Agencies, industry aim to narrow 'digital divide'

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 - lacks access to basic information technology tools, so the federal government should partner with the private sector to narrow the gap, according to a report released last week by the Commerce Department.

The report shows that computer and Internet access varies widely, depending 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 low income levels and are nine times as likely to have a computer.

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

"Government can't do it alone," said Larry Irving, assistant secretary of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration at Commerce. "We need to use the best of both worlds - public and private - and citizens, political leaders and community leaders."

Report Urges Action

The report, "Falling Through the Net: Defining the Digital Divide," urges policy-makers to continue the pro-competition and universal-service policies that have made access to IT affordable for most Americans. It singles out Community Access Centers, such as schools and libraries, with Internet access as part of the solution.

The Education Department's Community Technology Centers program, currently in its first year, will enable the CTCs to be funded in economically distressed communities on a broader scale. Education is selecting the sites that will receive the allocated $10 million in funding. State and local education agencies, institutes of higher education, and other public and private nonprofit or for-profit organizations are eligible to receive grants.

"We are hoping that this federal investment will be seen as the catalyst for the creation of centers where none exist and are needed, as well as for the expansion of existing centers," said Norris Dickard, senior policy adviser at Education and director of the CTC program.

Dickard said the program received 745 applications for grants from all 50 states. The awards to the 40 to 60 recipients will be made in mid-September.

Commerce has headed the initiative to connect all Americans to the Internet, working with the CTC program and the Clinton administration's E-Rate program, which requires telecommunications carriers to provide services to eligible schools and libraries at a discounted rate.

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. A Neighborhood Networks center is a room or series of rooms filled with computers in or near HUD-assisted and/or -insured housing. "Everyday things that people take for granted and use, like health care information, are accessed through the Neighborhood Networks centers," said Lemar Wooley, a HUD spokesman.

In announcing the Commerce report, NTIA's Irving was joined by representatives from the private sector and the National Urban League who discussed 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.

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