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Publications

Initiative on Reducing the “Digital Divide”

Vincent Chan

Vincent W.S. Chan

President

2020-2021

Introduction

The “digital divide” is the gap between those able to benefit from the digital age and those who are not. The problem has two aspects: technological and sociological factors. The technical aspect is mostly infrastructure related and includes access to affordable network capacity and capable end-user equipment. The second aspect involves computer and network skills, digital literacy and the knowledge of how to make use of the technical tools for personal well-being, learning, self-sufficiency, collaboration and participation in the economy via digital means. To first order the two groups separated by the digital divide is along economic lines. Indeed, the “digital divide” has been widening in the past decade between rich and poor, creating economic and knowledge inequities. This “gulf” denies disadvantaged populations from access to timely and useful data on the Internet as they are unable or less able to obtain digital information, work from home, learn from home, receive health care services, set online appointments (e.g. vaccination), shop online, participate democratically, make use of the digital economy, or learn skills and offer skills for hire. The divide is greatly amplified and accelerated by the Covid19 Pandemic that has induced heavy reliance on remote learning, tele-presence for work, e-commerce, banking, medical consultations, etc. Efforts to equalize opportunities will require new infrastructure, financing, policy, regulations and education on how to use the medium. The problem is much more than giving computers and network services to people without access, to support, for example, securing housing, education, etc. There is a sociological aspect that involves education of the disadvantaged, especially children, on the constructive use of technology, and the opportunities available to those in need by informing and supporting them. Thus, many small and medium businesses need to be educated on how to participate in a digitized economy, and support for employers and employers is necessary for success.

Examples of the Digital Divide

The digital divide is a result of both infrastructure shortages and social-economic factors. The following are some examples that involve both factors.

  1. Homelessness or unstable housing in urban areas with no or little access to the Internet. Some cities, e.g. Seattle, provide WiFi in “safe parking lots”; even so, the quality and capability of available equipment can be a big handicap.
  2. Lack of broadband in low-income urban/suburban neighborhoods prevents residents from high quality remote learning and e-commerce. Frequently, the lack of a private quiet area to concentrate on a video learning program is a big problem for effective teaching and learning.
  3. Seniors and technology-challenged populations need education and perhaps also frequent (even in-person) help.
  4. Non-English speakers frequently have issues finding the content they need online, or figuring out how to use online resources/tools; some need help with even the simple tasks of scheduling vaccine appointments.
  5. Mistrust/misunderstanding of a technology, fear of fraud/surveillance, or simply intimidation and unfamiliarity may deter people from trying to use available infrastructures.
  6. People vulnerable to digital fraud: phishing, scams, and corruption are a notable problem in the Global South, for example when it comes to the distribution of welfare/services for vulnerable groups.
  7. Low-income rural areas without good network infrastructure is a common problem globally.
  8. Tribal communities with little infrastructure and low digital literacy.

There are many relevant initiatives around the globe, though not nearly enough. Some examples are the “Tech Connect Washington Helpdesk” and the “Digital Navigators” programs in Seattle, where people will be trained to help people in their community with basic technology tasks.

Perspectives on How to Move Forward

The creation of a viable and affordable plan is a non-trivial matter. It will be much more than building infrastructure but rather a holistic approach involving education, training and convincing demonstrations of the power of the medium is needed. The following are some perspectives that come to mind.

  1. Efforts to equalize opportunity require new infrastructure, financing, policy and regulations, e.g. Ireland is using public funds to provide every home with 150Mbps, and we are seeing the beginning of a broadband infrastructure plan for the U.S.
  2. Relevant technology plans will include all layers of the network, plus application development and computing/storage (touching the missions of many IEEE societies and councils).
  3. Stakeholders beyond IEEE must include legislators, government policy and regulatory agencies, philanthropists, …
  4. At least 50 percent of the problem is an education program to convince those hitherto not familiar with the technology and what the electronic medium can offer and how it can improve their life. Both in person and virtual education programs should be in play. In addition, in-person help in setting up access and use by beginners will be needed to ensure the access will be utilized properly and efficiently.

Examples of Recent Efforts Worldwide

The following are examples of some recent efforts worldwide.

  1. Acceleration (as of mid-2020) of the Irish National Broadband Plan (150Mbps) will deliver connectivity to 679 primary schools by end of 2022. Seven hundred schools will be connected to broadband by the end of 2022 plus connectivity (at 150Mbps) to all 500K homes aiming to equalize accesses to education, knowledge data bases and business opportunities
  2. President Biden is proposing a $100 billion effort to give broadband to everyone (https://www.vox.com/recode/22363028/biden-infrastructure-broadband-american-jobs-plan)
  3. The Nationwide Broadband Network (NBN) is the pervasive and ultra-high-speed broadband wired network which supports the transformation of Singapore (https://www.imda.gov.sg/programme-listing/wired/next-gen-nbn)

Some Recent Projects

  1. In 2011-2012 a student member of ComSoc raised funds and built low-cost Internet access in a rural Tanzania school connecting via microwave to a city infrastructure over 10 miles away. She received a “Technology for Humanity” award.
  2. She recently designed SMS-based software and hardware sensor utilities to facilitate local repair of rural base stations by non-expert community members of villages in the remote rural Philippines.
  3. A group at the University of Washington is currently working on LTE deployment and sustainability projects for Maijuna Indigenous communities along the Napo River in Peru.
  4. A field study of community wireless network management structures and sustainability was carried out in Oaxaca, MX and Quintana, AR with the goal to co-create a network sustainability toolkit.
  5. A major initiative is under way on a local action research project to design, build, deploy, and sustain a community LTE network for low-income and marginalized neighborhoods in South Seattle.

Many new applications are also being created rapidly in the past year, stimulated by the pandemic induced shift toward electronic communications. Some of these new applications are major paradigm shifts from old school methods. Seeded funding by the NSF is promoting a new paradigm of Assistive Human Learning Approaches that allows teachers to recover their more direct and satisfying role of in person teaching using interactive VR in immersive tactile environments that pushes the high end of bandwidth demands (https://medium.com/prisms-of-reality/a-new-prism-for-math-learning-d19eabce0899).

ComSoc Activities and Near-term Plans

On October 8, 2020, the ComSoc Technical Committee for Communications Quality and Reliability hosted a global virtual workshop to highlight the accomplishments of Black Americans in the communications industry. A major topic at this workshop was the need for the under-served to have sufficient bandwidth access to participate in the digital economy and live a digital lifestyle that enables work from home, learn from home, and the use of tele-health-care. ComSoc is planning a workshop in November 2021 in Washington D.C. on the subject of the Digital Divide. It will be in hybrid form to support a much larger global reach and we will employ the help of our regional chapters to promote the event globally. All interested IEEE entities are welcome to participate. The goal of the workshop is to produce a set of recommendations that influences public and private efforts to drive digital inclusion around the globe and address it from the technical, economic, and social aspects including policies, legislation, and public and private financing, with the intention of creating a sustainable effort giving proper emphasis to the sociological aspects of the problem.

This column incorporates many useful inputs from: Esther Jang (University of Washington), Scott Poretsky (Ericsson), Abby Knowles (Verizon) and Anurupa Ganguly (PRISM).