page looks at digital divides in the US and Canada.
It covers -
- some key statistics of development and connectivity
- debate about economic and geographical divides
- a benchmark for Australia?
The notion of a 'digital divide' - and later of multiple
digital divides - originated along with the internet in
the United States. Government characterisation of that divide
initially centred on infrastructure, with concerns that
some populations did not have access to the digital cornucopia
because the infrastructure was not available or was too
That characterisation was reflected in measures of teledensity
(rather than use) and in a range of programs to increase
access through for example incentives for infrastructure
developers and subsidised access by schools. It was also
reflected in private sector initiatives of varying effectiveness,
including what one critic slammed as "throw personal
computers at the ghetto", and calls for large-scale
In December 2008, for example, the Benton Foundation modestly
a visionary blueprint for the use of technology and innovation,
the Benton Foundation proposes that President-Elect Barack
Obama take immediate action to connect the nation to broadband,
which will unleash billions of dollars in economic development,
create over a million jobs, enhance America's global competitiveness,
deliver superior health care and education, reduce energy
consumption and environmental degradation, improve public
safety and homeland security, and reinvigorate democracy.
more nuanced view of divides - and of the interaction of
individual/community expectations about ICT, availability
of hardware and the cost of bandwidth - evolved over time.
That evolution has seen some government agencies and private
sector bodies grappling with intractable challenges, exploiting
the divides label as a mechanism for funding fixes or proclaiming
that meaningful divides have been bridged.
As of 2004 population (m) and GDP (US$bn purchasing power
parity) for selected states in the Americas was -
GDP (PPP) was US$571 billion.
An ITU report for 2003 identifies 'main' landlines and aggregate
subscribers (landline and mobile) -
per 100 people
internet hosts (per 10,000 inhabitants) and personal computers
(per 100 inhabitants) -
International 2004 Corruption Perceptions Index ranked
selected American states as follows (with Sweden and Australia
at 6 and 9 respectively) -
for 2004 suggested that life expectancy at birth and adult
literacy (%, ages 15 plus) was -
Under the Clinton administration the US government established
a Digital Divide office to deal with policy questions and
awareness at the national level. Amid comments that 'The
Divide' no longer exists or is no longer important that
went offline. However, it is available on the Internet Archive
and the various Falling Through the Net reports
are available here,
along with the NTIA Networked Nation: Broadband in America
Other reports include Robert Kominski & Eric Newburger's
1999 Access Denied: Changes in Computer Ownership and
Use: 1984-1997 (PDF);
the US Census Bureau offers data on personal computer ownership
As in other advanced economies responsibility for divide
initiatives has spread across the bureaucracy.
The Benton Foundation has established the Digital Divide
as a nongovernment resource for US initiatives and issues.
As we note in the Metrics
& Statistics, Economy
and Digital Environment guides,
the Divide has been a major preoccupation of US state and
federal government agencies. The federal Department of Commerce
and national Telecommunications & Information Administration
reports on Falling Through The Net provide a detailed
picture of who is online, analysing the 'telecommunications
and information technology gap in America'.
A point of reference is the 2004 Brookings Institution study
by Scott Allard on Access to Social Services: The Changing
Urban Geography of Poverty and Service Provision (PDF),
noting that location matters: poor populations in urban
centers have greater spatial access to social services than
poor populations living in suburban areas and rural areas.
The October 2000 Falling Through The Net: Towards Digital
Inclusion report (PDF)
concentrates on "access to technology tools",
measuring the extent of digital inclusion by identifying
households and individuals with a computer and internet
connection. It has been superseded by the 2004 A Nation
Online: Entering the Broadband Age report
from the NTIA.
The State of the Net 2000 report
is a snapshot by the US Internet Council (USIC) of
access, ecommerce, traffic and other Internet statistics.
While some of the figures are suspect, the report is a useful
compilation. USIC's 1999 report
is also online.
It should be read in conjunction with studies such as the
2000 report by Donna Hoffman & Thomas Novak on The
Evolution of the Digital Divide: Examining the Relationship
of Race to Internet Access & Usage Over Time (PDF),
the Deconstructing the Digital Divide in the United
States: An Interpretive Policy Analytic Perspective
by Christina Courtright & Alice Robbin and the 2002 paper
by Beverly Lynch on The Digital Divide or the Digital
Connection: A U.S. Perspective. Lynch echoes Pippa
Norris's superb Digital Divide: Civic Engagement, Information
Poverty & the Internet Worldwide (Cambridge: Cambridge
Uni Press 2001) in noting that the term "becomes a shorthand
for every conceivable disparity relating to online access".
Among government initiatives are programs of the Federal-State
Joint Board on Universal Service (UService)
and the E-rate (Schools & Libraries Universal Service
Support Mechanism), a levy on internet consumers.
Consumers contribute roughly US$1 per month to the E-rate
program, which has distributed nearly US$13 billion to libraries
and schools since 1998 as discounts for telecommunications
services. Proponents argue that as of 2001 some 87% of all
classrooms in public schools have net access, including
81% of all classrooms in schools with a minority enrollment
of greater than 49%. As of 2002 about 95% of all public
libraries provide public internet access.
At a global level the October 2000 conference in Seattle
(of course) of the Digital Dividend Organisation (DDO)
noted that there are more telephones in New York City than
in all of rural Asia, more internet accounts in London than
all of Africa. As much as 80% of the world's population
has never made a phone call. The net connects 100 million
computers, but that "represents less than 2% of the
Around the same time the US Consumers Federation of America
and Consumers Union released their Disconnected, Disadvantaged
& Disenfranchised report (PDF),
based on a detailed national survey of 1900 respondents
and claimed to present
first direct comparison of a broad range of commercial,
informational, educational, civic and political activities
of individuals in physical space to those in cyberspace.
For a contrarian view US business group the Employment Policy
blithely says "where's the beef?" in a January
2001 report (PDF).
It predicts that "the Divide" will disappear of
its own accord by 2009, with almost all upper income households
and 95% of lower income households owning computers. Some
of the more challenging questions of use and access costs
are skated over; as noted throughout this site ownership
of a personal computer does not necessarily equate with
information literacy or a low-cost internet connection.
The Packard Foundation's 2001 Children & Computer
for example notes that 70% of US households with children
aged 2 to 17 have computers. 52% have an internet connection,
although only a small propertion have broadband and charges
vary considerably. Only 22% of very low income households
have computers, compared to 91% of upper income households.
One response is ConnectNet,
an internet directory that identifies 20,000 'technology
access points', 'community technology centers' (aka telecentres)
and libraries that offer free connections to the net.
Coalition, an alliance of ISPs, is
to promoting the rights of all consumers to obtain affordable,
high-speed access to the Internet from the provider of
their choice ... competition among Internet service providers
over last mile broadband networks will lower prices, spur
innovation, and advance the social and economic benefits
of the internet.
is one of the less grandiose, and perhaps more effective,
Some demographics have remained offline. In May 2008 for
example Parks Associates claimed that roughly one-fifth
of all US "heads-of-household" have never used
email, claiming that its annual phone survey found 20 million
households (c18% of all US households, down from 29% in
2006) are without internet access and that nearly one out
of three heads has "never used a computer to create
a document". 50% of those who have never used email
are over 65; 56% had no schooling beyond high school. 7%
of the 'disconnected' households planned to subscribe to
an internet service within the next 12 months.
The 1999 report
by James Casey, Randy Ross & Marcia Warren Native
Networking: Telecommunications & Information Technology
in Indian Country remains of value, as does The
Native Digital Divide: A Review of Online Literature
by Evans Craig. Another perspective is offered by Mark Warschauer's
on Dissecting the Digital Divide and the 2001 paper
An Empirical Investigation of the Digital Divide in
the United States (txt)
by Danilo Pelletiere & Chris Rodrigo, the latter echoing
work by Matthew Zook.
Reports and studies include Anthony Wilhelm's First
They Threw Me A Computer ... But What I Really Needed
Was A Life Preserver and Anne Craig's article
Bridging the Digital Divide: State Government As Content
Provider - The Illinois Experience.
In 2004 President Bush - in one of his more opaque speeches
- called for "universal, affordable access to broadband
technology by the year 2007". Estimates of the cost
of providing broadband infrastructure are upwards of US$20
billion, with around US$10 billion for all un wired homes
in urban or suburban areas and another US$10 billion to
"DSL-enable rural America".
Proponents highlight the need for incentives to commercial
connectivity providers. Those incentives for example might
include a massive subsidy in the form of a tax break or
a Universal Service Fund fee added to all broadband service
(modelled on the 1934 USF), with urban consumers paying
for infrastructure upgrades in the rural US.
Broader economic and cultural disparities are explored in
Unequal Chances: Family Background and Economic Success
(Princeton: Princeton Uni Press 2005), edited by Samuel
Bowles, Herbert Gintis & Melissa Groves and Inequality
Matters: The Growing Economic Divide in America and Its
Poisonous Consequences (New York: Demos/New Press 2006)
edited by James Lardner & David Smith.
Two starting points for considering digital divides in Canada
are the Connecting Canadians gateway,
a federal government initiative, and the National Broadband
Task Force site.
In June 2001 the Task Force released its detailed The
New National Dream: Networking the Nation for Broadband
which characterises broadband as
transcontinental railway of the new millennium. Just like
the railroads, it bridges the geographic distances of
the vast country in which we live to connect Canadians
to each other
report called for investment of C$4 billion to deploy broadband
to all Canadians by 2004. That investment was initially
embraced by the federal government and then quietly abandoned.
In 2005 a small-scale survey by Solutions Research Group
led to claims that 49% of Canadian households are connected
via broadband, compared to 34% in the US. 63% of Canadian
households were supposedly on the net, compared to 57% of
US households, with the percentage of Canadian broadband
homes increasing from 31% in 2003 to 40% in 2004 and 49%
in 2005. Supposedly 25% of Canadian users in the 12-29 age
group had downloaded a full-length movie or a 30/60-minute
television program, compared to 16% of US users in the same
William Birdsall's provocative 2000 First Monday
on The Digital Divide in the Liberal State: a Canadian
Perspective argues that divides will not be cured through
market or government intervention, as they are an integral
part of "North American social welfare policy".
There is a somewhat more positive account in The Dual
Digital Divide: The Information Highway in Canada (PDF),
a distance learning study from the same year, in the Information
and Communications Technology (ICT) Road Map report
and in the CA*Net Institute's 2001 A nation goes online
The Canada West Foundation (CWF)
published two reports on Canadian Free-Nets: At A Crossroad
on the Information Highway (Crossroad)
and Surveying the Landscape on the Info Highway
Vincent Mosco's report
Public Policy & the Information Highway: Access,
Equity & Universality remains of value.
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