Research Request: Bridging the Digital Divide?


As part of your membership benefits, the Alliance staff provide research services for local government member submitted requests. Topics can range from pressing issues to emerging trends. This benefit is made possible through our partnership with Arizona State University Marvins Andrews Fellowship

Request Prompt:

"What is the Digital Divide (DD)? What methodologies should the City of Reno employ to measure the DD in the City? What are the benefits of reducing DD? Is there any analysis done that shows that decreasing the DD actually increases the level of engagement with local, state and/or fed government? "


Summary of Findings: 

Although no specific grant funding or existing public-private funding pathways with companies such as Blink, Ring, and Nest were identified, resources to support partnerships and innovative programs using security systems are highlighted below.

Background Research:


What is the Digital Divide (DD)? 

Having now been studied for nearly two decades, there are a variety of definitions. According to technopedia, “The digital divide refers to the difference between people who have easy access to the Internet and those who do not. A lack of access is believed to be a disadvantage to those on the disadvantaged side of the digital divide because of the huge knowledge base that can only be found online.” The website continues with more nuance; “The digital divide appears in a number of different contexts, including: 

  • Differences between rural and urban Internet access 

  • Socioeconomic differences between people of different races, income and education that affects their ability to access the Internet 

  • Differences between developed, developing and emerging nations in terms of the availability of Internet”1 

Diving further still into the complexities, the digital divide has perhaps been too narrowly defined. In Bridging the Digital Divide: Technology, Community and Public Policy, the technology gap is seen often as a “problem of access in the narrow sense of possession or permission to use a computer or the Internet. The book contends that “deep divides remain between those who possess the resources, education, and skills to reap the benefits of the information society and those who do not”.2 


What are the benefits of reducing DD & Is there any analysis done that shows that decreasing the DD actually increases the level of engagement with local, state and/or fed government? 

The broad WHY: “closing the digital divide is seen as a step toward shrinking the persistent gaps in economic opportunity, educational achievement and health outcomes in America”.3 

To take a step back, we’ve also noted some of the detrimental effects of the digital divide: 


  • The Pew Research Center has cited that… 

  • “15% of U.S. households with school-age children do not have a high-speed internet connection at home (also known as homework gap)4 

  • A majority of rural adults “say access to high-speed internet is a…problem in their local community”. This includes people having classified it as a major and minor problem. A majority of urban and suburban adults indicated that it was “not a problem”.5 

  • And in March 2017, it was found that “Roughly three-in-ten adults with household incomes below $30,000 a year don’t own a smartphone. Nearly half don’t have home broadband services or a traditional computer. And a majority of lower-income Americans are not tablet owners. By comparison, many of these devices are nearly ubiquitous among adults from households earning $100,000 or more a year”.6 


In a recent article in the New York Times, citing research by Microsoft, notes the divide may be wider than the figures outlined by the FCC. In the study, “Microsoft concluded that 162.8 million people do not use the internet at broadband speeds, while the F.C.C. says broadband is not available to 24.7 million Americans”.7 Complications arise, especially considering “…the government’s statistics are used to guide policy and channel federal funding for underserved areas”.8 Specifically looking at seniors, “…there have been three main reasons identified for wanting to increase technology usage for seniors: engage and communicate with friends and family, research medical and health concerns, and access social service providers.”9 Ultimately,  bridging the digital divide will have a greater impact in regards to equity.  


What methodologies should the City of Reno employ to measure the DD in the City? 


*Though we cannot speak definitively to the methodologies the City should pursue, we have outlined some popular strategies below: 


  • “Microsoft’s plan is a mix of old and new technology that involves harnessing the unused channels between television broadcasts, known as white spaces. The technology is sometimes called “super Wi-Fi” because it behaves like regular Wi-Fi but uses low-powered television channels to cover greater distances than wireless hot spots. It is a less expensive alternative to wiring homes, particularly in less-populated and remote regions”.10 

  • EXAMPLE: In Ferry County, a white-space broadband effort will begin next year. Declaration Networks, a company that focuses on bringing broadband to rural areas, has just received a commitment for money from the F.C.C. for the project. 

  • “Other tools include fiber networks, satellite coverage and high-speed mobile service”.11 

  • DD measurement methodology in Reno could include a survey. Assessment of internet use questions may be developed from American Community Survey questions.12 

  • This data could be overlaid with income, age, or other variables to assess access in each area. The Lorenz Curve and Gianni coefficient may be useful. 13 

  • Broadband – many local governments taking this route (see section below for local broadband networks) 


Furthermore, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), occupies much of this space, setting the rules and regulations for digital communication. They’ve dedicated a number of initiatives to “Bridging The Digital Divide For All Americans” and expanding broadband, including but not limited to14; 

As noted in this article “Bridging the Digital Divide” on, in an effort to improve digital literacy, “communities have developed programs by partnering with local nonprofits, libraries, and community centers to provide seniors a source of support and education on technology”. They highlight a case study with the City of Knoxville, Tennessee, where an “initiative to connect seniors using their own tablets and computers through the 311 Touch application system. This system uses videoconferencing software and the center’s phone operators”. The “program grew from participation with the inaugural Innovation Academy, which was created in 2013 through the Alliance for Innovation and the Arizona State University”.15  


Local governments and broadband networks 


  • Community Broadband Networks, a Project of ILSR, has produced a website with a fairly comprehensive list of resources as well as very useful ‘Community Network Map’, displaying all of the local networks across the United States.16 

  • Released in March 2018, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) produced The Public Internet Option, highlighting why and how communities can control local internet services.17 

  • In 2017, Benton Foundation, an organization invested in public interest in the digital age, published The Emerging World of Broadband Public-Private Partnerships A Business Strategy and Legal Guide18: 

“Local governments increasingly see before them exciting new opportunities to develop next-generation broadband in their communities—and to reap the many benefits that broadband will deliver to their residents and businesses. The goal of most of these communities is to get optical fiber connections to every home and business. Many localities are likely aware of new private sector investments in fiber and of municipal fiber success stories such as Chattanooga, Tennessee; Wilson, North Carolina; and Lafayette, Louisiana. In addition, emerging public–private partnership models are being developed and implemented by communities that lack the capital or expertise to deploy and operate fiber networks, or to act as Internet service providers (ISPs), on their own. These models include: 

  • Localities encourage new private investment through economic development incentives and other measures to reduce costs for private sector infrastructure deployment; 

  • Localities negotiate formal public–private partnerships that resemble transit and toll-road construction projects, with public funding and private execution; and 

  • Localities create hybrid models where a locality and private partner find a creative way to share the capital and operating risk related to a broadband network.” 



Future Research Pathways: 


  • Homework Gap 

  • IT Literacy 

  • New rules and guidance set by the FCC. For example, in the article, “FCC restricts nine ISPs from selling subsidized broadband to poorer homes”, impacting the “rollout of a program that would help poor households access broadband and phone services”.19 

  • Digital inclusion

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