The digital divide (also referred to as digital exclusion) is a term that is used to characterize a gap between "information haves and have-nots," or in other words, between those Americans who use or have access to telecommunications technologies (e.g., telephones, computers, the Internet) and those who do not. Whether or not individuals or communities fall into the "information haves" category depends on a number of factors, ranging from the presence of computers in the home, to training and education, to the availability of affordable Internet access.
One important subset of the digital divide debate concerns high-speed Internet access, also known as broadband. Broadband is provided by a series of technologies (e.g., cable, telephone wire, fiber, satellite, wireless) that give users the ability to send and receive data at volumes and speeds far greater than current "dial-up" Internet access over traditional telephone lines.
|“||Persons with high incomes, those who are younger, Asians and Whites, the more highly-educated, married couples, and the employed tend to have higher rates of broadband use at home. Conversely, persons with low incomes, seniors, minorities, the less-educated, non-family households, and the non-employed tend to lag behind other groups in home broadband use.||”|
Broadband technologies are currently being deployed primarily by the private sector throughout the United States. While the numbers of new broadband subscribers continue to grow, studies and data suggest that the rate of broadband deployment in urban and high income areas may be outpacing deployment in rural and low-income areas.
Some policymakers, believing that disparities in broadband access across American society could have adverse economic and social consequences on those left behind (referred to as the "cost of digital exclusion"), assert that the federal government should play a more active role to avoid a digital divide in broadband access. One approach is for the federal government to provide financial assistance to support broadband deployment in underserved areas. Others, however, believe that federal assistance for broadband deployment is not appropriate. Some opponents question the reality of the digital divide, and argue that federal intervention in the broadband marketplace would be premature and, in some cases, counter-productive.
Telecommunications Act of 1996
The Telecommunications Act of 1996 addressed the issue of whether the federal government should intervene to prevent a "digital divide" in broadband access. Section 706 requires the FCC to determine whether "advanced telecommunications capability [i.e., broadband or high-speed access is being deployed to all Americans in a reasonable and timely fashion." If this is not the case, the Act directs the FCC to "take immediate action to accelerate deployment of such capability by removing barriers to infrastructure investment and by promoting competition in the telecommunications market."
The 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) called on the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to issue to Congress a National Broadband Plan, which "shall seek to ensure that all people of the US have access to broadband capability and shall establish benchmarks for meeting that goal."
A series of reports issued by the U.S. Department of Commerce (DOC) during the Clinton Administration argued that a "digital divide" exists, with many rural citizens, certain minority groups, and low-income Americans tending to have less access to telecommunications technology than other Americans.
On January 28, 1999, the FCC adopted its first report (FCC 99-5) pursuant to Section 706. The report concluded that “the consumer broadband market is in the early stages of development, and that, while it is too early to reach definitive conclusions, aggregate data suggests that broadband is being deployed in a reasonable and timely fashion.” The FCC announced that it would continue to monitor closely the deployment of broadband capability in annual reports and that, where necessary, it would “not hesitate to reduce barriers to competition and infrastructure investment to ensure that market conditions are conducive to investment, innovation, and meeting the needs of all consumers.”
The FCC's second Section 706 report was adopted on August 3, 2000. Based on more extensive data than the first report, the FCC similarly concluded that notwithstanding risks faced by some vulnerable populations, broadband is being deployed in a reasonable and timely fashion overall:
|“||Recognizing that the development of advanced services infrastructure remains in its early stages, we conclude that, overall, deployment of advanced telecommunications capability is proceeding in a reasonable and timely fashion. Specifically, competition is emerging, rapid build-out of necessary infrastructure continues, and extensive investment is pouring into this segment of the economy.||”|
The FCC's third Section 706 report was adopted on February 6, 2002. Again, the FCC concluded that "the deployment of advanced telecommunications capability to all Americans is reasonable and timely." The FCC added:
|“||We are encouraged by the expansion of advanced services to many regions of the nation, and growing number of subscribers. We also conclude that investment in infrastructure for most advanced services markets remains strong, even though the pace of investment trends has generally slowed. This may be due in part to the general economic slowdown in the nation. In addition, we find that emerging technologies continue to stimulate competition and create new alternatives and choices for consumers.||”|
In February 2002, the Bush Administration's Department of Commerce released its first survey report on Internet use. While acknowledging a disparity in usage between "information haves and have nots," the report focused on the increasing rates of Internet usage among traditionally underserved groups:
|“||In every income bracket, at every level of education, in every age group, for people of every race and among people of Hispanic origin, among both men and women, many more people use computers and the Internet now than did so in the recent past. Some people are still more likely to be Internet users than others. Individuals living in low-income households or having little education, still trail the national average. However, broad measures of Internet use in the United States suggest that over time Internet use has become more equitable.||”|
On September 9, 2004, the FCC adopted and released its Fourth Report pursuant to Section 706. Like the previous three reports, the FCC concluded that "the overall goal of section 706 is being met, and that advanced telecommunications capability is indeed being deployed on a reasonable and timely basis to all Americans."
A Nation Online: Entering the Broadband Age, published by the Department of Commerce in September 2004, was the sixth report examining the use of computers, the Internet, and other information technology. For the first time, the DOC report focused on broadband, also known as high-speed Internet access. Broadband is provided by a series of technologies (e.g., cable, telephone wire, satellite, wireless) that give users the ability to send and receive data at volumes and speeds far greater than current “dial-up” Internet access over traditional telephone lines. The DOC report found that the proportion of U.S. households with broadband connections grew from 9.1% in September 2001 to 19.9% in October 2003.
According to the latest FCC data on the deployment of high-speed Internet connections (released January 2007), as of June 30, 2006 there were 64.6 million high-speed lines connecting homes and businesses to the Internet in the United States, a growth rate of 26% during the first half of 2006. Of the 64.6 million high-speed lines reported by the FCC, 50.3 million serve residential users. While the broadband adoption rate stands at roughly 45% of U.S. households, broadband availability is much higher. As of June 30, 2006, the FCC found at least one high-speed subscriber in 99% of all zip codes in the United States. The FCC estimates that "roughly 20 percent of consumers with access to advanced telecommunications capability do subscribe to such services." According to the FCC, possible reasons for the gap between broadband availability and subscribership include the lack of computers in some homes, price of broadband service, lack of content, and the availability of broadband at work.
It is estimated that there are 100 million digitally excluded individuals representing well over 40 million households.
- The term "digital divide" can also refer to international disparities in access to information technology.
- National Telecommunications and Information Administration, Digital Nation: 21st Century America's Progress toward Universal Broadband Internet Access (Feb. 2010).
- Pub. L. No. 104-104.
- See U.S. Department of Commerce, Falling Through the Net: Toward Digital Inclusion (Oct. 2000).
- Not all observers agree that a “digital divide” exists. See, e.g., Adam D. Thierer, Divided Over the Digital Divide (Heritage Found. Mar. 1, 2000) (full-text).
- FCC News Release, “FCC Issues Report on the Deployment of Advanced Telecommunications Capability to All Americans,” January 28, 1999.
- Deployment of Advanced Telecommunications Capability: Second Report, at 6.
- Third Report, at 5.
- Id. at 5-6.
- U.S. Department of Commerce, A Nation Online: How Americans Are Expanding Their Use of the Internet (Feb. 2002) (based on a September 2001 Census Bureau survey) (full-text).
- Id. at 10-11.
- Federal Communications Comm'n, Fourth Report to Congress, "Availability of Advanced Telecommunications Capability in the United States," GN Docket No. 04-54, FCC 04-208, Sept. 9, 2004, at 38 (full-text).
- Federal Communications Commission, High-Speed Services for Internet Access: Status as of June 30, 2006 (Jan. 2007) (full-text).
- "Broadband: Our Enduring Engine for Prosperity and Opportunity," remarks by Julius Genachowski, Chairman of the FCC, at the 2010 National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners Conference (Feb. 16, 2010).