Smart Cities Digital Divide

Why does the Digital Divide exist in 2021?

Posted on Posted in COVID-19, Digital Divide, Digital Inclusion, Economic Impact, Education, Smart City, Smart Communities, Urban Planning

COVID-19 brought the Digital Divide to the forefront

We live in a connected world. Our computers, mobile phones, televisions and even cars are connected to the Internet. We work, get our news, learn, shop and communicate through the Internet. So it is surprising and shocking when we hear about people in hyperconnected Silicon Valley who do not have computers or Internet service at home. In reality, the “digital divide” had always existed, but the COVID-19 pandemic merely made its impacts more visible and widely felt. Seemingly overnight, we read news stories about people unable to work remotely, students falling behind because they can’t attend online classes, or families unable to buy things online when many of the physical stores they normally shop at are closed.

Digital Divide can exist anywhere, not just poor or rural areas

Best known for innovation, Silicon Valley is a region encompassing Santa Clara County, the southeastern part of San Mateo County and the southern part of Alameda County. Santa Clara County is home to 1.94 million people with a medium income of $126,606, and a median home value of $1.11 million. San Mateo County is home to 769,545 people with a median income of $124,425 and a median home value of $1.21 million. By median income, Santa Clara County and San Mateo County are the 4th and 6th wealthiest counties in the United States.

Despite this, the digital divide exists in Silicon Valley. In Santa Clara County, it is estimated that 15,000 families do not have access to broadband Internet service and devices. Similarly, San Mateo County faced a divide with students within its 23 public school districts.

There are a number of broad causes of Digital Divide

What is the digital divide and why does it even exist in 2020? The “digital divide” occurs when something prevents someone from accessing, utilizing and benefiting from the full capacity and capabilities of computers and the Internet. These are examples of the “digital divide” in action:

  • People cannot connect to the Internet because there is no service available in their community, or it is too expensive 
  • People do not have computers, software and applications to use. The existing technology they have may be old and functionally obsolete for the activities they need to do.
  • People do not know how to use computers and software to perform a variety of tasks
  • The technology and applications are too difficult to use, and users self-select to use non-digital alternatives (call someone, do it manually, etc.)
  • There are no relevant applications for users once they have computers or go online. For example, a resident wishes to review and request property records online, but the city does not have that capability. 

There is no one cause for the digital divide, but a combination of factors acting in combination. These underlying causes may include:

  • Traditional financial metrics discourage infrastructure investments or make services too expensive. Many of broadband infrastructure projects in rural and lower socio-economic communities have low Return on Investment (ROI) due to high deployment costs and low expected revenues for the investment. Without strategic and government financial intervention, infrastructure providers focus priorities where the ROI is highest. 
  • Low affordability limits access to computers, software and services. The relatively high cost of computers, software, and service is a barrier for many lower socio-economic communities and those on fixed incomes. This is compounded by frequent technology refreshes that render older equipment less functional or obsolete. Internet only devices, such as Chromebooks, are lower in cost, but only partially address the problem.
  • Lack of digital skills limit the technology usefulness and benefits. Basic proficiency in technology and digital skills is a necessary requirement. These skills range from using computers and software, maintaining and updating applications, and performing common online activities safely. The levels of proficiency are geatly affected by language barriers, basic literacy skills, the availability of learning resources, and the quality of the education.
  • The technology and services are too hard to use. From software to online processes, poor user design, complex and onerous processes, and confusing user interfaces discourage use of technology. This is exacerbated by non-English proficiency, literacy, disabilities (visual, hearing, etc.), digital skills, and others. 
  • Limited availability of applications and services relevant to users.  Applications and online services relevant to the users make computers and technology useful. The lack of these slow technology adoption and drive users to continue non-digital ways.

Think different to address the digital divide

How do we solve the digital divide? It is a complex challenge and there is no “one size fits all” solution approach. What works in Silicon Valley may not work for another community. We must think broadly and differently to make sustainable progress. We share five broad strategies to get started:

  • Together. Develop a broad coalition of public, private, education and community partners. The digital divide is too large of a problem for one organization or sector to solve alone. No one organization has the resources, expertise, or capabilities to address it.
  • Shared. Establish a shared vision, commitment, roles and responsibilities and resources across this broad coalition, including the community, local governments, utilities, school districts, healthcare providers, businesses and technology providers. 
  • Government. The role of government has never been more critical. Its power in developing and enacting policies and driving funding at the state, regional and local levels is transformational. This can encourage infrastructure investments by telecommunications services providers in areas that were not economically feasible before. As an example, streamlining the permitting and review process lowers the costs for providers, and may be sufficient to make a project financially viable. 
  • Innovation. Incorporate and maximize innovation into solution approaches. These innovations may be in business models, technologies, analytics, processes, and policies. As an example, revenue sharing models are increasingly used in financing and sustaining infrastructure projects. New technologies, such as Internet services provided by a new generation of low earth orbit (LEO) satellite systems, promise to bring broadband service to rural and isolated areas.
  • Investment. Look beyond traditional investment sources and vehicles. Addressing the digital divide will be expensive, and beyond the resources of any one entity to address. Innovative financing models, from public private partnerships, community financing, and revenue sharing business models, must be incorporated into the financing portfolio.


The fact that the Digital Divide exists in 2020 should not come as a surprise. The forces that led to it existed for decades. The COVID-19 pandemic made it top of mind because “suddenly” we all know someone who can’t work, learn or get services from home. We are not going to solve the Digital Divide doing the same things we have done before. To solve the Digital Divide, we will need to think different, bold and more broadly. In future blogs, we will touch upon some of these things in more detail, and share some examples of successes.

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Related posts:

White Paper – Responding to the COVID-19 pandemic – a collaboration framework for cities and solutions providers

Online Smart City-Solutions Provider Collaboration Framework

Planning sustainable smart cities with the smart city ecosystem framework

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