More access, yet divide persists

The Digital Divide and American Society

In five years, 75 percent of U.S. households will be linked to the Internet,

but a digital divide between lower- and upper-income classes will persist

because of the cost of high-speed access and users' lack of Internet experience,

according to a massive study released Monday.

Gartner Group Inc. — an international information technology consulting

company — polled 40,000 adults in February for the report, "The Digital

Divide and American Society," according to analyst Mark Smolenski, author

of the study.

Smolenski said the digital divide is often characterized in basic demographic

terms, such as race, income and age, but called this an oversimplification

of the problem. Lower incomes and education levels are the main reasons

for the digital divide, he said.

The study had three major findings:

* The lowest socioeconomic bracket has the lowest percentage of people

with access to the Internet (35 percent of people in the lowest bracket

have Internet access; 53 percent in the lower-middle socioeconomic group;

79 percent in the upper-middle group; and 83 percent in the highest rank).

Overall, 50 percent of American households are wired to the World Wide Web.

* As the Internet becomes more optimized with broadband access, a high-speed

digital divide will exist between the socioeconomic groups unless there

are changes in the cost structure.

* With more experience, users can tap more of the benefits of the Web.

In the lower socioeconomic group, nearly half of the Internet users had

access only since the beginning of 1999. The study also found that 34 percent

of individuals in the highest socioeconomic group use online government

and health care services, compared with 23 percent of those in the lower

socioeconomic group.

The study recommended that government play a larger role in partnering

with business to address the situation.

"In the short term, governments should continue to provide free access

sites through kiosks and libraries," Smolenski said, adding that this is

only a "stop-gap measure."

He said a first step is providing elementary, high school, and college

students with laptop computers. This would give them "free-range access"

to the Internet with the real goal of getting them to use it in their homes,

where their families could also experience the Internet, Smolenski said.

The study also recommended that governments evaluate their own workplaces

and offer telecommuting incentives and programs for low-cost personal computers

and Internet access to enable workers to become more proficient.

Smolenski said the Internet isn't the only tool that could improve a

person's lot in life, but access does provide those in the lower socioeconomic

bracket with the same information and resources as individuals in the higher

groups.

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