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The geographic digital divide

We often think of the digital divide in terms of the global digital divide, the marked difference in Internet connectivity speeds and access to computers between the nations of the world.
But within each nation—even nations with relatively high connectivity—the infrastructure of the Internet is not distributed equally.
This map from the FCC visualizes the 2018 availability of broadband providers with ≥ 100
download speeds:
Map of the United States with census tracts colored based on the number of fixed residential broadband providers.
Why are there differences within a country and what can we do about it? Let's explore.

Urban vs. rural

Consider this table of statistics on the amount of people in various US regions that lacked access to 25 Mbps broadband Internet connections in 2014:
RegionPeople without accessPercentage
United States33.98 million10%
Bar graph showing 10%
- Rural Areas23.43 million39%
Bar graph showing 39%
- Urban Areas10.55 million4%
Bar graph showing 4%
Tribal Lands1.57 million41%
Bar graph showing 41%
- Rural Areas1.29 million68%
Bar graph showing 68%
- Urban Areas0.28 million14%
Bar graph showing 14%
U.S. Territories2.63 million66%
Bar graph showing 66%
- Rural Areas1.08 million98%
Bar graph showing 98%
- Urban Areas1.55 million54%
Bar graph showing 54%
Chart source: FCC 2016 Broadband Progress Report
Across all the regions, there was a sizable gap between urban and rural areas. Why the gap? We can hypothesize a few reasons:
  • The areas in a country with the most difficult terrain are often rural areas, since the terrain does not make it easy to build dense urban structures. That terrain makes it similarly tricky to lay down cables. 1
  • Internet Service Providers are typically for-profit companies in the US, and they can make more profit in urban areas where there are many more paying customers and less cable to lay down.
  • ISPs can also charge less when it's easier to recoup the costs, so the same speed Internet connection in an urban area might cost $40 monthly but cost $100 monthly in a rural area. 2
What can be done about it?
In the US, the FCC Connect America program has allocated $1.488 billion dollars in funds to expand broadband access in rural areas. ISPs use the funds to build out the infrastructure for better Internet access in rural areas and tribal lands. 3
A map of the United States with color coded areas and a legend indicating the meaning of each color - green is gigabit and low latency, red is above baseline and low latency, dark blue is baseline and low latency, light blue is baseline and high latency, yellow is minimum and low latency.
A map of projects funded by the FCC Connect America program in 2018, color coded based on the service tier. Image source: FCC
In the UK, frustrated rural citizens took matters into their own hands—literally!—and created a non-profit called Broadband for the Rural North (B4RN). They ask citizens of rural communities to buy shares in B4RN and use the capital from those funds to install local infrastructure themselves. 4
Photo of a woman holding multiple orange cables that lay in a dug up ditch.
A B4RN volunteer tidying, measuring, and laying down fiber optic cables. Image source: b4ruralnorth

Classroom connectivity gap

Many teachers are embracing digital learning tools in the classroom. To be able to fully use online resources (like Khan Academy!), schools need to install modern Internet infrastructure.
Our Khan Academy classroom guide suggests a minimum bandwidth of 150
for students practicing exercises. Fortunately, as of 2019, 99% of US school districts have Internet access of at least 100 kbps per student.
However, we suggest a minimum bandwidth of 1.5
for students watching our videos. In 2019, only 38% of school districts had speeds of at least 1 Mbps.
A map of the US, with dots representing connected school districts.
A map of school districts with 1 Mbps connections. Image source: EducationSuperhighway
Fortunately, in the US, the FCC E-Rate program provides funds to schools with the goal of meeting these three connectivity standards:
  1. Fiber connections to every school.
  2. Wi-Fi in every classroom.
  3. 1 Mbps download speed per student.
Many classrooms aren't meeting the final standard, but now that 99% of schools have the basic infrastructure necessary for Internet access, it will be much easier for them to boost their bandwidth in the coming years.
To see the difference that Internet infrastructure can make, check out this video from an Arkansas school.
🔍 Curious how your district or state is doing, infrastructure-wise? Look it up in the EducationSuperHighway comparison tool.
The infrastructure divide is narrowing in the United States but the same divide is happening in countries all over the world. Hopefully, governments, non-profits, and entrepreneurial citizens will continue to find ways to bridge the divide and install infrastructure everywhere.

🙋🏽🙋🏻‍♀️🙋🏿‍♂️Do you have any questions about this topic? We'd love to answer—just ask in the questions area below!

Want to join the conversation?

  • blobby blue style avatar for user Prof. Parmigiano Reggiano
    It is very important for people to have access to the internet to receive a well-rounded education, but are there also schools that intentionally off an "off-line" classroom environment too?
    (4 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
    • male robot hal style avatar for user anonymous
      Yes, there are schools that intentionally offer an "offline" or technology-free classroom environment as part of their educational philosophy. These schools aim to provide a different approach to learning, emphasizing hands-on experiences, interpersonal interactions, and a deeper connection with the physical world. These offline schools often have specific reasons for adopting this approach:

      Minimal Distractions: Some educators believe that technology can be a distraction in the classroom, diverting students' attention away from learning. By maintaining an offline environment, they aim to create a focused and distraction-free space for students.

      Promoting Social Interaction: Offline schools prioritize face-to-face interactions among students and teachers. They believe that personal interactions contribute to better communication skills, empathy, and emotional intelligence.

      Encouraging Critical Thinking: Technology-free classrooms encourage students to think critically, solve problems independently, and rely on their creativity and imagination rather than relying on digital tools.

      Hands-on Learning: Many offline schools emphasize hands-on and experiential learning, which involves active engagement with real-world materials, experiments, and projects. They believe this approach fosters a deeper understanding of concepts.

      Nature and Outdoor Learning: Some offline schools place a strong emphasis on nature and outdoor learning. Students may spend more time outdoors, engaging in activities like gardening, exploring, and environmental studies.

      Balancing Screen Time: In an age where screen time is prevalent outside of school, offline schools aim to provide a balance by limiting digital exposure during school hours.

      Cultivating Focus: By limiting access to technology, these schools aim to help students develop better attention spans and concentration skills.

      Health and Well-being: Some schools are concerned about the potential negative effects of excessive screen time on students' physical health and well-being, such as eye strain and sedentary behavior.

      It's important to note that while offline schools prioritize technology-free environments, they often recognize the value of technology in certain contexts. Students may still have access to technology for specific purposes, such as research or specialized activities.

      Overall, the decision to offer an offline classroom environment is based on a school's educational philosophy and goals. Different approaches to learning can provide diverse opportunities for students to develop a well-rounded education that suits their individual needs and learning styles.
      Hope it helps
      (8 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user Lisette Stetson
    I am confused about the Urban vs Rural chart. 33.98 million in the US are without access, which is 10%. So is that 10% of the total US population in 2016? 23.43 million people without access in rural areas is 39% of what? The total US population? It is not 39% of 33.98 million. The US Territories numbers make no sense. There are .42 million more people without access in Urban areas than in rural areas. Yet the rural area is 98% of something and the urban area is 54% of something. Can someone explain what I am missing please?
    (1 vote)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
    • blobby green style avatar for user aswanthanu777
      From my view
      The total popln of US in 2016 is 333 million, 10% of tht(33.98%) is lacked access of 25mbps. 23.43 million people from rural area and 10.55 from urban gives the 33.98 million. Finally the 39% is the 39% of total population in rural areas of US, not the entire US popln.. And 4% is related to the urban popln
      (2 votes)
  • winston default style avatar for user Jcim Grant
    So basically the Geographic digital divide is the internet, right?
    (0 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user