The digital divide is changing – for better and worse.

May 19th, 2023 by · Leave a Comment

This Industry Viewpoint was authored by Anthony Goonetilleke, Group President of Technology & Head of Strategy, Amdocs

The past few years have shown us that humans can adapt to ever-changing conditions, even with the disruption to schools and workplaces, through ingenuity and resilience. Connectivity was one of the driving forces behind this transition, becoming integral in linking our homes with work and school. In some cases, it allows loved ones to share precious moments from behind a camera.

However, despite our resilience, recent years have exposed certain aspects of our connectivity that must be addressed to prevent the widening of the digital divide. There’s a misconception among many that the digital divide only affects those in rural areas. While that’s true in many cases, it’s an issue that affects a much greater population in total.

Recent survey data from Amdocs looking at US consumer connectivity experiences found some troubling trends – one of which is the growing disparity between low-income and high-income households that can increase as digital experiences become more advanced.

Low-income households face greatest risk

While it’s certainly no secret that rural households experience more issues with connectivity, research found that the gap between low-income and high-income households was the most significant. While 9% of low-income households reported having unreliable or no broadband, only 2% of high-income households reported the same issue.

While those numbers are both reasonably low, they still represent a massive gap. Low-income households are 4.5 times more likely to experience broadband issues, placing them at a disadvantage in work and school environments. And with the increased popularity of working from home, this challenge shows no signs of going away. Additional support for low-income families through grants and other programs will be key to addressing the digital divide.

It’s not just access. It’s speed limiting experiences.

More than half of consumers (52%) responded that they would be willing to pay more for faster speeds. However, 64% of high-income households said they would pay for faster speeds, while only 49% of low-income households responded that way. Notably, even with many consumers happy with their overall service, nearly two-thirds (61%) of consumers are concerned new technologies like video conferencing & hybrid work, 4K/8K video, metaverse and Augmented Reality (AR) will increase the divide.

Millennials (45%) and Gen Z (49%) reported the most issues with internet access impacting their careers, job opportunities and school. As our society becomes increasingly online-dependent, generations that grew up with digitally native technology are most reliant on broadband connectivity for their professional lives. Connectivity needs and expectations will only grow as future generations lean on technology in their daily lives and become accustomed to ubiquitous connectivity wherever they go.

More devices, more disparities

Shockingly, nearly half (45%) of respondents reported having six or more connected devices in their home, which represents a 246% increase since 2021. Even more shocking is that 41% of high-income households have nine or more connected devices, while only 13% of low-income households have nine or more.

Households with more connected devices require a stronger internet connection to support this enhanced connectivity. This gap between high-income and low-income households represents another disparity, from both a cost and bandwidth perspective. It’s an important trend to watch in the future, especially as the development of new technologies impacts what we keep in our homes.

What’s the path forward?

When I think about the future, I think about ubiquitous connectivity becoming the norm across the globe.  A fair and level playing field is predicated on households, regardless of location or income level, being connected to gigabit speeds, providing connectivity at scale for limitless devices and services.  Whether you connect at home, at school or at work, the connectivity must be seamless and consistent.

It’s not simply an idealistic view, however. Connectivity will play an increasingly important role in one’s ability to participate in the rapidly evolving digital economy.  As the next wave of technology creates new consumer experiences, the dependency on faster, more stable connectivity will only grow, further dividing the ‘have’s’ and ‘have nots.’

There’s a reason that 84% of respondents consider internet to be a basic necessity like electricity and running water. Broadband must be part of the ‘needs pyramid’ – it’s the only way we can make real progress toward closing the digital divide. If we don’t, as an industry and society, we are failing those on the lower end of the socioeconomic spectrum, putting their personal, professional and academic lives in jeopardy.

There’s been progress at a federal level recently: $73 million in funds were recently made available to boost enrollment in the Affordable Connectivity Program. However, with the program’s funding set to expire at the end of the year, which would put 16 million families at risk, it’s important that we consider how to proceed from here.

As new technologies and connectivity move our economy forward, we all share the responsibility to help narrow the gap once and for all. This data should be a reminder of the need for continued focus and incentivization to expand connectivity.


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