The Other Digital Divide

There is yet another digital divide — and it’s measured in bandwidth.

To most us, “digital divide” is the gap between people who own personal computers and those who don’t. But there’s another digital divide: the gap between those who have access to adequate broadband and those who don’t.

The broadband digital divide isn’t a big gap in most major post-industrial countries. For example, 98.6 percent of households in Hong Kong have broadband Internet access. In South Korea, 96.7 percent do. Singaporeans have it in 89.5 percent of their homes. The percentages are in the 80s in Australia, Israel, Baltic, and Scandinavian households, too, according to Point-Topic. Even in the now technologically backward United States, more than 50 percent of households have broadband access. But these are only a few of the world’s approximately 200 countries.

What if you’re a Brazilian, Egyptian, Filipino, Indian, Indonesian, Jamaican, Mexican, Moroccan, Peruvian, Saudi, South African, Romanian, Russian, Thai, or Turk who has purchased a state-of-the-art personal computer running Windows Vista or Apple Leopard? Perhaps this computer also runs Microsoft Office or the Adobe CS4 suite of software programs.

Those operating systems and software programs were designed by people sitting in Redmond, WA, or in Cupertino or San Jose, CA, places bathed in broadband connectivity. Vista, Leopard, Office, CS4, and similar state-of-the-art operating systems and programs are designed for broadband connections.

Those operating systems and programs routinely, some almost constantly, connect with the Internet for updates, codecs, plug-ins, and the like. For examples, Microsoft Word 2007’s thesaurus function goes online to check for synonyms. Click the “Help” command on most Adobe programs, and you’ll discover that Adobe’s help functions nowadays are online. Designers of today’s personal computers and personal computer software assume everyone has a broadband connection. (Many laptops and desktops no longer even have built-in telephone modems.)

When you don’t have broadband, or when it’s extremely limited, how are you supposed to use personal computers and software programs designed intentionally for broadband use? I encountered this problem when I spent the past three weeks in the Republic of South Africa. I was at Rhodes University, teaching a postgraduate course in digital news media management. In the early 1990s, Rhodes was among the first places in Africa to get Internet access, but the rapid rise of broadband during the past several years has left it and almost all of Africa behind. Each student and each member of the staff or faculty at Rhodes is limited to a quota of how much Internet access they may use per day. The quota when I was there was 30 mebibytes per person per day. (A binary mebi is 2 bytes to the 20th power, or 1,048,576 bytes. Compare that to a megabyte’s 1,000,000 bytes. And 30 MiB equals 31.46 MB).

Could you get through your workday day using less than 32 MB of Internet access? It’s equivalent to 15 minutes of YouTube video or downloading a single day’s edition of a newspaper in PDF format. Here in the U.S., I’ve been averaging 13.6 GB per month, or 454 MB per day. I used 847 MB on Tuesday and more than a gigabyte on Monday (I’m writing this on Wednesday). I probably use more than the average American with broadband access, but not by a factor of 10.

Moreover, my personal computer’s operating system, antivirus software, and other programs go online to check for updates; friends, associates, and students send me unsolicited e-mail with attached files that are megabytes or hundreds of kilobytes in size; and the Web pages I visit contain all sizes of photos and sometimes video that starts playing automatically. (To conserve bandwidth, Rhodes’ IT department intentionally blocks banner ads sent from DoubleClick and other online ad networks). All this chews up 32 MB very quickly.

The problem at Rhodes University and within South Africa, Brazil, and other countries isn’t the IT departments but that the Internet bandwidth within those countries is too little for the new personal computers to function ably and for the people in those countries to use the Internet as we do here.

The new digital divide isn’t between who does and who doesn’t have personal computers, but among who has the bandwidth to use them. It’s a whole different dimension.

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