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digital divide

Digital divide is a term that refers to the gap between demographics and regions that have access to modern information and communications technology, and those that don't or have restricted access. This technology can include the telephone, television, personal computers and the Internet.

Well before the late 20th century, digital divide referred chiefly to the division between those with and without telephone access; after the late 1990s the term began to be used mainly to describe the split between those with and without Internet access, particularly broadband.

The digital divide typically exists between those in cities and those in rural areas; between the educated and the uneducated; between socioeconomic groups; and, globally, between the more and less industrially developed nations. Even among populations with some access to technology, the digital divide can be evident in the form of lower-performance computers, lower-speed wireless connections, lower-priced connections such as dial-up, and limited access to subscription-based content.

The reality of a separate-access marketplace is problematic because of the rise of services such as video on demand, video conferencing and virtual classrooms, which require access to high-speed, high-quality connections that those on the less-served side of the digital divide cannot access and/or afford. And while adoption of smartphones is growing, even among lower-income and minority groups, the rising costs of data plans and the difficulty of performing tasks and transactions on smartphones continue to inhibit the closing of the gap.

According to recent studies and reports, the digital divide is still very much a reality today. A June 2013 U.S. White House broadband report, for example, showed that only 71% of American homes have adopted broadband, a figure lower than in other countries with comparable gross domestic product.

Proponents for closing the digital divide include those who argue it would improve literacy, democracy, social mobility, economic equality and economic growth.

This was last updated in June 2014

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