You have conducted research on inequalities in internet access in France. Why this choice?
The issue of the digital divide and its effects is not new. But it has taken on an even greater scale since the Covid-19 crisis. French people without internet access from their homes found themselves stranded when it was necessary to issue exit permits or make an appointment at vaccination centres. And this population remains large as the internet access rate was 82.4% in 2019, a rate that has been leveling off for six years. Therefore, analyzing the determinants of this digital divide is essential. However, until now there has been no study in France on these issues of access, with a time dimension.
What data did you use to conduct this research?
In its survey on Information and Communication Technologies, INSEE has been asking questions since 2007 about Internet access and its uses. This data allowed me to analyze the changes between 2007 and 2019. I looked at access and use of the Internet, then types of use in five main areas: administrative procedures, banking services, the collaborative economy, e-commerce and job search. It was not possible to observe some activities that are very widespread today, such as video or audio streaming, because Netflix or Spotify did not exist in France in 2007!
We imagine that age plays an important role in whether or not you have access to the internet…
This is a factor that is becoming more and more secondary. We observe that it plays a major role only for the generation born between 1945 and 1955. For all French people born after 1955, age is almost no longer a determinant of the digital divide. Another idea received is related to the place of residence of the respondents. We imagine that French people who live in big cities are much more connected to the Internet than those who live in rural areas. However, there are no major differences between these populations in terms of access and use. Although the quality of the connection turns out to be better for city dwellers than for rural dwellers.
What are the determinants that contribute most to the digital divide?
Financial difficulties and lack of skills. These two reasons constitute the main obstacles to accessing the Internet – via landline or mobile phone – inside the home. Some French also seek other explanations such as fear for their safety or their private lives or a lack of utility or interest, but these excuses come second. In detail, the lack of skills is mentioned above all by the elderly. On the other hand, young people mainly report their financial difficulties. In their case, this failure is very penalizing, because it generates a very strong feeling of social undervaluation and complicates their integration into the world of work.
Based on these observations, what do you recommend for public policy?
France is quite well equipped in the area of developing digital skills. There is indeed a wide range of offers suitable for school children as well as jobseekers or the elderly. On the other hand, our public policies are not at all interested in the issue of cost. To date, there is no help – whether in the form of interest-free loans, equipment vouchers, subsidies, etc. – to facilitate access and use of the Internet. Therefore it would be wise for the legislator or the local authorities to deal with this subject.