It is easy, if not always useful, to categorise people as haves and have nots with regard to the digital divide. People who live in remote areas, or who can’t afford access to networking technologies are the have nots, and more affluent people who live in ‘wired’ countries are the haves. These two groups are shown in stark contrast to each other in the episode of the BBC’s Our World below, entitled On/Off:

In it, two BBC reporters visit communities at opposite ends of the scale; a village in rural Nigeria, and families living in Seoul, South Korea. In Nigeria, the reporter has to provide internet access, through a web-enabled mobile phone, which the local men begin to use to read the news and expand their world view, and in South Korea the investigation involves removing the family’s internet access to see how they can cope for a week without it.

Investigations like these are interesting, but pretty superficial – there’s only so much you can find out in the course of a week. A new technology (or its removal) only becomes truly profound & significant in its effects over the long-term.

Categorising access as a binary state – you either have it or you don’t – is facile and misses much of the debate surrounding this problem. There are far more factors at play here than a single yes/no question can answer. To really understand the issue of the digital divide, we have to keep asking questions. Questions like:

  • Is internet access available in the user’s home, or do they have to travel to use it?
  • Is internet access provided at sufficient bandwidth to allow the user to do everything they want to do?
  • Is internet access reliable enough for it to be relied upon for business/educational/social purposes?
  • Is internet access affordable?

A 2017 report from the Alliance for Affordable Internet starts:

“In 2017, we will pass a significant threshold: 50% of the world will be online. This milestone will mark the first time the scales have been tipped toward more people connected than not, and speaks to the impressive growth of the internet — just ten years ago, barely over 20% of the world’s population was online. But for the other half of the world that remains offline — mostly women in developing countries — this means being left even further behind as the digital revolution steams ahead.”

– Alliance for Affordable Internet (2017)

Despite internet penetration rates entering steeper and steeper curves of growth, large segments of the world’s population are being left behind, and those segments disproportionately disadvantage minority groups.

My own experience: St Helena

From 2011 to 2013 I had the enormous good fortune to live on a little rock, just 10 miles wide by 5 miles long, called St Helena. St Helena is a British Overseas Territory in the South Atlantic, and after its neighbour Tristan Da Cunha, one of the remotest locations on Earth.

While I was there as an advisory teacher, I paid £240 per month for 10Gb of monthly bandwidth, using the island’s elderly & unreliable satellite connection. While this may seem extreme by any standard, this is put into even starker context when looking at average income statistics for locals: the most recent published figures (for year 2013/14) show the average income from employment was £8,560 and the median income was £7,100 (St Helena Government, 2015. p9).This means that my internet package was exactly one third of the average income on the island.

Most households on the island had the bronze internet package (£30 per month for just 100mb of bandwidth). This had a profound impact on the way I taught. As an ICT teacher, I had always had some degree of expectation that students would make use of online resources to supplement their learning. Obviously this was no longer possible.

As part of my role, I negotiated a contract with the ISP of the time, Cable & Wireless, to provide the island’s high school with a 128kbit leased circuit for £16,000 per year, which came directly out of the school’s budget. The cost was significant, but it guaranteed uptime in all circumstances other than solar flare interference or technical problems. As some subjects were offered via distance learning, with Skype lessons taking place many times a week, it was essential that these services were accessible.

Geographic isolation is one thing, but isolation from the Internet is another entirely. Efforts over the last five years have resulted in the negotiation of a contract to land a transatlantic internet cable at the island in the next few years, at which point the rest of the world will begin to feel a good deal closer.

Sources

Alliance for Affordable Internet (2017). 2017 Affordability Report [Online], available from: http://a4ai.org/affordability-report/report/2017/ [Accessed November 20th, 2017].

BBC (2010). Our World: On/Off [Television programme], available from: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00s349t

St Helena Government (2015). The State of the Island 2015 [Online], available from: http://www.sainthelena.gov.sh/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/State-of-the-Island-2015.pdf [Accessed November 20th, 2017].