A new digital divide has emerged — and conventional solutions won’t bridge the gap

[Commentary] Though the United States has made profound progress in making Internet access universally available, a new digital divide has emerged that defies conventional solutions. Since both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump have promised to expand broadband opportunities if elected president, it’s crucial for future policy decisions that we understand who is still offline and why.

According to the most recent findings of the Pew Research Center, 13 percent of Americans still do not use the Internet. Of that group, the most telling variable is no longer race, sex or even income. It’s age. Over 40 percent of seniors are offline, compared with 1 percent of millennials. Two other groups stand out as digital holdouts — rural Americans (22 percent) and those with less than a high school education (34 percent). This is our new digital divide. And closing the inclusion gap demands a significant change in strategy. The new digital divide can only be bridged by making digital life more relevant. And there’s a relatively simple way to do it.

Older, rural, and less-educated Americans share one important characteristic — they are all heavy users of government services. Migrating entitlements to easy-to-use applications, and providing training through community-based groups, will make the Internet essential, if not irresistible, to those still disconnected.

[Downes is a project director at the Georgetown Center for Business and Public Policy. Levin is a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. In 2009, he oversaw development of the Federal Communications Commission’s National Broadband Plan.]


A new digital divide has emerged — and conventional solutions won’t bridge the gap