What Do We Mean When We Say ‘Digital Equity’ and ‘Digital Inclusion’?

What Do We Mean When We Say ‘Digital Equity’ and ‘Digital Inclusion’?

Defining “digital equity” and “digital inclusion”
In May 2016, digital inclusion practitioners, advocates, academics, Internet service providers, and policymakers gathered in Kansas City at Net Inclusion: The National Digital Inclusion Summit and a funny thing happened on our way to the library: we discovered we were speaking different languages. We were gathered to discuss current and potential local, state, and federal policies aimed at increasing digital equity. But we realized there were a number of working definitions of ‘digital equity’ and ‘digital inclusion’ being used by summit attendees. In the weeks since meeting face-to-face in KC, a working group of us affiliated with the National Digital Inclusion Alliance began meeting online in an attempt to reach consensus definitions for these terms.
Angela Siefer, Director, National Digital Inclusion Alliance
Angela Siefer, Director, National Digital Inclusion Alliance

To put this process in some context, just before the Net Inclusion Summit, the Federal Communications Commission voted to update its Lifeline program, beginning to shift the program, which has traditionally made telephone service more affordable, to focus on increasing broadband adoption among low-income consumers. The key purpose of the FCC’s actions is to increase the affordability of broadband service, which remains the chief impediment to broadband adoption among low-income consumers. But, importantly, the FCC found that the cost of broadband service is not the only barrier to low-income consumers subscribing and using broadband: the FCC recognizes that true ‘digital inclusion’ encompasses access, adoption, and use of broadband.

The FCC’s Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau (CGB) is developing a comprehensive plan for the FCC to better understand the non-price barriers to digital inclusion and to propose how the FCC can facilitate efforts to address those barriers. This plan will address promoting digital inclusion generally and also as it particularly relates to the new Lifeline program.

Thus, it’s important that we know what “digital equity” and “digital inclusion” really mean.

The NDIA working group based our discussions on the definitions used by municipalities such as Seattle and federal documents such as the Institute of Museum and Library Services’ Building Digital Communities.

After many discussions the working group came to think of “digital equity” as the goal – and “digital inclusion” as the strategy to reach the goal.

Digital Equity Definition:

Digital Equity ensures all individuals and communities have the information technology capacity needed for full participation in our society, democracy, and economy. Digital Equity is necessary for civic and cultural participation, employment, lifelong learning, and access to essential services.

The reasons for digital inequity may vary. It can be caused by lack of robust infrastructure or the costs to access it; discrimination in investment in delivering technology and technology-related services to specific areas or populations; or, for some, the barriers derive from socioeconomic status, education and literacy, special needs or disabilities, or language. Design and delivery of devices and services can also create barriers when they do not recognize the needs of all ages or cultures.

Digital Inclusion Definition:

Digital Inclusion is the activities necessary to ensure that all individuals and communities, including the most disadvantaged, have access to, and use of, information and communication technologies (ICTs). This includes 5 elements: 1) affordable, robust broadband Internet service; 2) Internet-enabled devices that meet the needs of the user; 3) access to digital literacy training; 4) quality technical support; and 5) applications and online content designed to enable and encourage self-sufficiency, participation, and collaboration. Digital Inclusion must evolve as technology advances and recognizes that access to, and use of, ICTs are an essential element for participation in our society, democracy, and economy.

NDIA is offering these definitions in an effort to create consensus and provide a resource to various stakeholder groups, including NDIA affiliates, funders, and policymakers (local, state, and national). We recognize that while the technology will change, the goals and steps toward achieving digital equity should have continuity. Defining these terms is an important step in that direction.


About the author

Angela Siefer is the Director of the National Digital Inclusion Alliance (NDIA). Angela envisions a world in which all members of society have the skills and resources to use the Internet for the betterment of themselves and their communities. Since 1997, Angela has worked on digital inclusion issues with local community organizations, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, state governments, and the Schools, Health & Libraries Broadband (SHLB) Coalition. This work led Angela to co-found the National Digital Inclusion Alliance, a unified national voice for local technology training, home broadband access, and public broadband access programs. A profile of her written work is at angelasiefer.com.