The world has seen three industrial revolutions since the mid-1700s: metal, steam and electricity. And now, we’re in the midst of the fourth: information technology. In 2020 alone, entrepreneurs started 4.4 million new U.S. businesses. And an April 2021 Salesforce survey found that 70% of new businesses were “born out of technology or tech-focused from day one.” As smartphones, the Metaverse, artificial intelligence and selling online become commonplace, the lines between the physical and digital worlds blur. While it’s easy to see the benefits, not everyone has the means or resources to keep up in this fast-paced technological revolution. To equally participate, you need a broadband internet connection—yet 6% of Americans and 37% of the global population remain offline.
Policymakers refer to this Internet abecomeccess gap as the digital divide. While it may feel outside of your grasp as a small business owner, the solutions for bridging this gap involve both the public and private sectors.
Here, we explain what the digital divide is and what initiatives are in play. Finally, we'll discuss ways for small businesses to play a part—and the benefits it can bring not only to your enterprise, but to your local economy and community.
What is the digital divide?
The digital divide refers to the gap between members of the population with access to a working internet connection and those without. While this issue has existed since the internet became available to consumers, the pandemic highlighted the growing need to bridge the gap, as routine activities like work, school, and even healthcare increasingly required a computer and internet connection. According to the Pew Research Center, 59% of children from lower-income families faced challenges participating in remote learning due to lack of a computer and/or internet access.
While the digital divide affects people across all ages, genders, and race, the most prominent indicators of whether American adults under 65 have a working internet connection are education and income: 14% of adults with a high school education or less do not even occasionally use the internet, and adults earning less than $30,000 are much less likely to have access, particularly those in rural areas.
Additionally, 100 million Americans have access to broadband internet but don’t subscribe due to financial burden or lack of digital literacy. According to an OECD research study that examined the cost of broadband internet amongst 35 counties, the United States is the second most expensive.
And while this certainly is unjust, this isn't the only reason businesses should care about this issue. Granting internet access to more people makes good economic sense. According to a PwC study, doing so has the potential to contribute $6.7 trillion to the global economy—both by adding more social and economic opportunities for 4 billion people, plus additional employment opportunities for businesses. Both the public and private sectors have invested billions of dollars to explore solutions and unlock this economic potential.
What’s being done
As internet access morphed from a luxury into a necessity in the early 2000s, Congress passed the Telecommunications Act of 2006. The act requires the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to provide yearly reports on whether broadband internet “is being deployed to all Americans in a reasonable and timely fashion.”
Over the past two decades, Congress enacted two primary federal policies intended to help bridge the internet gap: the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), which allocated $4.7 billion to closing the digital divide, and November 2021’s $1 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. This legislation dedicates $65 billion to providing broadband internet access to those who don’t have it by building the necessary infrastructure in areas that are lacking as well as lower internet costs.
Additionally, the U.S. government offers grants, including The Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) programs, that help small businesses invest in their own technological advancements.
In the private sector, Microsoft’s Airband Initiative works on a global level to address this issue, providing internet and digital literacy to low-income communities. In 2021, The World Economic Forum launched the EDISON Alliance, a movement of global leaders from both the public and private sectors who collaborate on allowing everyone to participate in the digital economy.
How small businesses can help bridge the digital divide
While there are many industrial and political initiatives, small businesses can implement change on community, organizational, and interpersonal levels. Here are some ideas of how to take action.
Provide training programs and infrastructure
As businesses increasingly adopt AI into their work environments, 38% of jobs run the risk of becoming obsolete by 2030. However, AI has the potential to create new jobs, too, and businesses and workers need to be ready for this shift. If individuals lacking the necessary technological skills are unable to obtain them, there could be a massive shortage of employees. This has the potential to cause major economies a loss of up to $11.5 trillion of potential growth by 2028.
This means businesses, governments and NGOs will need to provide technological training and digital literacy programs to their communities to prepare.
"Companies have a role in partnering and supporting and lifting up those efforts and not getting in the way of them," says Parisa Fatehi-Weeks, senior director of global community impact at Indeed.
For example, in October 2021, Wix partnered with the Rhode Island Hispanic Chamber of Commerce (RIHCC) and the Rhode Island Israel Collaborative (RIIC) to empower communities through web design in a project called the Rhode Island Latino Web Project.
The project involved teaching a course on website creation to eighteen college students who were each tasked to create a website for a small, Hispanic-owned local business. This not only increased digital literacy of students who will soon be entering the workforce, but it established an online presence for eighteen small businesses who didn’t have one prior. It encouraged the owners to learn digital skills to maintain, market, and grow their business digitally.
As a small business owner, you can create job training programs for your own employees or volunteer with nonprofits to familiarize community members with paramount technological skills sooner rather than later. PwC has a library of resources to help you get started.
Get involved on a local level
While large, multinational companies may have the resources to create far-reaching programs, small businesses typically don't. This allows for the opportunity to get involved on a local level by staying tuned in to what local communities need.
In March 2022, South By Southwest held an all-female webinar with industry leaders from the Female Quotient’s Equality Lounge. Moderated by Arielle Gross Samuels, global head of environmental, social, and governance at Meta, the panel spoke about the primary obstacles to ensuring internet access for all and actionable steps businesses can take.
One of the panelists, Roxanna Barboza, industry and cybersecurity policy analyst at the Rural Broadband Association, emphasized the need to cater programs or funding to the specific needs of individual areas:
"We can have all of these ideas and want to provide digital literacy courses, when they (the community members) really just want to learn how to use WhatsApp," she explained. "We have to cater our ideas to theirs to better serve the community.”
Small businesses can also work with their local politicians to advocate for city and state laws bridging access to technology or create community partnerships with other small businesses or NGOs. But they can even start small by donating proceeds to local organizations that work to bridge the digital divide. Computing For All, for example, is a Seattle-based NGO that trains and mentors people from low income communities to improve their digital literacy. They also partner with local businesses to fill in gaps in employment with individuals they've mentored, providing a win-win for community members. For resources in your area, check out this list of nonprofits around the country working to bridge the digital divide.
Develop your thought leadership
Thought leadership is sharing expertise, voicing your stance on industry issues and offering solutions for change via written content, video or live speaking engagements. For the most part, private-sector advocacy for the digital divide has derived from larger companies. But good news – small business owners and entrepreneurs are particularly cut out to be thought leaders because all are innovative self-starters who create something out of nothing. So you’re in a good position if you fall into one of these two categories, regardless of the type of entrepreneurship you're involved in.
Sarah Foss, chief technology officer at Audacy and another Female Quotient’s Equality Lounge panelist, noted that while public policy plays a large role in bridging the divide, “policy doesn't hit content.” “That's an obligation we have as publishers and tech companies,” she said. Samuels added how important it is to lead by example. “Be willing to be a mentor for future leaders. We won't always be here."
Contributing to your own thought leadership on the digital divide helps not only advocate for it, but embrace real change, but positively affects your brand. Effective thought leadership can attract new consumers and retain existing ones through trust and honest connection. It also promotes a positive company culture and helps the public see your business as a prominent contributor to important issues, such as bridging the digital divide.
Start by sharing content on your blog or social media. While you can certainly repost relevant articles or videos from other industry experts, you can have a greater impact by creating your own. Once you’ve established authority on the topic, consider participating in conferences, panels or webinars to help you and your business stand out as thought leaders.