Timeless, basic necessities in life have always included food, water, heat and shelter. More recently came electricity, with that technological miracle becoming ubiquitous in the last century. Today, a new necessity has emerged, and where it’s absent, the need is becoming starker by the day.
When considering life’s necessities, “high-speed internet access” is not likely to pop up first. Yet, if you are reading this article, you are among the fortunate half of the world’s population who has access to the internet. Although access is rising, the United Nations reports that less than 54 percent of the world’s population can connect to the internet, leaving 3.6 billion people digitally deprived. In the poorest countries, only 19 percent have access.
Access in developed countries is much higher, but not evenly distributed. Older people in particular have been left behind in the digital revolution. In the United States, a whopping 42 percent of Americans ages 65 or older—22 million people—have no broadband access to the internet, according to a recently released report by Older Adults Technology Services (OATS, an affiliate of AARP), in partnership with the Humana Foundation. Age is only second to poverty as the strongest determinant for lacking internet access in the United States. This matters.
The necessity of internet access has been apparent (though not always acknowledged) for some time; the term digital divide was part of our lexicon as far back as the 1990s. Yet the pandemic has made clear that we can no longer ignore this reality.
COVID’s Unforgiving Truth Telling
In the 14 months since the World Health Organization officially declared the coronavirus to be a pandemic, there has been untold suffering. More than 500,000 people in the United States have died and millions more have lost their jobs or faced economic hardship. Health workers, caregivers and essential workers have endured unrelenting stress. Schools, religious institutions and virtually all other aspects of public life have been shuttered, while social isolation and loneliness have skyrocketed, imperiling us all. In many ways, the pandemic has been a profound exercise in empathy: for the first time, many of us are experiencing what it is like to be alone, afraid and isolated.
Though COVID-19 touches us all, it also has exposed the falsehood that “we are all in this together.” A particularly glaring example of this is that older persons have suffered the most. According to the CDC, 95 percent of those who have died in the United States were ages 50 or older. In addition, 28 percent of older adults live alone, and the shelter-in-place requirements have exacerbated the dangerous health effects of loneliness. The AARP Foundation’s Connect2Affect program has been working to alleviate this, but connectivity is key. And COVID-19 has not harmed all groups equally. Black, Latino and Indigenous populations have disproportionately borne the brunt of severe infections and deaths from COVID-19.
‘A whopping 42 percent of Americans ages 65 or older—22 million people—have no broadband access to the internet.’
Compounding these tragedies is the digital divide. For so many, broadband access has been a life raft—a portal to nearly every aspect of our lives. The pandemic made absolute what was already becoming clear: access to digital technology and high-speed internet is about access to everything else—essential health information, education and training, our work and our jobs, the ability to purchase goods and services, our entertainment and, perhaps most importantly, our ability to communicate and stay connected to one another.
But this lifeline is not available to all. Multiple (and overlapping) digital divides reflect and amplify existing social and economic inequalities. Globally, we know that developed countries have much greater internet access than developing countries, and the U.N. Secretary-General’s report showed that in two out of three countries, more men than women use the internet—and that gender gap is growing. These challenges disproportionately affect migrants, refugees, persons with disabilities, indigenous peoples and other groups.
In the United States, too, disparities abound. According to the new OATS report on the connectivity crisis, Black people were 2.6 times more likely to be offline, and Latinos were 3.4 times more likely to be offline than white people. Those living in areas with higher concentrations of poverty were 6.7 times more likely to lack broadband access, and those with yearly incomes lower than $25,000 were 10 times more likely to lack that access than those with higher incomes. Older adults who are single (2.7 times as likely) or living in rural areas (1.4 times as likely) have increased risk of being without home internet service.
These numbers are alarming on their own, but the intersectionality of these factors only compound to increase the likelihood that people remain in the digital dark.
Awareness to Action
Before the WHO declared COVID-19 a pandemic, there was evidence that multiple digital divides were becoming a crisis. For older people to fully engage in life and contribute to society, we must not lose focus on the essential necessity of affordable, high-speed access.
Given the essential role of the internet in our life, closing the digital divide has become a fundamental issue of equity and social justice—and it must be seen as such by policymakers and the public alike. For older persons—indeed all persons—access to affordable, high-speed internet is a necessary, but insufficient part of the solution. To fully close the gap and capture the power of digital technology, we need to focus on the broader ecosystems to enable technology to be used inclusively.
‘Young people are not “digital natives.” They are surrounded by others who teach them.’
Technology companies need to be age-inclusive in their design and digital literacy training needs to become more widely available for all. As Joe Coughlin, director of the MIT AgeLab recently pointed out, “Young people are not ‘digital natives.’ They are surrounded by others who teach them.”
To meaningfully close the digital divide and promote equity, we will need policy frameworks that support inclusion and access, smart regulatory environments, and focus and investment from the private sector. In short, all stakeholders need to put their full attention on this issue.
Fortunately, awareness is growing, and there is reason for hope. AARP, viewing the promotion of digital equity as a strategic priority, has affiliated with OATS to promote greater digital literacy. The U.N., meanwhile, is prioritizing digital inclusion as part of its Roadmap to Digital Cooperation, an initiative of the Secretary-General, who also has convened high-level panels of experts to increase attention and make recommendations.
Also, recent reports by Human Rights Watch and the New York Times described how the digital divide threatened older Americans’ ability to gain access to COVID-19 vaccines. Helpfully, the FCC just approved the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program, which provides low-income households with up to $50 a month to help cover internet bills during the pandemic.
Like electricity in the past century, access to the internet is increasingly viewed for what it has already become: a human right. Now it’s up to all stakeholders to make it one afforded to all.
Peter Rundlet is the Vice President of AARP International in Washington, D.C.