The Digital Divide Is Pervasive

People in the US, Europe and Asia report similar access problems, with the young most affected.

The coronavirus pandemic has turned the internet from a powerful tool for information and connectivity into a necessity almost as essential as electricity or running water. Countless companies around the world have been able to stay afloat, and their employees have continued to draw paychecks, because of their ability to shift almost overnight to remote working. E-learning and online shopping also have boomed in the crisis.

In light of those trends, it’s troubling that so many people, even in some of the world’s wealthiest countries, still have problems accessing the internet. A recent seven-nation survey by the Oliver Wyman Forum found that sizable percentages of respondents – ranging from 26 percent in Australia to 40 percent in Germany – said they were experiencing some difficulties in digital access. 

The problems ranged from bandwidth issues in Germany, where 15 percent said high-speed internet access wasn’t available in their area, and 16 percent said they couldn’t afford it, to a lack of devices. Seventeen percent of respondents in Singapore said they lacked digital tools, such as a laptop or video conferencing software, to do professional work remotely. Germany, Spain, and the US weren’t far behind.

The survey also finds that younger people across all seven countries have greater access problems than their elders. More than half of all respondents aged 18 to 24, and nearly as many in the 25 to 34 age bracket, reported having some issues with digital access, compared with 15 percent of those aged 65 and older. To some extent, that may reflect that younger people have a greater need of internet access for work or school than those aged 65 and up. 

Yet it’s striking that a majority of 18-to-24-year-olds report access problems, as well as significant numbers of prime working-age people. And those problems affect the well-off as well as those on low incomes. In the highest of four income brackets, which corresponds to $100,000 or more for Americans and the rough equivalent in the other countries, 35 percent of people aged 35 to 44 and 22 percent of those aged 45 to 54 report having issues with being able to work online. 

Digital access is a must for companies looking to maintain the productivity of their workforces and governments seeking to promote prosperity. Without urgent action to bridge the divide, millions of people around the world risk even greater exclusion from economic and social activity.