The myth of digital opportunity, the reality of the divide

The term "digital divide" has gained much currency in the last three years.

On the surface, the digital divide is the gulf between those with computer

and Internet access and those without it. But the digital divide remains

a major problem on both the social and economic fronts, requiring decisive

and collaborative action on the part of the government, education and business

sectors.

There are skeptics in both the media and the public who believe that

no digital divide exists, only a digital opportunity. This perception holds

that minority and disadvantaged communities, without computer and Internet

access, are markets patiently waiting to be exploited by economic forces.

Others believe that bridging the digital divide is not the responsibility

of government. "Leave it to our public educational institutions," many say.

These voices, while often sincere, are nonetheless wrong. Here's why.

We have seen redlining in the banking and insurance industries, where

businesses won't respond to low-income residents' needs because of where

they live. There is evidence that redlining also occurs in terms of where

broadband has been installed, at least where it has been installed first.

Are public schools bailing us out of our digital divide dilemma? I don't

think so. Most educational institutions already have their hands full attempting

to provide public education. Solving the nation's digital divide crisis

is not another task that schools, many of which lack adequate technology

infrastructure, are willing or able to take on.

So it is up to us — local information system managers, state CIOs, federal

technology officers and elected officials — to leverage the influence of

our respective governments to try to make a difference.

This is why Mayor Bill Campbell has embarked on an initiative to meet

this problem head-on here in Atlanta. Using $8.1 million from the Cable

Television Franchise Agreement, the city is developing community "cyber"

centers in city-owned buildings throughout Atlanta.

These cyber centers are located within two miles of residents who live

in communities where the majority of households are likely to be without

computer and Internet access. The cyber centers offer citizens free introductory-

and intermediate-level training on state-of-the-art computers and fast — T-1 — connections to the Internet. Citizens also get to experiment with

other non-PC-based Internet machines, as well as brand-name devices such

as WebTV.

The mission is to provide access to equipment and facilities — and,

more importantly, information and knowledge — for residents who do not have

computers or Internet access at home.

Since launching this program in January 2000, we've completed a strategic

plan that sets a time-table to build 15 centers in 18 months. There was

much community input into this plan.

We have since opened three cyber centers featuring 90 computers, 12

printers, free Internet access and free training in computer literacy,

multimedia Web page development and software by Microsoft Corp. and others.

One cyber center is in a city-owned workforce development center, another

is in a recreation center and a third is at a public library.

In December, we planned to break ground on two more cyber centers. We

are also building an online community portal and virtual city hall, along

with a community technology resource center.

About 1,000 residents have been through the program, and about a third

of them are more than 60 years old. Seniors have been the most enthusiastic

participants, challenging the myth that they are "technophobic." We will

soon develop a technology center devoted to seniors.

We have also developed partnerships with the public and private sectors.

Our goal is to leverage our funding and create genuine partnerships that

can add value to the fight to narrow the digital divide.

While many governments are busy rolling out e-government projects and

establishing government Internet portals, we are ensuring that all citizens

in Atlanta will have access to them. Governments have a responsibility to

see that all citizens have equal access to government services, including

those that are digital.

Simama is executive director of the Mayor's Office of Community Technology

for the city of Atlanta.

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