The Digital Divide—Why Haven’t All Older Adults Crossed It?

Editor’s note: Laurie Orlov founded Aging and Health Technology Watch, a market research blog, and is a writer, speaker and elder care advocate. On Dec. 8, she appeared on a panel of experts at ASA’s Generations Forum, “Tackling the Digital Divide.” She wrote the below post for Aging and Health Technology Watch in response to the Forum; it has been edited slightly to adhere to ASA style.

It’s a hot topic now—crossing the so-called “Digital Divide.”

And it’s ironic, as the topic has been under discussion forever. Long ago, in a world far, far, away—it was easy for the oldest to say that they didn’t see the benefit in technology, Internet access or other devices. That was pre-pandemic, of course.

In 2020, the divide looks like a chasm, depending on how it’s viewed. What will close it? What is the missing link? More training? Discounted devices? Free Internet? Grandchildren photos? Worsening social isolation? Telehealth visits?

And do we mean “Digital Divide”—or do we really mean Internet access divide? Or is it the smartphone ownership divide? The how-do-I-use-this-thing divide? And what does it mean for one’s life to be on the wrong side?

Let's get real: Internet access is the lifeblood of connection.

We have never seen a world in which so many were so isolated from family, from friends, from activities, from healthcare. And we have never seen a world in which the “connections” to everything—services, shopping, learning about new products, listening to music, meeting people, talking to a doctor—are all made through an alphabet soup of technology, delivered by almost monopoly-like tech firms from Amazon to Zoom.

About those gaps—basic questions need answers.

Let’s say you’re a national organization trying to close this gap in 2021. So, the steering committee asks itself, among older adults, who actually has which devices? This shouldn’t be that hard to figure out, but the data seems to be at best surveyed annually. And the detailed breakdown of the several decades starting at ages 70 and older? Good luck with that. Let’s go with the AARP number of 62 percent of people ages 70 and older own smartphones. Why don’t the other 38 percent (or more in the upper age decades) own or want them?

Is it about the price, which seems to average $500 (without a carrier plan), though many are pricier, and some cost less, and much less with a monthly carrier plan.

Is it about out-of-box usability? Hmm. Check out this setup list for the “more senior-friendly iPhone.” And for them Android? Oddly, that looks easier. So let’s assume that the phone setup was easy. Oops—now they want access to the Internet… 

Why doesn’t everyone have access to the Internet?

This one depends on a few key documents that need to be viewed—including this article, which notes that 21 million may not have high-speed access, according to the FCC. By the way, if it isn’t high speed/broadband, forget about Netflix or FaceTime with the family. Oh wait, that is based on data from the Internet Service Providers (ISPs), who have a vested interest in the number. These ISPs count a census block as having access even if only one house is enabled!

Another more likely number? According to Broadband Now, 42 million don’t have broadband. Is this about the cost? And how complex is the cost calculation? Turns out it is highly variable, based on geography and provider. And it is significantly hampered by lack of competition in some areas. And in areas of new homes, for example, there may only be one bidder who can then set the price and contract length. And providers can decide to put caps on Internet data usage in the home, raising the price by as much as another $100 per month.

So there you have it, a few answers about that digital divide and how it happened. Now how to fix it?

Note: The new report The Future of Remote Care Technology and Older Adults 2020 is now online.