'Digital Divide' Deepening
More Americans than ever are using computers and connecting to the Internet, but a significant portion of the population, particularly minorities and people in rural areas, lacks access to basic information technology tools, according to a report by the U.S. Commerce Department.
The report showed that computer and Internet access varies widely based on income, education, race and geography.
"Falling Through the Net: Defining the Digital Divide" was presented by Larry Irving, chief of Commerce's National Telecommunications and Information Administration. The report was based on data collected from 48,000 U.S. households by the Census Bureau.
A state-by-state breakdown of the percentage of households with Internet access showed Alaska, New Hampshire and Washington at the top of the list with more than 35 percent plugged in; West Virginia, Arkansas and Mississippi were at the bottom, each with less than 18 percent.
Rural areas in the South lagged the most in access and getting connected, while western rural states showed a high percentage of usage, Irving said.
The study found that households with an income of $75,000 or more are 20 times more likely to have access to the Internet and are nine times as likely to have a computer at home than those at the lowest income level. People in rural areas lag significantly behind households in central cities and urban areas, across all income levels. And black and Hispanic households are about half as likely to own a computer as white households.
Irving was joined by representatives of the private sector and the National Urban League who briefly discussed programs they have established to help narrow the digital divide.
One such program is a partnership between Ameritech Corp. and the National Urban League to establish state-of-the-art Digital Campuses in five cities in the Midwest. Aurora, Ill.; Indianapolis, Milwaukee, Cleveland and Detroit were selected to house the campuses, which are designed to provide local communities with hardware, software and a skilled staff to teach IT skills.
By 2006, there will be 114 campuses established with a goal of eliminating the divide between digital "haves" and "have-nots," said Milton Little Jr., executive vice president of the National Urban League. Little also hopes technology will help ease urban problems in education and health care. "As technology becomes essential to everything we do, it will only exacerbate the other problems we face," Little said.
In another program, America Online is teaming 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's happening in communities across the country daily, not just annually through reports, Irving said.
"The key is to get people excited about what the medium can offer them," said Kathy Bushkin, senior vice president and chief communications officer at AOL.
The report urges policy-makers to continue the pro-competition and universal-service policies that have made access to IT affordable for most Americans. Community Access Centers (CACs), which provide Internet access in places such as schools and libraries, were singled out as part of a solution.
The U.S. Education Department's Community Technology Centers grant program, currently in its first year, will enable CACs to be funded in economically distressed communities on a broader scale. Education is selecting the sites that will receive funding from the $10 million allocated by the federal budget for the program. State and local education agencies, institutes of higher education, and other public and private nonprofit or for-profit agencies and organizations are eligible to receive grants. President Clinton's fiscal 2000 budget calls for a significant increase in funds-up to $65 million for the program.
"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. "The focus is bringing IT and related services to individuals and communities who might not have access...and who have really been cut off from the Information Age." Dickard said the program received 745 applications for grants from all 50 states. The announcement of the 40 to 60 recipients will be made in mid-September.
However, the report acknowledges that economic disparities, as well as cultural and language barriers, will need to be overcome to eliminate the nation's "digital divide."
Commerce has been heading the initiative to ensure that all Americans are connected, through programs such as the CACs and the Clinton administration's E-Rate program, which requires telecommunications carriers to provide services to eligible schools and libraries at a discounted rate. The Schools and Libraries Universal Service Fund, or E-Rate, has an annual budget of $2.25 billion and administers discounts of 20 percent to 90 percent on telecommunication services, internal connections and Internet access to make telecommunications affordable for every school and library in the country.
Elsewhere, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has established Neighborhood Networks, a community-based initiative that encourages the development of resource and computer learning centers. "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.
Typically, a Neighborhood Networks center is a room or series of rooms filled with computers located on or near a HUD-assisted and/or -insured housing development across the country and in Puerto Rico.
The full report and charts breaking down the data can be found at the NTIA World Wide Web site at www.ntia.doc.gov.
- Dan Caterinicchia
U.S. Computer Gap
Percentage of households with a computer
Year/White non-Hispanic/Black non-Hispanic/Hispanic
Pa. Starts First Governor's School for IT
Pennsylvania became the first state to operate a Governor's School for information technology when classes began at Drexel University and Pennsylvania State University last month. The latest Governor's School is an intensive five-week residential program for gifted and talented high school juniors who are interested in IT. There are 128 students-64 at each campus-this year. All participants received full scholarships and were assigned a computer for the program.
Each student is required to take six core courses, including human computer interaction and system analysis and design. Additionally, students must take classes in one of five special tracks: electronic commerce, information security, systems analysis, competitive intelligence and computer-supported cooperative work.
"First, we want to try and educate the students about what the whole IT field is about and to be aware that IT is almost ubiquitous at this point.... No matter what IT knowledge they have, it's going to help them," said Scott Overmyer, the program's director at Drexel's campus.
The students are studying all aspects of IT, including networking, multimedia development, computer training and programming, and technical communications. They are being instructed by industry experts and educators.
"We want to make sure that Pennsylvania's students have the opportunity to receive this high-tech training and education," said Michelle Biddle, a spokeswoman for the state's Department of Education.
The Governor's Schools of Excellence were established 25 years ago to prepare talented high school students to be tomorrow's leaders. The new program joins six established Governor's Schools in the arts, agriculture, health care, international studies, sciences and teaching. "There are many tech-driven careers in Pennsylvania, and we want these students to take over these careers and be Pennsylvania's future leaders," Biddle said.
Teodora Niculce, a student at Daniel Boone High School in Birdsboro, Pa., is one of the students learning about IT and computers for the first time at the Drexel Governor's School. A native of Romania, she was interested in pursuing math in college and as a career, but now she considers computers part of the equation.
"I hope that the classes will help me in the future, and I want to decide by the end of the program what to do [in the future]," she said.
- Dan Caterinicchia
San Diego Claims First for Online Property Taxes
San Diego County has become the first county in California-and one of a few counties nationwide-to allow citizens to pay property taxes online, according to the county's chief deputy treasurer, Neil Rossi.
The county was able to launch the service in a mere two months, Rossi said, primarily by partnering with two private parties: CyberCash Inc. (www.cybercash.com), an online payment service that processes credit cards, and Lockheed Martin Corp., which handles government-to-citizen transactions via its Governlink site (www.governlink.com).
It is too early to predict how well the system will be received, but after tax bills were mailed this spring, 263 people paid online for a total of $339,000 in revenue-and that's without advertising or organized promotion of the site other than a brief newspaper article. San Diego County, Rossi said, has been fielding phone calls from interested city and county governments from across the country.
To use the system, which debuted in late March, the taxpayer logs on to the county treasurer's site (www.sdtreastax.com) and enters the parcel number of his property. The system displays the amount due and asks if he would like to pay online. If so, the user and his pertinent information are transferred to the Governlink site, where he enters credit card data.
Taxpayers are given a confirmation number, San Diego County gets its money in a day, and, as Rossi says, "Everyone is happy."
- Tracy Mayor
Boston's Kiosk System Links Citizens to City Hall Services
Boston residents soon will be able to avoid long lines at City Hall by paying parking tickets and excise taxes online at electronic kiosks set up across the city. Several were to be in operation by the end of June, and one was to be unveiled in late July at the Boston Public Library. The library terminal will be the first to use Bell Atlantic's Digital Subscriber Line high-speed communications services.
The kiosk project is the result of Mayor Thomas Menino's desire to give all Boston residents access to City Hall and the Internet at any time. "Boston is really a city of neighborhoods, and everything is spread out," said Jennifer Latchford, senior adviser in the Office of the Chief Operating Officer. "We want all of Boston's residents, visitors, students and tourists to be able to use this technology for their own purposes.... And there's an enormous amount of information out there."
The cost of the project, which plans for 20 kiosks to be up and running by the end of the year, is being picked up by kiosk-maker JC Decaux USA, which will sell advertising on the kiosk screens. The kiosks will be put in public facilities, such as schools, libraries and transportation stations, in each of the city's neighborhoods.
"People who already are going to the grocery store can access the times of their kids' Little League game or see what's going on at the community center," Latchford said.
Lexitech Inc. produces Netkey software, which the public will use to perform simple touch-screen tasks. Netkey provides an assortment of World Wide Web kiosk functions, including multimedia capabilities, system protection and a customized graphical interface.
"The reason we invented this product was to give companies the ability to turn their Web sites into public-access terminals," said Alexander Richardson, president of Lexitech. "The people in Boston can access entertainment news, movies and art and have the ability to pay taxes or library fines through what is really an outdoor electronic newspaper by using our Netkey product."
The kiosks are equipped with a telephone, printer and credit card reader, making it possible to complete processes such as paying for tickets, getting directions to a restaurant or accessing local neighborhood maps. "It really allows the 'have-nots' to have access to the whole e-commerce infrastructure," Richardson said.
- Dan Caterinicchia
Calif. Communities Eye Wireless Crime-Fighting
Two California communities are being protected by police officers with patrol car access to crime databases and records, thanks to a new wireless mobile communication and information system.
PacketCluster Patrol software, produced by Cerulean Technology Inc., Marlborough, Mass., gives the Salinas/Monterey County Mobile Computer Terminal Consortium access to crime-fighting data directly from patrol car-based laptop computers.
Using the wireless network, more than 400 patrol officers in the consortium can access records management systems and county, state and federal databases. The officers can access secure information from one or more of the databases in a matter of seconds with a single query.
"To be able to share records was previously unheard of.... We couldn't do it over the radio because of the privileged nature of the information, but now officers can do background checks on the system securely, right in their cars," said Sgt. Tracy Molfino of the Salinas Police Department.
"Before, we didn't have the communication between agencies, either in person or through a third party," Molfino said. "Now we have cross-jurisdictional communication, and the whole system is progressing in an appropriate fashion."
The PacketCluster Patrol system uses wireless modems to link the consortium's 100-plus patrol cars to criminal and motor vehicle databases.
Officers can communicate with each other through the system. It also provides the option of cross-referencing previous cases and arrests with variables including identification information, such as birthmarks and scars, and crime patterns in certain locations.
An unexpected bonus is that officers can run registration checks on a vehicle to see if its license plates or registration tags have been reported stolen. With the high price of tags in California, that service is being used daily, Molfino said.
The alliance has four members and will be adding eight more through a recently awarded federal grant from the Community Oriented Policing Services' Making Officer Redeployment Effective program. With its new members, the consortium plans to expand its wireless ability by integrating a geographic information system application.
"With our soon-to-be 12 members, every geographic area of Monterey County will be pulled together into one communications network," Molfino said. "The system is only about three-quarters installed, and we're already getting 10,000 queries a month."
- Dan Caterinicchia
Maine, NIST to Partner on R&D
Maine and the National Institute of Standards and Technology have formed a partnership that will serve as a pilot for strengthening ties between the federal technology research agency and state organizations.
In the first partnership between NIST-an agency of the U.S. Commerce Department-and a state, the two have agreed to cooperate on R&D projects in network infrastructure, small-business development and the physical sciences, among others.
"We are embarking on a large expansion of our R&D activity," Maine Gov. Angus King Jr. (I) said. He said the state legislature has approved more than $40 million over the next two years for partnership projects. "This partnership is like being in a one-room library and then finding a door leading to the Library of Congress."
A NIST spokesman said, "NIST and Maine have agreed to solidify and coordinate efforts even more strongly than they already are. This will ensure that there are no duplicate efforts...and by signing a formal agreement, it is a pledge to work even harder to make technology more available in the state and the rest of the country."
King echoed those statements, saying the partnership provides the state with myriad new resources. "The NIST deal expands our capacity and opens up resources through their labs and technical knowledge.... It basically allows us to get more bang for our R&D buck," he said.
One area that will be explored by the partnership is a study of small businesses in Maine to determine their use of the Baldrige criteria, which are performance standards for business based on the annual Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Awards given by Commerce. The study would help develop business-quality strategies for small businesses.
Other projects include NIST's physics laboratory offering technical assistance in optical measurement to businesses in Maine that depend on optical technology for measurement, inspection, remote sensing and other applications.
- Dan Caterinicchia
Pennsylvania Wires Statewide Public Safety Net
Pennsylvania has awarded contracts to several vendors to develop portions of a statewide radio system that will link state agencies and offer citizens enhanced emergency communications features. The network will improve public safety communications over what was possible via the analog system it is replacing. For instance, the new digital network can fit more voice and data radio messages over its channels-an important feature because new public safety frequencies are difficult to acquire.
Pennsylvania's existing radio system is a collection of outdated, independent radio networks built by more than 20 state agencies using varied technologies that are not fully compatible. "The greatest part is that the current system is extremely old," Thomas Paese, Pennsylvania's secretary of administration, said. "Now, it will be a shared system and interoperable."
One benefit of the system is that public safety communications will occur seamlessly throughout the commonwealth, Paese said. For example, a sting operation crossing different regions used to mean that each party would need two or three radios in a car in order to communicate. That will no longer be the case.
The new radio system is expected to be completed by the second quarter of 2001 and will provide two-way, mobile radio coverage over 95 percent of the state.
The public safety radio project also will be made available to any local governments that want to gain access to the network without having to bear the costs of infrastructure development. Interested localities will have to purchase their own radio equipment and pay a portion of the annual maintenance costs, but they will be able to share radio channels and use the new radio towers.
"Many localities want to look into it.... It would help to expand infrastructure and help local governments save some money and interoperate with state police," Paese said.
The contract for supplying and installing the microwave radio system that will connect radio towers and cell sites was awarded to Alcatel USA, Norristown, Pa. The system's digital radio equipment will be supplied by M/A-COM, a division of Harrisburg, Pa.-based AMP Wireless Systems.
Rohn Industries Inc., Worton, Md., and MFS Technologies Inc., Omaha, Neb., will be responsible for tower site development, which includes supplying and installing the towers, equipment shelters and emergency power generators. The 550-plus towers currently in place will be replaced by about 250 towers.
- Dan Caterinicchia
Houston's New Homes to Be Wired for Future
A number of Houston's home-building companies have signed agreements with smart house developer ClearWorks Technologies Inc. to provide a high-tech infrastructure for new homes in the greater Houston area. The contracts ensure that many homes built by the companies will be pre-wired for future upgrades. More than 10 contracts have been signed with six of the top 12 home builders in Houston.
Basic wiring costs $500, with the most advanced package priced at $2,000 per home, said a spokesman for ClearWorks. Homeowners can specify exactly what they want their new home to include: high-speed Internet connections, digital telephone service, digital cable TV, closed-circuit security and/or a community intranet.
The home builders already under contract are expected to complete more than 6,000 homes this year.
By pre-wiring their homes, owners can experience a commercial-quality technology infrastructure. A Gartner Group report predicted that one-third of the U.S. work force will work remotely at least one day a week by 2003.
- Dan Caterinicchia
Hawaii's Web Site Hacked
Hawaii's Internet home page was shut down last month after a computer hacker took it over, according to Darren Pai, a reporter at KHNL-TV, the NBC affiliate in Honolulu. State information on the page was briefly replaced by a series of coded messages, some of which made references to homosexuality, while others warned of future hack attempts, Pai said.
Lester Nakamura, administrator of information for the state's Department of Accounting and General Services, said local police had opened a criminal investigation because of the attack, and the FBI also is evaluating the situation.
The denial-of-service hack occurred during the Independence Day holiday when only a few computer experts were working. The World Wide Web site, www.state.hi.us, was up and running the following morning without further problems.
- Dan Caterinicchia
Teachers Access Digital Learning Center
The Library of Congress has re-opened the National Digital Library Learning Center, which after being renovated and upgraded thanks to a $388,000 gift from Microsoft Corp., will be used to train teachers in classroom use of the library's American Memory historical collections.
The center houses a 16-seat classroom with a large-screen projection system that will be used to train educators from across the country. The center's 45-seat theater has a new large-screen monitor for demonstrations and also has a video teleconferencing area. Classes for teachers should start in the fall, said Susan Veccia, project manager for users services at LOC.
"We think it's a great opportunity for teachers, and we hope to start offering classes in the fall, working up to a greater crescendo of more course offerings in the spring and summer of next year," Veccia said. "We really hope to accommodate many, many teachers in the fall."
The library will mail information sheets to schools in September and is working with educators to see what they want to learn, Veccia said, adding that the project is targeted at school librarians as well as teachers.
American Memory, part of the Library's National Digital Library program, provides students and teachers with access to more than 2 million items on a range of subjects including the Civil War, American presidents, baseball cards, dance manuals, women's suffrage and the civil rights movement.
Teachers interested in the program are encouraged to visit the Learning Page on the World Wide Web at memory.loc.gov/ammem/ndlpedu/index.html.
- Dan Caterinicchia
Traffic System in Virginia Responds to Emergencies
The Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) has installed in the Tidewater region a traffic control system that monitors traffic flow and automatically can detect and report traffic emergencies to traffic control operators.
The Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition traffic control system is being used on 11 miles of Interstate 64 for VDOT's Hampton Roads Bridge/Tunnel facility. It automatically reports emergencies to the traffic control center, and operators, using a graphical user interface, can control message signs and signals and obtain status reports from the system.
The GUI-based system replaces a push-button console-style system used by traffic control operators to regulate traffic.
The system was created and installed by Modcomp Inc., a Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-based supplier of real-time computer systems. The system connects to existing signal controllers via "custom intelligent modems" developed by the company.
The system enables all traffic regulation devices to be monitored and controlled. Operators access a menu of traffic control plans in order to respond to emergencies.
- Dan Caterinicchia
Rural Communities in East Texas Tap Education Tools
Several East Texas communities and schools no longer face a mass exodus of their best and brightest young people to other communities with better schools, thanks to a distance-learning consortium that provides two-way video education technology to the region.
The East Texas Learning Interactive Network Consortium (ET-LINC) enables teachers in one school to interact simultaneously with students in up to three other facilities while the teachers are instructing their local classes.
ET-LINC's distance-learning program includes six colleges sharing sessions with 11 school districts in a 400-square-mile area. A collaboration with Texas A&M University-
Commerce soon will expand the scope of the ET-LINC to include 11 more consortia throughout the state.
The network, provided by General DataComm Inc., runs over fiber-optic lines and uses GDC's Apex multiservice switches. GDC, based in Middlebury, Conn., designs, develops and manufactures multiservice communications systems for service providers and businesses.
- Dan Caterinicchia