TCS Daily


Digital Divide?

By Bartlett D. Cleland - June 5, 2000 12:00 AM

In a presidential election year a certain level of rhetorical excess can be expected, as politicians desperately need to explain to us how they can make our lives better. This year is no exception. Technology has become a hot topic in politics, just as it has in the stock market, and around the water cooler. Now presidential politics and technology have collided, and the grist for their political mill is the so-called "digital divide." The President's recently announced "call to action" to close the supposed divide is a prime example.

We should question the existence of this digital divide. When politicians speak of the digital divide what they mean is access to the Internet or rather the lack thereof. But, Forrester Research, Inc. has indicated that more than 43% of households currently have access to the Internet. Any college marketing student can explain that since the Internet has been commercially available for less than 10 years, still in the birth and evolution phase, 43% household penetration is remarkable.

Also consider the Commerce Department's survey of those with Internet access. According to the survey, 40% of those who already have a computer at home are not using the Internet because they do not want to, do not find it useful, or do not have the time to use it. Assuming that these usage patterns would hold true if the government took your money to pay to put a computer into every house, approximately 40% of them would go to waste. In fact, the percentage may increase as we find a real reason that some homes do not have computers now - some people simply don't want them.

Recently, the news seems to supply a continuing stream of evidence for the government not getting involved. For example, Robert Tullman, CEO of Tunes.com, speaking at a Rainbow Coalition luncheon pointed out that any Internet access differences experienced by minorities is steadily closing.

Ford Motor Company has announced that they will provide a computer, printer and Internet access to all 350,000 of its employees for only $5 a month. Delta Air Lines is following suit with its 72,000 employees. Reportedly Daimler-Chrysler, as well as a "national health care company," are considering the same. Also consider that nearly 95% of all schools are now online. This means that virtually every student has some form of access to the Internet.

With just this sampling of school and private sector effort millions of citizens will gain home access to the Information Age, for at most $5 a month.

How can a federal bureaucracy compete? The reality of the matter is that government simply cannot, and never will be able to, keep up with the dynamic changes of technology. The "digital divide" rhetoric of late is just a poor solution in search of a problem.

Every day we seem to hear reports that the entire technology industry is changing. An increasing wave of companies now offer free Internet access. As the current trend to free access continues, the rationale for a government program consistently erodes.

Interestingly enough, we have not heard much from politicians about the great telephone divide - maybe because it does not sound as techno-trendy. Right now, six percent of Americans, and about seven percent in inner city areas, are not connected to the world with a telephone. More than 120 years after the creation of Ma Bell, market penetration of the telephone is still less than complete. Curious that the government wants to supply the country with computers even while many do not have available the current, least expensive means of going online. Why then the urgency to hand out computers and access to the Internet less than 10 years after first commercial use of the Internet?

Before embarking on a new entitlement program we should also carefully consider what the Internet will be in the future. Internet visionaries have been talking about the Internet, as we know it ceasing to exist. In fact, a current IBM commercial posits a refrigerator signaling the repairman without the owner needing to intervene. We do not have to think hard to imagine a future where we don't have to access anything. The Internet will become part of the systems accessed by our electronic devices. In that world having a computer to access the Internet will seem cute and antiquated - and all at the taxpayer's expense.

So, seemingly, the President has declared that companies are signing onto his call to action when instead they have been acting quite well without any government involvement.

This sort of artificial division seems to make for good politics and, unfortunately, probably will continue to attract attention. Perhaps in some issues a real divide exists, but often the only division is politics, not reality. And the difference between reality and politics - well, now there is your divide.
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