Commerce report highlights growing 'digital divide' among public

By Dan Caterinicchia (danc@civic.com)

More Americans than ever are using computers and connecting to the Internet, but a significant portion of the population—particularly minorities and those in rural areas—lack access to basic information technology tools, so the federal government should partner with the private sector to narrow the gap, according to report released by the Commerce Department today.

The report shows that computer and Internet access varies widely based on income, education, race and geography. For example, households with an income of $75,000 or more are 20 times more likely to have access to the Internet than households at the lowest income level and nine times as likely to have a computer at home.

Other data found that households in rural areas lag significantly behind households in central cities and urban areas, across all income levels. Also, black and Hispanic households are about half as likely to own a computer as white households.

"Falling Through the Net: Defining the Digital Divide" was presented by Larry Irving, assistant secretary of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration at Commerce. The report was based on data collected from 48,000 U.S. households by the U.S. Census Bureau.

"Government can't do it alone," Irving said. "We need to use the best of both worlds—public and private—and citizens, political leaders and community leaders."

The report urges policy-makers to continue the pro-competition and universal-service policies that have made access to IT affordable for most Americans, and it singles out Community Access Centers, such as schools and libraries, with Internet access as part of the solution. Aiding that cause, the Education Department's Community Technology Centers program will enable the CACs to be funded in economically distressed communities on a broader scale.

Also, the Department of Housing and Urban Development has established Neighborhood Networks, a community-based initiative that encourages the development of resource and computer learning centers. The centers are located in HUD-assisted and/or insured housing across the United States and in Puerto Rico. Typically, a center is a room or series of rooms filled with computers located on or near a HUD housing development.

Irving was joined by representatives from the private sector and the National Urban League who discussed an assortment of partnerships and programs aimed at narrowing the digital divide. For example, America Online has teamed with the Benton Foundation to establish the National Digital Divide Clearinghouse, which will contain information and resources to help communities connect with IT programs. The clearinghouse will enable government and private IT analysts to see what is happening in communities across the country on a daily basis, not just annually through reports, Irving said.

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