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Digital Divide? What Digital Divide!?

By Adam Clayton Powell - March 6, 2000 12:00 AM

President Clinton's recent initiative to provide $2.3 billion in federal funds to subsidize Internet access was made just as voices were being raised about whether such funding was necessary.

The president's plan began with the premise that "Unfortunately, unequal access to technology and high-tech skills by income, educational level, race, and geography could deepen and reinforce the divisions that exist within American society."

However, that premise has been called into question by recent surveys and by researchers who assert race is no longer a factor.The government has asserted there was a wide and growing high-tech gap between the races, according to a major study last summer, which coined the new term "racial ravine" to describe the gap.

"For many groups, the digital divide has widened as the information 'haves' outpace the 'have nots' in gaining access to electronic resources," said the study summary. "Between 1997 and 1998, the divide between those at the highest and lowest education levels increased 25 percent, and the divide between those at the highest and lowest income levels grew 29 percent."

However, the actual NTIA study may not have provided historical data to support a comparison of usage from year to year, whether by race, income, education or any other factor, because surveyors never counted those who have access to the Internet but do not own a computer.

"Last year's study did not collect information about out-of-home access," reported John Schwartz of The Washington Post in his front-page story on July 9. "It is not possible, therefore, to say whether the digital divide is growing based on access from all places."

The Los Angeles Times devoted a front-page story to the debate over the weekend, anticipating the president's announcement with the headline, "Big Bandage for a Narrowing Internet Gap." The Times quoted experts from Forrester Research and the Tomas Rivera Policy Institute who said their data showed the gap narrowing or closed.

"There is no digital divide in terms of race," Ekaterina Walsh, author of the Forrester study, told the Times.

Walsh's study showed Hispanic Americans were online in about the same if not higher percentage numbers as whites, with Asian-Americans far ahead. And African Americans were going on line and purchasing computers at a pace that was closing the gap, according to the Forrester study and to more recent data last fall.

But Internet access and use are becoming universal, according to a new report by Arthur Andersen of Andersen Consulting. By the time the next president completes his first term, in 2005, 91% of U.S. households will be online, according to the study. That is more households than now have cable and satellite television - and no one talks about the "television-rich vs. television-poor" or the "TV divide."

The new federal program may also duplicate programs already established by private industry to extend Internet service to low-income and rural Americans, including a recent initiative by Wal-Mart and Kmart. Just as television service was extended to all parts of and almost every household in the U.S. without federal grants, critics argued, the Internet is being extended throughout the U.S. because it is good business.

While it may be debated in the U.S., the "digital divide" unquestionably exists on a global level: In many countries, less than 1% of the population has Internet service. This inequity is especially the case among the poorer nations in Africa and Asia. The problem was the focus of a conference on the eve of the World Trade Organization talks in Seattle in December.

Adam Clayton Powell III is technology editor for FreedomForum.org, where this column originally appeared. www.freedomforum.org
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