The Digital Divide: Connecting & Empowering Americans

graphic of a computer showing digital divide

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Think about all the times you’ve bumped into someone crossing the street or in the store because they were glued to their phone instead of paying attention. Do you remember the last time you left home without your phone? If you have an office job, could you get your work done without a computer? What about without a decent internet connection

We live in a digital world, and 2020 forced many of us to rely on our access to the internet to work remotely and stay connected with friends and family. Before COVID-19, 17% of US employees worked from home five days or more per week, and that increased to 44% since the pandemic began. While many of us are lucky to have access to communications technology, high speed internet, and have digital literacy and skills, that’s not the case for all Americans. This is the “digital divide.”

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internet graphic

What Is the Digital Divide?

The digital divide is often defined as the gap between those that have access to modern information and communications technology, and those that have restricted access or none at all. This goes beyond access to the internet and includes telephones, televisions, and personal computers. The definition of the digital divide has been evolving since the 1990s. In 2006, Jakob Nielsen, Ph.D. categorized the digital divide into three stages: Economic Divide, Usability Divide, and Empowerment Divide.

Economic Divide

This stage of the digital divide is based on the fact that some people can’t afford to buy a computer or other communications technology. According to Pew Research Center, 24% of adults with annual household incomes below $30,000 don’t own a smartphone, 43% don’t have home broadband service, and 41% don’t own a desktop or laptop computer.

graph of income and internet usage
Image Source: Pew Research Center

Usability Divide

According to Nielsen, the second stage of the digital divide is the Usability Divide. If an individual can afford technology, like a computer, that doesn’t necessarily mean they have the knowledge or skills to operate or use the technology to its full potential. Some groups impacted by this stage are those with low literacy, senior citizens, and users with disabilities. 

Empowerment Divide

The final stage is the Empowerment Divide. As stated by Nielsen, even if computers and the internet were extremely easy to use, not everyone would make the decision to use both in a way that maximizes their benefits. If individuals lack initiative, they allow others to make decisions for them. An example would be choosing to keep the not-so-user-friendly default homepage and search engine from your computer manufacturer or internet service provider instead of changing your settings for a better option.

Who Is Affected by the Digital Divide?

Typically, the digital divide exists between those in rural areas and those in urban areas, between those with different levels of education, and between socioeconomic groups. While some groups might have access to communications technology and the internet, there can be a divide caused by lower-speed wireless connections, lower-priced internet connections (DSL), and lower-performance computers. Our friends at Pew Research Center are back again with the stats. Some notable numbers about those impacted by the digital divide include:

stats of the digital divide in america

Bridging the Digital Divide

So, what does it all mean, and is America doomed? Not so fast. Luckily there are internet service providers, government initiatives and programs, and nonprofit organizations doing their part to help close the gap.

Internet Service Providers

Several internet service providers have assistance programs to provide discounted internet for low-income households.

AT&T Access

Access from AT&T provides low-cost internet service for eligible households. If AT&T is available in your area and your household participates in SNAP, SSI, NSLP, and other programs, you can receive internet service for $10 per month or less based on the maximum speed available at your address (up to 25 Mbps). Find out if Access from AT&T is available near you and apply.

Internet Essentials From Comcast (Xfinity)

Internet Essentials is a starter program from Comcast that provides low-income households with 25 Mbps Xfinity internet and in-home WiFi for $9.95 per month. Individuals can qualify if they are eligible for the NSLP, Housing Assistance, Medicaid, SNAP, SSI, and other programs. Internet Essentials customers also have the option to purchase a laptop or desktop computer at a discounted price.

Cox Connect2Compete

Cox is helping families stay connected online with affordable, low-income internet. With the Cox Connect2Compete program, eligible families can get low-cost, home internet with WiFi for $9.95 per month. Visit their website to see if you’re qualified and start your application.

Find a complete list of providers with low-income internet plans in our Internet Guide for Low & Fixed Incomes.

Government Initiatives

The US Senate recently passed a $1 trillion infrastructure bill, with $550 billion in new federal spending. The bipartisan decision will fund infrastructure projects that will address issues like climate change and improve broadband access. $65 billion of the bill will go toward providing broadband internet to all Americans while boosting competition between internet service providers to help make high-speed internet more affordable.


Lifeline is a program from the FCC that makes communications services accessible and affordable for low-income consumers. Eligible low-income households receive up to a $9.25 discount on either phone or internet service each month, but not both. The Lifeline program is available in every state, commonwealth territory, and on Tribal lands. Use Lifeline’s company search tool to see if there are participating internet service providers near you.

Emergency Broadband Benefit Program

The FCC also provides a temporary discount on monthly broadband bills for qualifying low-income households with their Emergency Broadband Benefit Program. Eligible households can receive:

  • Up to a $50/mo. discount on broadband service and associated equipment rentals
  • Up to a $75/mo. discount if your household is on qualifying Tribal lands
  • A one-time discount of up to $100 for a laptop, tablet, or desktop computer (with a co-payment of more than $10 but less than $50)

For more information and to see if you are eligible to apply for the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program, please visit their website.

Nonprofit Organizations for Internet Access & Tech

If you’re in need of additional resources like technology and digital training, several nonprofits offer discounted or free refurbished computers, training, and tools to find low-cost internet for low-income families.


EveryoneOn is a nonprofit dedicated to connecting low-income families to affordable internet service and computers. Use their offer locator tool to find low-cost internet and device offers in your area.


human-I-T is a nonprofit that provides low-income individuals and other nonprofits with technology, internet, and digital training. Use their free resources to request low-cost internet or refurbished technology.

A full list of nonprofits fighting to bridge the digital divide can be found in our Internet Guide for Low & Fixed Incomes.

It’s clear that America still has a lot of work to do to close the digital divide. Americans not only need access to affordable high-speed internet and communications technology, but need the tools and knowledge to benefit from both. In the meantime, we’ll be waiting to see when and how President Biden’s infrastructure bill will ignite big changes in the ISP market.

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Anna Ellison
Written By
Anna Ellison
Written By
Anna Ellison
Anna is a Contributing Writer for HighSpeedOptions, covering broadband, TV, and streaming content. She started her career as a content writer in the fintech industry in 2017 before joining the mobile ad-tech space a year later. She graduated with a degree in Professional Writing from Michigan State University, which kickstarted her love of giving companies a voice and telling their stories.