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 people's lack of Internet experience,

according to a massive, recently released study.

Gartner Group Inc. — an international information technology consulting

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

and American Society," said analyst Mark Smolenski, author of the study.

(For a link to the study, see this story online at www.civic.com/ current.asp.)

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 reached three conclusions:

* 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 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, people can tap more benefits of the Web. In

the lower socioeconomic group, nearly half of the users have had access

only since the start 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.

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

students with laptop computers. That 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.

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