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What actions can we take to bridge the digital divide?

Every day we wake up in the morning and take a glance at our smartphone devices to monitor social feeds and happenings around the globe. Throughout the day we will interact with connected devices such as computers, tablets, and wearable technologies that will ultimately make us more knowledgeable than the day before. Essentially, access to these technologies is invaluable as it makes us open-minded, more social and a more knowledgeable individual to the world we live in. With that said, we have transitioned into a digital society that takes connected devices for granted and we have become oblivious to those who do not have access to this kind of tech.

Although we are living in a more connected world, the digital divide is a disturbing trend that is shaping our generation today. The term refers to the gap between demographics and regions that have access to modern information and communications technology, and those that don’t. Granted, the world is seeing a rapid diffusion of connectivity around the world, but one must acknowledge the spread is unequal at best. Economic development, technological advancement and even social progress are dependent on digitization. Therefore access to ICT has become a necessity and it is imperative that all are granted such access.

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Inequalities within ICT are often referred to the “information underclass”. With that said, there are numerous variables acting as a catalyst for the digital divide. The lack of income generation remains a primary reason as basic ICT access requires an investment of US$10 a month for a family household. This means being a “connected” individual is impossible for nearly 40% of the global population as they earn less than US$2 a day.

According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), variables such as household size , age, gender, racial, ethnic backgrounds and geographical location also contribute to the digital divide. Additionally, a lower level of education directly correlates with the lack of access to modern ICT and in part, a lower chance of success. The technological growth of first world countries is further widening the divide as third world countries are falling behind in the technological spectrum.

Even Bill Clinton publicly condemned the digital divide as far back in 1998 at the Massachusetts Institute Of Technology.

Clinton said:

“We know from hard experience that unequal education hardens into unequal prospects. We know the Information Age will accelerate this trend. The three fastest growing careers in America are all in computer related fields, offering far more than average pay. Happily, the digital divide has begun to narrow, but it will not disappear of its own accord. History teaches us that even as new technologies create growth and new opportunity, they can heighten economic inequalities and sharpen social divisions. That is, after all, exactly what happened with the mechanization of agriculture and in the Industrial Revolution.

As we move into the Information Age we have it within our power to avoid these developments. We can reap the growth that comes from revolutionary technologies and use them to eliminate, not to widen, the disparities that exist. But until every child has a computer in the classroom and a teacher well-trained to help, until every student has the skills to tap the enormous resources of the Internet, until every high-tech company can find skilled workers to fill its high-wage jobs, America will miss the full promise of the Information Age.”

So the question is, how does society overcome the digital divide? The way forward starts with policy reform where governments recognize the social and economic benefits of the diffusion of ICTs. We need to see a more “connected” individual, through low cost technologies and increased investment in telecommunication markets all over the world. There needs to be a renewed focus on telecom infrastructure enhancements in rural, low-income and underprivileged areas. With that said, residential areas are enjoying the spoils of affordable fixed line services whereas the poor access the internet using mobile devices where internet costs the most.

The project iSizwe initiative has certainly honed in on this issue and has begun rolling out free wi-fi in public spaces and low income areas. Education remains a long term imperative for the greater spread of ICT access. The benefits of ICT need to be understood by the youth so they can greater leverage a technological skillset later on in life. Such endeavors need to start at a
grassroots level where ICT technologies and access must be rolled out in schools and tertiary institutions that will have a ripple effect in the future.

The project iSizwe initiatives aims to roll out free Wi-Fi in rural and low-income areas in South Africa.

Low cost smartphones such as the Vodacom Smart Kicka are emerging to bridge the gap between the digital divide.

Truth is, the divide is widening and will continue to do so if remain unchecked. There are initiatives in place to bridge the gap, but in isolation is effectiveness is limited at best.

However, a cumulative effort that is fueled by policy reform can ensure ICT access is affordable and accessible to all. We need to see such initiatives such as Googles Project Loon rolling out on an international level that promises internet access for all, and essentially making the world a more connected place.

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