chevron-down Created with Sketch Beta.
June 03, 2024 HUMAN RIGHTS

Bridging the Digital Divide: Advancing Access to Broadband for All

By Emily Bergeron

You are sitting in a dimly lit room staring at your laptop screen with frustration. The storm outside knocked out your internet connection, leaving you stranded in a digital void. You have urgent work, a video conference call with a client in an hour, and a looming deadline. You are frantically clicking the refresh button on your browser, and it yields only a spinning wheel of frustration. Your phone is no help either because the cellular signal is weak due to the storm. You curse your luck and the unpredictable weather, realizing that losing access to the internet in this modern age feels like being stranded on a deserted island.

The digital divide is not just a matter of technology. It undermines social justice and equality.

The digital divide is not just a matter of technology. It undermines social justice and equality.


According to the Pew Research Center, 93 percent of American adults use the internet. For young adults, college graduates, and high-income households, usage approaches 100 percent. With such high usage, it is unsurprising that many consider the internet a necessity of modern life.

In summer 2016, the United Nations declared (that access to) the internet is a human right and incorporated Section 32 into Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Article 19 originally affirms that “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” Section 32 focuses on “The promotion, protection, and enjoyment of human rights on the Internet.” It also encompasses 15 recommendations that address the rights of individuals who depend on internet access, including those burdened by the “digital divide.”

The “digital divide” is the disparity in access to and utilization of information and communication technologies between different groups based on socioeconomic status, geographic location, age, education, or other demographic characteristics. This divide often manifests as unequal access to the internet and digital devices, leading to disparities in opportunities, information, health care, education, and participation in government and the digital- and knowledge-based economy. The COVID-19 pandemic brought considerable focus to the digital divide. Individuals with broadband access could work, attend school, shop, and consult with their doctors from the comfort of their homes, while those lacking access had few options.

In addition to the pandemic, a number of factors impede accessing technologies. The capabilities and age of devices, the quality of network connectivity, and the circumstances of living—often inseparable from other social and economic factors—all make it easier or harder to work online.

Access is also a matter of geography. Rural Americans are less likely to own traditional or tablet computers and have fewer avenues to access the internet than their urban counterparts. Whereas 44 percent of urban and 43 percent of suburban residents have computers, tablets, smartphones, and broadband access, only 3 out of 10 rural adults have similar access. Beyond limitations in equipment, a lack of broadband access necessitates supporting the bolstering of technology infrastructure.

Some good news is that 72 percent of rural Americans have access to a home broadband connection, as reported in a Pew Research Center survey conducted between January 25 and February 8, 2021. Since 2016, these rural residents have experienced a noteworthy 9 percent increase in home broadband adoption. Despite this improvement, rural areas still need to catch up to suburban regions with broadband access.

Rural infrastructure still often fails to provide consistently reliable broadband access, especially in remote areas. A 2021 Pew Research Center survey uncovered the persistent disparities in computer and high-speed internet ownership among Black and Hispanic adults in the United States compared to their white counterparts even though no significant differences were observed for other devices like smartphones and tablets.

Eight out of 10 white adults have a broadband connection at home, whereas smaller percentages of Black and Hispanic adults—precisely 71 percent and 65 percent—indicate the same. Notably, Black adults are more likely than white adults to believe that a lack of high-speed internet at home puts people at a significant disadvantage when connecting with medical professionals, with 63 percent of Black adults expressing this view compared to 49 percent of white adults. The perspective of Hispanic adults, at 53 percent, does not significantly differ from that of individuals from other racial and ethnic backgrounds.

Despite federal efforts to expand broadband access in Tribal lands, a significant disparity persists. Approximately 18 percent of people in these areas still lack broadband services, while this figure is only 4 percent for non-Tribal areas. The gap widens further in rural regions, where about 30 percent of individuals on Tribal lands lack broadband access compared to 14 percent in non-Tribal areas.

The absence of broadband access has far-reaching consequences. It impedes students’ ability to access educational resources online, resulting in educational disparities, particularly affecting vulnerable communities. Internet access is indispensable for job-seeking, application submission, and online training and resources. Limited access restricts employment opportunities, resulting in higher unemployment rates and financial hardships.

The importance of broadband extends to health care, as telemedicine and online health services have gained prominence. The lack of access to remote health care services can worsen health disparities and delay medical consultations. Small businesses and entrepreneurs in underserved areas face obstacles in establishing and expanding their ventures due to limited access to online markets, e-commerce platforms, and digital advertising. The internet also helps maintain social connections. Limited broadband access leads to increased social isolation, especially for those who are homebound in remote areas.

Moreover, broadband access is pivotal in facilitating civic engagement and political participation. Limited access hampers vulnerable populations’ ability to access critical information, participate in online discussions, and engage with public services. Many government services and benefits are now accessible online, but those without broadband access encounter difficulties, resulting in delays in obtaining support and assistance. The digital divide exacerbates existing social and economic inequalities and further marginalizes those without access to the benefits of the digital age.

Reducing the digital divide must be a goal for policymakers and organizations to help equalize access to benefits and opportunities. Governments, policymakers, and private organizations should work to expand the broadband infrastructure to underserved areas. Providing affordable internet options and implementing digital inclusion programs could help ensure that vulnerable populations are not left behind.

Many policy solutions have been proposed to increase access to broadband in the United States. The federal government oversees more than 100 programs spanning 15 agencies, each with the potential to improve broadband deployment, planning, digital literacy, affordability, and device accessibility. Twenty-five of these programs are specifically tailored for the enhancement of broadband services. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, in the 2020 legislative sessions, 43 states and Guam addressed broadband-related issues, including but not limited to education, funding, infrastructure, municipal networks, rural and underserved communities, and taxes. As a result, 34 states have enacted legislation or endorsed resolutions, and the strategies proposed for expanding access are diverse.

Optimizing investments from both the public and the private sectors can expand broadband coverage into rural and remote areas currently lacking sufficient service. The American Rescue Plan has allocated $10 billion to states, territories, freely associated states, and Tribal governments to support projects to extend high-speed internet access to millions of Americans. A significant portion of this funding, amounting to $3 billion, has been designated for Tribal governments.

Furthermore, the Biden administration has enacted the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which includes a $65 billion investment to ensure all Americans have access to affordable, reliable, high-speed broadband services. This builds on the financial support provided by the American Rescue Plan, the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021, the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC’s) Universal Service program, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Utilities Service broadband programs. The collective objective of these investments is to establish a robust foundation for widespread broadband access and affordability.

Another approach involves offering financial aid and subsidies to low-income households. An example of such a program is the Affordable Connectivity Program, an initiative by the FCC, which offers eligible families a discount of up to $30 per month and $75 per month for households residing on qualifying Tribal lands. Additionally, eligible households can receive discounts for the purchase of digital devices.

Numerous local governments are investing in municipal or community-owned broadband networks in regions where private providers do not offer adequate coverage. Municipal broadband, alternatively referred to as a government-owned network, or GON, encompasses broadband internet access delivered by public entities. Chattanooga, Tennessee, offers comprehensive service. Others operate on an open-access model, as seen with the Utah Telecommunication Open Infrastructure Agency. Santa Monica, California, has a fiber network known as CityNet and was able to reduce the telecommunications costs for the city and improve the city’s infrastructure. Public-private partnerships between government entities and private companies to expand broadband access have enabled the pooling of resources and expertise at the municipal level. Several states have directed resources toward projects such as offering high-speed internet access at community centers to address digital inequity.

Regulations and permitting procedures have been simplified, and programs aimed at digital inclusion are being developed to enhance digital literacy and skills. Furthermore, broadband mapping efforts are underway to improve the accuracy of coverage maps, allowing for targeted investments in underserved areas. Rural development initiatives are addressing the challenges and expenses of expanding broadband access in remote and rural regions where private providers are inclined to invest.

The digital divide represents a significant challenge in our modern, interconnected world. Disparities in access to the internet and digital technologies based on socioeconomic status, geographic location, race, and other factors have far-reaching consequences. Efforts to expand broadband infrastructure, provide subsidies to low-income households, and develop municipal broadband networks are promising steps toward reducing the digital divide. The substantial investments directed toward broadband expansion can provide millions of Americans with dependable high-speed internet access, opening up opportunities for economic growth and an enhanced quality of life. In an age where the internet is regarded as a fundamental human right and pivotal in numerous aspects of life, guaranteeing equitable access is both a moral and a practical necessity.

The digital divide is not just a matter of technology. It undermines social justice and equality. By working collectively to bridge this divide, we can help create a more inclusive, connected, and equitable society where everyone can harness the benefits of the digital age. It is incumbent on governments, policymakers, and private organizations to take proactive measures and commit to digital inclusion, ensuring that no one is left behind in this fast-evolving digital landscape.

Emily Bergeron, JD, PhD

Associate Professor, Department of Historic Preservation, University of Kentucky

Emily Bergeron, JD, PhD, is an associate professor in the Department of Historic Preservation at the University of Kentucky. She is a vice chair of the Environmental Justice Committee of the Section of Civil Rights and Social Justice.