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The Digital Divide And American Society

A Report on the Digital Divide and its Social and Economic Implications for Our Nation and its Citizens - October 2000.

Executive Summary - Gartner, Inc.

There has always existed an unfair distribution of access to the tools of social mobility, but for the first time in history a technology exists that, to a large extent, can level the playing field.

When someone logs onto the Internet, the wealth of information at that person's fingertips does not care if he or she is rich or poor, in the majority or a minority. It simply sits there and waits to be used by whoever can get to it.

But there is a problem. To date there has been an unfair access to the Internet that mirrors the socioeconomic divisions in society. This unfair access is called the Digital Divide and it has implications that reach to the very social and economic core of our nation.

Traditionally the Digital Divide is analyzed in basic demographic terms: race, income, age, etc.; but this is an over simplification of the problem. While it is absolutely true that minority groups are at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to having Internet access, the reason for this is not that they are minorities but that they are at a socioeconomic disadvantage due to lower education levels and incomes.

The key to understanding the Digital Divide is to look at it in broader terms, for while it is impossible for individuals to change their age, race or sex, it is possible for them to change their socioeconomic status. Therefore, the focus of the discussion should be on the socioeconomic divisions in our nation and how those divisions both affect and can be affected by Internet access. Not surprisingly, the higher one's socioeconomic status, the more likely an individual is to have Internet access and thus access to some of the most important information and tools necessary for social mobility. Herein lies the Catch 22. The lower people are socio-economically, the less likely they are to have Internet access and thus the harder it is to improve their lot in life.

This is not to suggest that the sole key to social mobility is the Internet. Being on the wrong side of the Digital Divide is only one symptom of having low socioeconomic status, thus making the Digital Divide a thorny issue.

While there are many initiatives to bring less advantaged Americans online, the real goal ought to be to provide new tools and new skills for improving their socioeconomic situation. For this reason, policies that focus solely on providing minority groups with increased Internet access without the goal of offering improved educational and economic opportunities are destined to fall short of affecting the socioeconomic status of less advantaged Americans.

Measuring the Digital Divide

In an effort to provide policy makers and private sector leaders with some of the insights they need to deal with these difficult issues, Gartner provides the following summary of key findings from an analysis of surveys with 40,000 American households:

The Higher Your Socioeconomic Status the More Likely You Are to Have Internet Access

Despite a booming economy, lower cost PCs, and phenomenal growth in the Internet, there is still a Digital Divide in this country.

Currently, Gartner figures show that 35 percent of lower socioeconomic status Americans have Internet access, as compared to 53 percent in the lower middle, 79 percent in the upper middle, and 83 percent in the upper group.

Access Alone Is Not an Adequate Measure of the Digital Divide

Beyond the issue of access, there is an experience-based Digital Divide. Lower socioeconomic groups have only recently gained the Internet access enjoyed by higher socioeconomic groups for several years. Nearly half (47%) of Americans with Internet access in the lower socioeconomic status group have attained this experience only since the beginning of 1999.

This has led to key differences in how socioeconomic groups use the Internet. Some differences in areas such as online shopping and online banking behavior can be explained by economic factors. However, use of online government and healthcare services - which should be available to a much wider group - point to a more experienced-based divide. While 34% of the highest socioeconomic individuals with Internet access visit government sites, only 23% of wired individuals in the lower socioeconomic group visit these sites.

Quality and Ease of Access Is Another Measure of the Digital Divide

Levels of access to the Internet from either the home or work locations vary enormously between members of the lower and upper socioeconomic groups. Lower segment adults are less than one-third as likely to use the Internet from home, and less than one-sixth as likely to use it from work, compared to the upper segment.

Even when compared to the next highest group on the socioeconomic scale, the lower middle, the lower group access rates are less than half from either location. As the Internet spreads to wireless applications and services dependent on high-speed broadband access become common, Americans in the lower socioeconomic groups are least likely to enjoy the social mobility and benefits of these new capabilities Currently, broadband access through cable, DSL, and ISDN is not having a significant effect on the Digital Divide because penetration rates are not that high.

However, in the next few years as broadband access reaches higher penetration rates, it is not unreasonable to expect to see more difference between socioeconomic groups in adoption rates.

Access, Not Interest, Is the Key

Large segments of Americans in all socioeconomic status groups want Internet access for themselves and for their children. When asked if they felt home computers to be essential for a child to succeed in school, 43.4 percent in the lower socioeconomic group answered in the affirmative, as did 63.8 percent of respondents in the upper group.

Policy Guidelines

While the extent by which the Digital Divide narrows will be determined largely by social and market forces, the Digital Divide is susceptible to the influences of public policy and business initiatives.

Based on the findings of this report and Gartner's experience working with both policy makers and the private sector, we offer the following guidelines for public policy decision-makers and leaders of the private sector.

Avoid Tactical Solutions

To date, government digital divide policy has been tactical rather than strategic, focusing on the gap between those with Internet access and those without it.

To the extent that access is a prerequisite to addressing the experience gap on the Internet, such policies are well founded. However, for the longer-term strategy of improving the socioeconomic status for disadvantaged groups, public policy should focus on bringing access to people in the home, in school and at work.

Encourage Business Strategies That Close the Digital Divide

Globalization and the connected economy are forcing regional competition for international investment, jobs, suppliers and market share. To insure a viable workforce for the new economy, the private sector has a shared interest with government. Government strategies to encourage development of a robust regional IT infrastructure and incentives such as tax credits for providing employees with home Internet access, PCs and telecommuting opportunities could encourage a rise in Internet access among the lower socioeconomic status groups and a corresponding increase in economic opportunity.

Target Internet Access for Students, Not Just Schools

Connection to the Internet in school alone does not close the experience gap for public school students. Most students spend an hour or less per week on the Internet at school. While programs that provide Internet access in the classroom are good stopgap measures, access in the homes should be the long-term goal.

Government, Heal Thyself

As the new economy begins to impact the public sector, governments must carefully evaluate their own workplaces for opportunities to close the Digital Divide. Telecommuting incentives and programs to provide low-cost PC and Internet access for all government employees would have a large impact on closing the Digital Divide and ensuring that government employees are comfortable and proficient with information technology.

If government agencies cling to a traditional view of management, by 2008, public sector employees and public service will likely face an increased risk of becoming obsolete. All must change to compete in the new economy.

This Executive Summary Was Provided Courtesy of Gartner, Inc.

Gartner, Inc. is a research and advisory firm that helps more than 10,500 clients understand technology and drive business growth.

Gartner's businesses consist of Gartner Research, Gartner Consulting, Gartner Measurement and Gartner Events.

Founded in 1979, Gartner is headquartered in Stamford, Connecticut, and has 4,000 associates, including 1,200 research analysts and consultants, in more than 90 locations worldwide. Fiscal 2001 revenue totaled $963 million. Learn more about our business.