Mark Goldberg

Understanding the digital divide

An interesting new report examining the “Digital Divide in the U.S.” [pdf, 4.1MB] was released late last week by the Purdue Center for Regional Development.

The report found:

  • Job and establishment growth between 2010 and 2015 was substantially lower in counties with the highest digital divide
  • Digital economy industries and associated jobs increased overall across all areas, including counties with the highest digital divide
  • Digital economy establishments — of which 57 percent were nonemployers — increased in the nation and across all digital divide categories. In fact, the largest percent change in digital economy establishments between 2010 and 2015 took place in counties with the highest digital divide

It was this last unexpected finding that caught my eye since it seems counter-intuitive: the greatest increase in digital economy establishments took place in counties with the greatest digital divide. The report observed that most of these “digital economy establishments” had no employees, “the majority of digital economy establishments are entrepreneurs.”

These local entrepreneurs may be strategically leveraging digital platforms for their businesses minimizing costs, increasing efficiency, and reaching new markets. This apparently allows them to “break free” of the otherwise limited labor force and market in their more than likely small communities.

The report also observed that the digital divide is not just a divide between rural and urban areas. “The digital divide is between those that have access, can afford, and apply knowledge to leverage the technology to improve their quality of life versus those that do not have access, cannot afford, or lack knowledge.”

So far, Canada has focused government programs on the geographic digital divide, without federal programs to deal with socio-economic factors that limit digital adoption in urban centres. In January, I wrote “An affordable broadband strategy“, asking if Canada should establish its own Broadband Deployment Advisory Committee to help guide a holistic approach to increase broadband adoption in urban and rural households.

Through the years, I have suggested the need for more research, such as “Do we know what we don’t know?” and “Building a broadband research agenda.” The Purdue report observes that understanding and measuring a problem is a crucial first step for public policy makers before we discuss potential solutions. The development of a Digital Divide Index, such as that described in its report, provides an interesting approach.

As the Purdue report concludes, “A coordinated, robust effort should be made to improve broadband infrastructure throughout the country that are on the wrong side of the divide while at the same time increasing digital literacy and know-how among residents, elected officials, and businesses.”

Bridging the digital divide isn’t just about rural infrastructure. Should Canada expand research to improve our understanding of other contributing factors that limit digital adoption?

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