The digital divide constitutes the disparities in access to modern information and communication technology across demographics and regions. It manifests as a chasm between those with unfettered access to personal computers, mobile data, and high-speed internet, and those who face restricted or no access to these essential tools. In recent years, the focus of this divide has primarily shifted towards the inequalities arising from differences in bandwidth speed, with the COVID-19 pandemic further accentuating its impact. This divide is deeply rooted in politics and class discrimination, and has a unique impact on marginalized communities in regions such as Karachi and Balochistan.
In Pakistan, the digital divide is not confined solely to the contrast between rural towns and urban cities; it is exacerbated by disparities among ethnic minorities, socio-economic groups, and the underprivileged within urban centers. The consequences of this divide are especially pronounced in the realm of education. The advent of online learning due to the COVID-19 pandemic has further exposed the chasm in bandwidth speed accessibility, with the most severe impact felt by underserved ethnic minorities. The proliferation of video conferencing, online classrooms, educational portals, and licensed software has made access to quality bandwidth a prerequisite for education.
For marginalized groups, the lack of internet connectivity not only hampers their ability to pursue education, but also isolates them from participating in the digital democracy and the modern economy. Access to the internet fosters engagement in critical debates and sensitive conversations, which often find their home on platforms like Instagram and YouTube, demanding high bandwidth for smooth interaction. Depriving common citizens from proper internet access not only curtails their digital literacy, but also diminishes their capacity to engage in intellectual discourse.
Economic status stagnates as the underserved population lacks the means to acquire essential digital literacy skills.
Studies, such as one conducted on telecenters in India, have established a strong correlation between high internet usage and enhanced digital literacy, social mobility, and economic status (Ragnedda et al., 2015). Balochistan serves as a poignant example of these findings. The province finds itself in a state of digital stagnation, with basic infrastructure, including internet connectivity, neglected by both the government and private entities. During the pandemic, Balochistan's girls, who already lacked adequate internet infrastructure, were met with inhumane treatment when they protested against the shift to online classes (Baloch, S. M., 2020).
The repercussions of this digital disparity are profound. Education, already a challenge in Balochistan due to its struggling literacy rate, has further deteriorated. Moreover, many underserved Baloch citizens lack basic literacy skills, making the prospect of digital literacy seem increasingly distant. Social mobility is hindered as they remain cut off from potential connections with people, institutions, and professionals. Economic status stagnates as the underserved population lacks the means to acquire essential digital literacy skills, which are increasingly in demand for well-paying jobs. This vicious cycle of inequality and discrimination, rooted in both ethnicity and politics, exacerbates the vulnerability of marginalized groups in Balochistan.
The gender dimension of the digital divide adds another layer of complexity, particularly in the patriarchal structure of Pakistani society. Comparing different provinces highlights the preferential treatment given to certain citizens. Islamabad, for instance, provides above-average bandwidth speed to most residents, irrespective of their ethnicity or gender, simply because they reside in the capital. In stark contrast, a female Baloch student from an ethnic minority with a need for internet access faces numerous challenges. In many cases, they are left with no option but to forgo education altogether, let alone access high-speed bandwidth. This underscores how Balochistan's population faces multifaceted discrimination based on ethnicity, gender, and provincial disparities.
Private sector investments in high-speed internet technology via optic fiber networks face insurmountable challenges in Balochistan. The province's rural categorization results in a lack of essential infrastructure required for network connections, such as the installation of optic fiber cables. Private companies, while willing to invest in advanced technologies, are discouraged by the impracticality and cost associated with drilling wires beneath the state's land, a task typically reserved for the government. The absence of reliable cellular signals in many areas of Balochistan further underscores the challenges in expanding network connectivity. This lack of government support for private sector initiatives places an indefinite cap on the economic prospects of Baloch citizens.
Karachi: a tale of social class disparities
Karachi, despite its ethnic diversity and metropolis status, grapples with its own set of internet-related challenges. Unlike Balochistan, where ethnicity plays a more prominent role in the digital divide, Karachi's disparities are primarily driven by social class distinctions. High-speed internet is predominantly available in urban areas like DHA or Malir-Cantt, where upper-middle-class families reside. In contrast, rural areas such as Korangi or Orangi Town, with predominantly blue-collar populations, face limited or unaffordable access to high-speed internet services.
The present digital divide in Pakistan is concerning, but the future may bring even greater challenges. As social class, gender, and ethnicity issues continue to worsen, the digital divide could intensify, further perpetuating inequalities.
The University of Karachi, with over 30,000 enrolled students, exemplifies these disparities. A majority of its students come from working-class households, lacking access to internet gadgets and subscriptions required for online classes. This lack of connectivity extends beyond education, affecting access to business opportunities, leisure activities, and even crucial healthcare records. The digital divide in Karachi impedes day-to-day activities, from drafting a resume for an internship to filling out a college application, as webpage crashes are a common occurrence. This neglect exacerbates economic disparities, disproportionately affecting the working class during the pandemic while leaving the wealthy largely unaffected.
The present digital divide in Pakistan is concerning, but the future may bring even greater challenges. As social class, gender, and ethnicity issues continue to worsen, the digital divide could intensify, further perpetuating inequalities. Bridging this divide in Balochistan requires addressing deep-rooted political complexities alongside improving infrastructure and encouraging private sector investments. In Karachi, solutions may include tech-specific adaptations, such as text-based content for slower bandwidths and offline access to curricular materials. On a governmental level, comprehensive infrastructure development is essential to ensure equitable access to high-speed internet across the city. These initiatives would foster economic growth, expand educational opportunities, reduce class-based disparities, and uplift the marginalized segments of society.
The digital divide in Pakistan, particularly in terms of bandwidth speed disparities, is a multifaceted challenge deeply entrenched in politics, class discrimination, and gender bias. Balochistan's marginalized population faces a dire lack of internet infrastructure, hindering education, social mobility, and economic progress. In Karachi, social class disparities drive the digital divide, affecting education, business opportunities, and daily life for working-class residents. Addressing these disparities is not only a matter of equity, but also crucial for the nation's development. Bridging the digital divide requires comprehensive efforts, from improving infrastructure to promoting digital literacy, ultimately leading to a more inclusive and prosperous Pakistan.