes more prevalent, it has become clear the digital divide is multi-faceted. The concept of access has thus broadened with physical access being one of several barriers to digital equality.
The Equipment Gap
When the U.S. Department of Commerce National Telecommunications and Information Administration coined the term digital divide, it was seen more as an “equipment gap” where those on the disadvantaged side of the divide lack internet service providers and personal computers, rendering them ill-equipped to participate in the information economy. In Idaho, despite the growth of information and communications technology, there still remains notable geographic variation in physical access across the state. For example, Latah County in northern Idaho, home of the University of Idaho, has the largest percentage of its population (close to 70 percent) using high-speed internet at home while in counties like Lincoln County, less than half of the population have access to high-speed internet.
This gap can be a reflection of an education divide – residents with less than a high school degree are less likely to have and use information and communication technology than those with more education. According to the most recent U.S. Census American Community Survey estimates, 91 percent of Idaho’s household population with a bachelor’s degree or higher have broadband internet subscriptions. This percentage drops to 62 percent for those with less than a high school diploma. Age and household income likely comes into play as well – millennials are more likely to have internet subscriptions than baby boomers, and households with higher income have more access than lower income households.
All of these factors contribute toward the rural-urban divide, which is the major thrust of much of Idaho’s information and communications technology policy initiatives and throughout the rest of the nation. With lower income, education and an aging demographic, it is no surprise that computer ownership rates are lower and internet infrastructure is slower to develop in rural Idaho. For this report, Idaho counties defined as urban include Ada, Bannock, Bonneville, Canyon, Kootenai and Twin Falls counties.
In addition to the smaller economy that typifies most rural counties, population density and market demand is often too low for internet service providers to consider them economically viable areas. Rural areas thus face a challenge connecting with emerging technologies and competing on a wider scale.
It is increasingly apparent that the digital divide today means more than a simple equipment gap that physical access is not sufficient to breach. As such, flooding a rural community with fiber optics and tablets does not necessarily result in the meaningful use of technology. Digital literacy, the skill to adopt and use technology in a productive way, is another layer of access required to bridge the divide. However, acquiring digital literacy is a far more formidable task than providing physical access to information and communication technology.
One difficulty with digital literacy is in defining how it should be measured. People use information and communication technology in a variety of ways and this leads to varying levels of skill. This difference in skill is often thought of as a second-level digital divide.
Many scholars will agree that digital literacy does not just involve learning to operate technology; it involves mastery of technology – learning to control, use and create new knowledge. The new knowledge could vary from writing an original blog entry to developing new software.
Agencies like the National Center for Education Statistics have developed scales for measuring digital literacy that encompasses these fundamental skills. However, a good litmus remains innovation and economic growth. From an economic perspective, digital literacy is human capital and when increased, all things being equal, that drives economic growth.
Esther.Eke@labor.idaho.gov, regional economist
Idaho Department of Labor
(208) 236-6710 ext. 4331