Digital divide


11 Jul 2017

Microsoft announced the “Rural Airband Initiative”, a plan to foster digital inclusion by using channels between television broadcasts, known as white spaces, in order to provide connectivity in rural areas of the Unites States. The company issued a call for government and corporate entities to invest in its $10 billion plan to eliminate the rural broadband gap. The company claims that internet connection through white space technology would be 80% cheaper than broadband and would cost half of a wireless connection. The plan encompasses three major actions: a) pursue direct investments with partners, including telcos; b) invest in digital skills training for people in these newly connected communities; c) stimulate investment through technology licensing. Microsoft plans to share lessons learned with other companies and stimulate investment through royalty-free access to more than 39 patents and sample source code related to technology they developed to enable broadband connectivity through TV white spaces spectrum.

1 Jul 2017

The digital divide in the UK is particularly significant among the elderly people and the disabled. This was the conclusion of a report by Good Things Foundation and Professor Simeon Yates, titled ‘The real digital divide?’. The research uncovered that 15.2 million people in the UK were found to be either ‘non-users’ (defined as people who have no internet access or don’t use the internet even if they have access) or ‘limited users’ (people who rarely and infrequently go online). 47.7% of the ‘non-user’ group were found to have “a long-standing illness, disability or infirmity”, representing around 3.7 million people in the UK. 64.4% of non-users in the report are aged 65 or over. The report is based on a 2015 report from telecommunications regulatory body Ofcom on ‘Adults’ media use and attitudes’

22 Jun 2017

The challenges to connecting the urban population have been made clearer with the publication of the study ‘The Urban Unconnected’ by IHS Markit and Wireless Broadband Alliance (WBA). The white paper is the result of a research conducted on the topic of the digital divide and urban unconnected across eight leading countries (Brazil, China, Germany, India, Japan, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States of America). The study concluded that: the digital divide is still a global and local challenge, present in the North and the South of the globe; 23.76% and 44.17%: are the average percentages of urban and rural unconnected population respectively found among the eight researched countries; London is leading the way to a connected society, while Delhi and Sao Paulo are lagging behind; there are multiple barriers to digital inclusion, from financial constraints to the availability of adequate technology and lack of awareness to internet generated benefits.  


The digital divide can be defined as a rift between those who, for technical, political, social, or economic reasons, have access and capabilities to use ICT/Internet, and those who do not. Various views have been put forward about the size and relevance of the digital divide. Digital divide(s) exist at different levels: within countries and between countries, between rural and urban populations, between the old and the young, as well as between men and women.

The OECD refers to the digital divide as ‘the gap between individuals, households, businesses and geographic areas at different socioeconomic levels with regard both to their opportunities to access information and communication technologies (ICTs) and to their use of the Internet for a wide variety of activities’.



Digital divides are not independent phenomena. They reflect existing broad socio-economic inequalities in education, healthcare, capital, shelter, employment, clean water, and food. This was clearly stated by the G8 Digital Opportunity Task Force (DOT Force): ‘There is no dichotomy between the “digital divide” and the broader social and economic divides which the development process should address; the digital divide needs to be understood and addressed in the context of these broader divides.’

Is the digital divide widening?

ICT/Internet developments leave the developing world behind at a much faster rate than advances in other fields (e.g. agricultural or medical techniques) and, as the developed world has the necessary tools to successfully use these technological advances, the digital divide appears to be continuously and rapidly widening. This is frequently the view expressed in various highly regarded documents, such as the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Human Development Reports and the ILO Global Employment Reports.

Some opposing views argue that statistics on the digital divide are often misleading and that the digital divide is in fact not widening at all. According to this view, the traditional focus on the number of computers, the number of Internet websites, or the available bandwidth should be replaced with a focus on the broader impact of ICT/Internet on societies in developing countries. Frequently quoted examples are the digital successes of Brazil, India, and China. However, the criteria for assessing the digital divide gaps are also changing and becoming more complex in order to better capture the development realities. Current assessments take into account aspects like ICT readiness and overall ICT impact on society. The World Economic Forum has developed the Networked Readiness Index (NRI) as a new approach in measuring the Internet-level of countries worldwide. It also provides new perspectives on how the digital divide is addressed.

Universal access

In addition to the digital divide, another frequently mentioned concept in the development debate is universal access, i.e., access for all. Although it should be the cornerstone of any digital development policy, differing perceptions and conceptions of the nature and scope of this universal access policy remain. The question of universal access at global level remains largely an open issue, ultimately dependent on the readiness of developed countries to invest in the realisation of this goal.

Unlike universal access at global level, in some countries universal access is a well-developed economic and legal concept. Providing telecommunication access to all citizens has been the basis of US telecommunication policy. The result has been a well-developed system of various policy and financial mechanisms, the purpose of which is to subsidise access costs in remote areas and regions with high connection costs. The subsidy is financed by regions with low connection costs, primarily the big cities. The EU has also taken a  number of concrete steps towards achieving universal access by promoting policies to ensure every citizen has access to basic communication services, including Internet connection, and enacting specific regulations thereof.

Strategies for overcoming the digital divide

The technologically centred development theory, which has dominated policy and academic circles over the past 50 years, argues that development depends on the availability of technology. However, this approach failed in many countries (mainly former socialist countries) where it became obvious that the development of society is a much more complex process. Technology is a necessary but  not self-sufficient precondition for development. Other elements include a regulatory framework, financial support, available human resources, and other sociocultural conditions. Even if all of these ingredients are present, the key challenge remains of how and when they should be used, combined, and interplayed.



Resolutions & Declarations

IPU Resolution on the Contribution of new information and communication technologies to good governance, the improvement of parliamentary democracy and the management of globalization (2003)

Other Instruments

Tunis Agenda for the Information Society (WSIS) (2005)



Bridging the Digital Divide in the EU (2015)


Internet Governance Acronym Glossary (2015)
An Introduction to Internet Governance (2014)


One Internet (2016)
Advancing Digital Societies in Asia (2016)
Internet for All: A Framework for Accelerating Internet Access and Adoption (2016)
A Pre-Feasibility Study on the Asia-Pacific Information Superhighway in the ASEAN Sub-region: Conceptualization, International Traffic & Quality Analysis, Network Topology Design and Implementation Model (2016)
The Digital Economy & Society Index (DESI) 2016 (2016)
State of Connectivity 2015: A Report on Global Internet Access (2016)
Digital Inclusion in Latin America and the Caribbean (2016)
Closing the Coverage Gap: Digital Inclusion in Latin America (2016)
Smartphone Ownership and Internet Usage continues to climb in Emerging Economies (2016)
A New Regulatory Framework for the Digital Ecosystem (2016)
Proliferation of Indian Languages on Internet (2016)
2016 Digital yearbook (2016)
NI Trend Watch 2016 (2015)
Measuring the Information Society 2015 (2015)
The 2015 BCG e-Intensity Index (2015)
UNESCO Science Report: Towards 2030 (2015)
The Mobile Economy - Arab States 2015 (2015)
Women's Rights Online: Translating Access into Empowerment (2015)
Mobile for Development Impact (2015)
The State of Broadband 2015 (2015)
Global Internet Report 2015 (2015)
The Global Information Technology Report 2015: ICTs for Inclusive Growth (2015)
Renewing the Knowledge Societies Vision for Peace and Sustainable Development (2013)
The Relationship between Local Content, Internet Development and Access Prices (2013)
Smart Policies to Close the Digital Divide: Best Practices from Around the World (2012)

GIP event reports

Key-note Speeches on the Future of the Internet (2017)
Launch of eTrade for all Online Platform (2017)
Report for ITU CWG-Internet - 4th Physical Open Consultation Meeting (2017)

Other resources

Action Plan to Close the Digital Gender Gap (2015)


Sessions at IGF 2016

Sessions at WSIS Forum 2016

Sessions at IGF 2015

IGF 2016 Report


Internet access and connecting the unconnected (Dynamic Coalition on Connecting the Unconnected) was one of the main themes at the IGF 2016 in Guadalajara. The topic was approached from various angles, one of which was community networks, which was dis- cussed by a new Dynamic Coalition on Community Connectivity, as well as in pre-events and workshops. Challenges and opportunities to access were broken down for: different regions, such as Latin America (The right to access the Internet in Latin America - WS266) and Asia (Asia and the Next Billion: Challenges in Digital Inclusion - WS14); several digital divides, with a focus on connecting gender (Best Practice Forum on Gender & Access), minorities (Lighting Session on Human Rights Online: Internet Access and Minorities), and persons with disabilities (Dynamic Coalition on Accessibility and Disabilities); as well as for specific technologies and initiatives, such as open source (Open Source: A Key Enabler on the Path to the Next Billion - WS21), Wi-Fi (Public Wi-Fi/Open Access Models in Developing Countries - WS161), and public access in libraries (Dynamic Coalition on Public Access in Libraries). In addition, there was consensus that meaningful access is more than infrastructure alone; it includes affordability, capacity (Building ‘Demand-Side’ Capacity for Internet Deployment - WS9), and local content (Local content and sustainable growth - WS22) with linguistic diversity (Enhancing Linguistic and Cultural Diversity in Cyberspace - WS19). The notion that there should be no ‘Internet for the poor’ enjoyed widespread agreement, with zero-rating practices being criticised.

WSIS Forum 2016 Report


Nearly half of the global population still lacks broadband Internet access, while the importance of the Internet in society has grown. The whole planet should work hand-in-hand to permit everybody to have a fair share of this latest revolution, which would require the support of all relevant stakehold-ers (session 225 on the Global Connect Initiative). Governments not only need to put in place effective policies, but they should also change their per- ception of broadband, recognising it as a core infrastructure that is as important for economic growth and development as the transportation and power infrastructures.

Action Line C6 (Enabling Environment) - Affordable Access for Sustainable Development (session 119) highlighted the need to adopt the right policy and regulations. The affordability of the Internet and related regulations was analysed from the viewpoints of different regions, including West Africa, Latin America, and the Pacific. The session further underlined the importance of collaborations between governments and the industry. Affordability was also highlighted during the WSIS Action Line Facilitators Meeting (session 236) and solutions might be found in enhancing mobile infrastructure.

The digital divide, separating those connected to the Internet and those who lack Internet access, exists between countries and regions, as well as between different groups in society. Action Line C2 (ICT Infrastructure) - Evolving Affordable Broadband Infrastructure for Bringing ICT to All (session 121) indicated some of these divides, including the rural vs urban divide and the divide between developing and developed countries. The challenge of enhancing Internet connectivity in Africa, in particular related to infrastructure and multistakeholder collaboration, was highlighted in WSIS+10 and Beyond: Where do we Stand in Africa? (session 140). Accessibility was also discussed from a human rights perspective.

One particular part of the ‘access’ debate concerns the need for access to information. In Establish an Inclusive, Shared and Open Information Environment, Ensure All Enjoy Information Civilization (session 184), panellists discussed ways to have everyone benefit from communication facilities, including the elderly and disabled persons. Access to knowledge was also addressed in Action Line C3 (Access) - Access to Scientific Knowledge (session 115), which focused on scientific knowledge and the need to break down ‘knowledge monopolies’.

In general, the forum highlighted not only that governments have a responsibility to design effective policies and provide a suitable regulatory environment, but that the Internet industry can also play an important role by designing new business models and crafting innovative ideas. The underlying sentiment was that efforts to increase access and close the digital divide are driven by a wide range of stakeholders who need to create an enabling environment, so that everyone can benefit from the advantages of connectivity. 

IGF 2015 Report


Digital divide was addressed in the context of the Internet economy in a number of workshops. With reference to taxation and developing countries, a panellist in Economics of the Global Internet (WS 207), said that despite the economic benefits of accessing ICTs, this did not mean that taxation was not required, but that a more balanced fiscal policy was needed. In How to Bridge the Global Internet Economy Divide (WS 97), a Google representative anchored the discussion to geographical realities: ‘Both regions have challenges, but slightly different. In Europe it’s about scaling and in Africa it is more about access.’ The main challenge, therefore – as suggested in the main session on Internet Economy and Sustainable Development – was how to narrow the divide and empower developing countries. Additionally, we need to tap in to the potential of the Internet economy as a social and economic equaliser.


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