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The Truth about the Digital Divide: Urban and Rural Barriers in the U.S.

A laptop computer is open on a bright desk; two hands lean into the frame, preparing to type on the keyboard

By Roberto Gallardo

When the COVID-19–induced public health emergency reached the United States in March of this year, parents and children were asked to work and take online classes from home. Businesses scrambled to set up an online presence or update their websites while many services shifted to online only.

As days and weeks went by, COVID-19 made it very clear that not everyone would be able to work or learn from home. Businesses that were not set up for online activities suffered significant revenue losses. Moreover, many services that could not transition to an online-only structure were at a standstill.

In other words, COVID-19 shed a very bright light on an issue that many of us in the field have known about for years: the digital divide is alive and well.

Although there are multiple definitions of the digital divide, the simplest is that there is a divide between those who have access to digital technology, can afford it, and know how to use it and those who don’t. This divide in turn generates—and exacerbates existing—inequality.

A way to address this inequality is by expanding digital inclusion. Digital inclusion refers to a society wherein everyone has adequate and affordable connectivity, reliable and adequate devices, and the skills to fully participate in today’s digital culture and economy.

Urban vs. Rural Divide

Due to the layered nature of the digital divide, different groups and geographies experience unique barriers. For example, when it comes to adequate and affordable connectivity, rural areas tend to get the shorter end of the stick. According to the 2020 Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Broadband deployment report, 77.7% of rural areas in the U.S. had access to 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload (25/3) service, compared to 98.5% of urban areas.

According to the latest American Community Survey (ACS), however, about 14.3 million urban homes (out of a total 94.4 million) did not subscribe to the Internet at home or 14.6%, compared to 4.4 million rural households (out of 22.6 million) or 21.4%. Further, 6% of households making $75,000 or more had no Internet access compared to 39% of homes making less than $35,000. See Figure 1.

A bar chart showing percent households with no internet by type

Devices are another barrier to digital connectivity, affecting both urban and rural homes. According to the latest ACS, 10.4% of urban households did not have a computing device compared to 15.3% of rural households. This translates into 10.2 million urban homes without devices versus 3.2 million rural homes – or three times more urban homes without computers. See Figure 2.

A bar chart showing U.S. households with no computer, separated into all households, urban, and rural

From a digital skills and literacy perspective, the digital divide affects older Americans the most, limiting them from fully leveraging the technology. Likewise, not all devices and content are suited for older generations.

Recommendations

In summary, the digital divide affects groups and locations in different ways. So, how can we reduce the divide and ensure communities are digitally included?

First, increase awareness among policy makers, funders and the community that digital exclusion is a serious issue and deeply impacts Americans in urban areas, as well as rural. COVID-19 has underlined the severity of the divide but much more needs to be done to fix the problem. This includes streamlining resources and programs to build off and not exclude each other. For example, areas that receive state broadband funding may not be eligible for federal funds and vice versa. The Purdue Center for Regional Development (PCRD), which I direct, has provided state of broadband reports and online tools to help community stakeholders better understand their broadband landscape. In addition, we have also developed a suite of resources and programs that range from measuring the digital divide to educating small business owners on the basics of building an online presence that leverage digital platforms to increase trust and civic engagement.

Second, empower local communities to address this issue with proper support from state and federal government, the private sector, and nonprofits. PCRD has helped organize local and regional task forces to attract broadband investment by leveraging state and federal funds. We also build capacity and empower communities to engage in meaningful discussions with Internet service providers and other broadband stakeholders, centering the goal of achieving broader digital inclusion.

Third, treat investments in digital inclusion like any other industry-related infrastructure investments. Low density and low adoption rates prevent investments in adequate broadband infrastructure. Most, if not all, communities are familiar with the process, incentives, and subsidies for industrial investments. Why not treat broadband infrastructure investment, digital literacy efforts, and device loan/giving programs the same way? After all, digital exclusion is the number one threat to community and economic development in the 21st century.

Digital exclusion is a very complex issue that require collaborative, community-centric solutions. Multiple partners and stakeholders need to come to the table in order to define the problem and design effective strategies. Unfortunately, as COVID-19 has clearly shown, digital inclusion is not at the level it should be. This places the country at a competitive disadvantage and affects people’s quality of life in an increasingly digitized world.