After years of efforts by public interest groups, the federal government made digital equity an explicit goal of infrastructure policy. Originally introduced in 2019 by Patty Murray (WA), the bill was reintroduced in 2021 and then embedded in the Infrastructure and Jobs Act of 2021. Its three programs will fund state digital equity planning ($60M), provide support to states for five years to advance digital equity programs and implement digital equity plans ($1.44B), and $1.25B for a competitive grant program in support of digital equity projects.
A proactive approach to digital equity was at odds with the neo-liberal and techno-utopian policy model pursued by democratic and republican administrations until recently. However, the COVID-19 pandemic drove home the point that digital inequalities continue to be pervasive. First identified almost thirty years ago by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), digital divides have stubbornly persisted. Mitigating them requires a keen understanding of their dynamic nature and a systemic approach toward effective mitigation.
The National Digital Inclusion Alliance defines digital equity as a “condition in which all individuals and communities have the information technology capacity needed for full participation in our society, democracy, and economy. Digital equity is necessary for civic and cultural participation, employment, lifelong learning, and access to essential services.” It operationalizes broadband equity as a state “when all people and communities are able to access and use affordable, high-speed, reliable internet that meets their long-term needs.”
Research commonly distinguishes three levels of digital divides: access, skills, and outcomes. Accelerating change in our increasingly digitally mediated lives opens a fourth, so far largely ignored, new fracture: the ability to adapt to new and emerging technologies and services. Each of these levels sits on the previous ones and they interact with each other. Moreover, digital divides have are heterogeneous, with many shapes and faces. They intersect with other socio-economic factors to form a rugged landscape of digital advantages and disadvantages.
Each level has multiple causes and raises unique challenges. Consequently, striving for digital equity requires differentiated, yet orchestrated responses. In mid-2022, a large fraction of households in the United States do not have access to high-speed Internet connectivity. The two main reasons are lack of infrastructure and affordability of broadband service and the devices needed to access it effectively. A third reason that was historically in play, that users do not see any need for broadband is on the decline.
The historical experience with telecommunications technologies offers a rich menu of policies that worked well to achieve universal service. Reverse auctions are one of the most effective methods to expand infrastructure to unserved, high-cost areas. Multiple firms compete to offer services in an area with the project going to the firm needing the lowest subsidy. Establishment of a sustainable mechanism to support access and affordability is another important element. The lack of such policies is a sign of policy failure rather than a lack of solutions.
Digital skills are critical to turn access to beneficial uses. In part, these skills develop as part of formal education and on-the-job training. Often, they emerge from playful engagement with the technology. Even though younger generations grow up digital, this does not assure they have the requisite skills. Adult and older populations raise additional challenges of developing basic and advanced skills. Digital navigators and programs such as Tech Goes Home, often collaborating with communities, offer models to develop digital skills across age groups.
Access and digital skills are not enough to achieve beneficial outcomes for individuals and communities. This requires additional, complementary efforts. Information technology is highly plastic and can support community wellbeing or to promote division and hatred. Advancing uses that benefit individuals and communities requires a high level of digital literacy that takes such community effects into account as far as possible. It also requires the design of human-centric devices, applications and services that do not exclude.
This takes us to the fourth, emerging level of digital divides. Not only is digital technology changing at an accelerating pace; devices and services increasingly form an invisible infrastructure of our lives (e.g., fitness trackers, face recognition, remote controlled appliances). Consequently, the potential impacts on privacy and security become increasingly opaque. This implies that acquired digital skills will become obsolete faster and require continuous updating. If the opportunities and skills to update knowledge are unevenly distributed, digital equity will suffer.
Achieving and sustaining digital equity requires a new, systemic approach. For example, to harness the benefits of digital technology in K-12 education, providing access and devices is only a first, and not a sufficient, step. Additional changes in the curriculum to emphasize digital skills, modifications in pedagogy to take full advantages of digital technology, training of caretakers, and an increased awareness of harms are all part of a successful digital equity policy.
The components of the digital ecosystem need to align with each other. Federal, state, regional, and local policy need to work together in new ways so that not every community needs to start from nothing. It requires working across functional and organizational boundaries in the private, non-profit, and public sectors. Finally, we need new metrics to assess the interactions between digital technology and community outcomes, such as health, safety and quality of life. Digital equity requires persistent, continuing efforts.
Bauer, J.M.; Hampton, K.N.; Fernandez, L.; Robertson, C., Overcoming Michigan’s Homework Gap: The Role of Broadband Internet Connectivity for Student Success and Career Outlooks (October 19, 2020). Quello Center Working Paper No. 06-20, Download from: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3714752 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3714752.
Hampton, K.N., Robertson, C.T., Fernandez, L., Shin, I., & Bauer, J.M. (2021). How Variation in Internet Access, Digital Skills, and Media Use are Related to Rural Student Outcomes: GPA, SAT, and Educational Aspirations. Telematics and Informatics, 101666, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tele.2021.101666.
Hampton, K.N. and Shin, I. (2022). Excessive Social Media Use is Less Harmful than Disconnection for the Self Esteem of Rural Adolescents (June 2022). Quello Center Working Paper No. 06, 2022, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=4136539 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.4136539.
NDIA, The Words Behind Our Work: The Source for Definitions of Digital Inclusion Terms, https://www.digitalinclusion.org/definitions/, visited 31 July 2022.
van Dijk, J. (2020). The digital divide. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.
The views articulated are those of the author.