When Debbie Gainsford checked in at an Ibis hotel in Aldgate, London, to see the Red Hot Chili Peppers on June 26, she was told by reception that if she had any issues, she could scan a QR code in her room to get in touch. She didn’t think she’d need to until she got back to her room at 10:30 pm wanting a shower—but realized there were no towels.

Without a phone in the room, Gainsford, 43, dutifully scanned the QR code. She read a note saying that housekeeping services only ran for certain hours, then clicked a link to WhatsApp to message hotel reception. She sent a message asking for towels. A staff member read it but didn’t respond.

She messaged again. “It wasn’t something I wanted to do that late at night,” she says. Someone eventually replied saying that she could pick up her towels from reception. She went down nine floors, picked up her towels, and went back to her room. “Paying £120 for the night, I wasn’t expecting to have that type of experience in a hotel,” she says. It was less room service, more “come and get it yourself.”

Gainsford is far from alone. Throughout the pandemic, in-person and analog services have rapidly fallen to digital alternatives. Many restaurants and bars have left physical menus behind in favor of QR codes, apps, and webforms. At Walt Disney World in Florida, an app-based chatbot is telling people to visit long-closed restaurants. While the digital divide has been excluding economically disadvantaged and elderly people for years, its rapid expansion is creating a new problem: The technology is often terrible.

The frustrations are tiny but legion: people at hotels who can’t get clean sheets without ordering them on an app; sports fans being told to download a program on their phone as there are no physical copies available; McDonald’s customers flummoxed by banks of self-service kiosks. For businesses, such changes are often seen as more efficient and an improvement—but the reality is more complicated.

The replacement of in-person services with digital alternatives is becoming an ever-growing inconvenience for those on the wrong side of the digital divide. An estimated 2.9 billion people—37 percent of the world’s population—have never used the internet, according to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the United Nations’ IT agency.

On the one hand, greater convenience and cheaper prices for phones and internet are helping more people get online: 782 million people did so for the first time between 2019 and 2021, according to the ITU. Yet for many, it’s less about being coaxed online and more about being forced.

Take banking, for instance. The number of bank branches in the United States has fallen 6.5 percent since 2012, according to financial services company Self. Branch numbers by 2030 will be lower than they were in 1965, when the US population was 194 million. The trend is similar in the UK, where the number of bank and building society branches fell by a third between 2012 and 2021.

To compound the issue, many banks are luring customers toward apps by offering better rates for those willing—or able—to open digital savings accounts. Natwest, owned by RBS, has a 3.3 percent interest rate on an app-only digital savings account, compared to a 0.1 percent interest rate on its in-branch instant saver account. The economically disadvantaged and older people who are less likely to own smartphones are locked out from such accounts.

The pandemic and the push to digitize key services has resulted in what the ITU calls a “Covid connectivity boost.” But connectivity is increasingly becoming an affordability issue—one compounded by the increasing cost of living. The United States, for example, has some of the highest prices in the world for high-speed internet. “There is an access problem,” says Bhaskar Chakravorti, dean of global business, The Fletcher School at Tufts University. “And then there is an affordability problem.” The median price of broadband in the US is around $80 a month, according to FCC data, meaning good quality, high-speed internet is out of the reach of many. “You combine access and affordability, and you have large parts of the country that are not using the internet at broadband speeds,” says Chakravorti.

“It’s not just an age thing,” says Hannah Smethurst, a trainee solicitor and research assistant specializing in digital law at Thorntons Law. “It’s an economic background thing.” With every service shifted online, we move closer toward the inevitability of a largely or totally digital world. At that point, internet access and smartphone costs will be so ubiquitous and cheap that we’ll forget about the predigital era. But we’re not there yet. More than a million households across the UK struggle to pay their broadband bills, according to telecoms regulator Ofcom, a figure that translates to one in 10 low-income households.

Having basic broadband and mobile internet has become what Chakravorti calls “table stakes.” Without access, you don’t exist digitally. It’s an issue that the US government has acknowledged, launching a $45 billion initiative to bring high-speed internet to everyone in America. (Chakravorti’s own calculations estimate that the US will need to spend $240 billion to bridge the digital infrastructure gap.)

It’s not just the internet. “At this stage, it’s incredibly difficult to navigate life without a smartphone,” says Smethurst. While 97 percent of Americans own a cell phone, according to Pew Research Center, only 85 percent have a smartphone. And while 92 percent of people in the UK own a smartphone, research by Deloitte suggests that around one in 10 Britons still own a regular cell phone. “I’m not saying that these things are bad,” she says. “It’s that the exclusivity of these things is ostracizing people from society.”

That impact can be felt in small issues—having to drive farther to a physical bank branch now that local ones have disappeared—as well as more significant ones. “Internet availability was one key factor in whether people survived the pandemic or not,” Chakravorty says. He and colleagues at Digital Planet analyzed data to find that a 1 percent increase in broadband access across the US resulted in a 0.1 percent decline in Covid mortality rates. That’s partly a result of access to healthcare: Since the start of 2022, 38 percent of Americans have had a telehealth appointment, up from 0.7 percent in 2019.

So what’s to be done? One lead to follow is New Zealand, which has been following a digital inclusion blueprint since 2019. It’s still in its early days, but the country has made some headway in educating and encouraging those in marginalized communities to get online, discovering the barriers they face in adopting technology and working to overcome them.

One focus area is New Zealand’s Indigenous population. Actions taken so far have included opening hubs that act as internet education bases in addition to coworking hubs, at a cost of NZ$34 million ($20 million), and ensuring that any data used to access key governmental websites through mobile connections is not chargeable.

New Zealand is starting to grapple with the scale of the problem, but there’s a risk that other countries won’t act quickly enough to close the divide. For Smethurst, there are two options, which should happen concurrently: Firstly, businesses need to be incentivized to continue to offer good offline alternatives. “If you’re going to mandate that restaurants provide calorie information [a UK legal requirement], I don’t understand why you can’t say they must, at least somewhere, have physical menus,” she says. For medical services and call centers, avoiding digital creep is more challenging because it’s often introduced as a way of avoiding overwork, underpayment, and understaffing.

Which is where the second option comes in: government intervention to reduce the cost of accessing digital services in whatever way possible (the New Zealand government, for example, is in discussions with fiber providers to install ultrafast broadband in social housing). But perhaps the cheapest intervention of all would be to tackle the cost of the devices that now act as our gateway to existence. “We need to have cheaper smartphones,” Smethurst says.