Five years after the federal government began measuring the digital divide, the nation stands at a crossroads.
More U.S. citizens have access to Internet and computer technology than ever before, thanks to rampant expansion of the telecommunications infrastructure and plummeting technology prices. But even as basic connectivity concerns fade, complex problems remain -- particularly for ethnic minorities, people with disabilities and rural residents.
In response, communities have begun fashioning comprehensive digital divide plans that extend beyond the laying of network plumbing. These plans include closer partnerships between business and government, and they also may combine high-speed Web access initiatives with outreach efforts designed to help local governments, small businesses and citizens put their newfound Internet capabilities to effective use.
The trend signals a maturing approach to solving the digital divide.
"There really is a different orientation. I think the focus is now on solutions, so you see the conversation changing from digital divide to digital opportunities," said Anthony Wilhelm, program director of the Digital Divide Network, an organization formed by the nonprofit Benton Foundation and the National Urban League to spread digital divide information.
"There are still communities that are not served -- so access isnt completely solved," Wilhelm said. "But I think weve become more sophisticated, and weve realized that access isnt enough."
Late last year, Seattle Mayor Paul Schell announced a multimillion-dollar effort to improve services at the citys community technology centers. Funded by federal grant money and multiple corporate sponsors, the project is modernizing equipment and creating technical literacy programs at nine technology centers in low-income and high-unemployment areas.
Unlike traditional infrastructure projects, Seattles literacy initiative is designed to give citizens the skills they need to thrive in an increasingly digital economy, said Daria Cal, program coordinator for the Seattle Community Technology Alliance, a coalition of public agencies and community groups that oversees the technology literacy effort.
"We need to put programs in place -- I think thats whats been missing," said Cal. "The whole point is what you do with the technology." The centers provide technology courses tailored to various skill levels. Novice computer users learn basic word-processing and spreadsheet applications, while those with more advanced knowledge can receive training in multimedia and digital editing programs. The facilities also offer after-school activities, adult and family literacy courses, career development and job preparation.
The city lined up an impressive list of contributors to help pay for the program, including AT&T, Microsoft, Cisco Systems and Gateway. That task was made easier by the fact that the literacy initiative was driven primarily by corporate workforce concerns, according to Cal.
"Weve been talking to technology companies that say they cant find people to fill jobs. If they cant find employees, that means were not doing something either in our school curriculum or vocational training," she said. "I think thats why weve been able to get corporate support. [Companies] realize they need to put something back into the community. Its self-serving all the way around."
Corporate support is key to sustaining the citys literacy effort, added Cal. Private-industry donors offer advice on appropriate training for potential employees. And, unlike a one-time grant award, corporate donations offer the prospect of continuous funding and regular technology upgrades that are fundamental to the long-term viability of the technology training.
"The community technology centers have been around for years, but theyve had no sponsors. Theyve had grant money from the federal government to create infrastructure and buy computers," she said. "But if you visit the site five years later, the computers are the same. You cant train anyone on a computer thats five years old."
Another comprehensive response to the digital divide comes from Atlanta, where more than 5,000 residents have visited technology centers created by the citys Community Technology Initiative. Atlanta opened the sixth of its "Cyber Centers" -- neighborhood facilities that provide access to computers and the Web, as well as technology training -- in February. The city expects to operate a total of 15 centers when the project is complete. But the Atlanta initiative -- created in 1999 and financed by $8 million from the citys cable television franchise agreement -- goes beyond technology centers. It is a broad effort to improve citizen access to computer technology and training, and to dramatically boost the amount of locally created Web content.
Earlier this year, Atlanta received a $100,000 Urban Challenge Grant from 3Com Corp., which the city will use to create a community Web portal. Residents enrolled in the citys computer training programs will help produce content for the site. Atlanta envisions the portal offering everything from government services, to neighborhood histories, to citizen-authored recipe books.
"Providing access is only half the answer. Thats the easy half," said Jabari Simama, head of the Atlanta Mayors Office of Community Technology, in a recent speech. "The other half is not so easy. That is to ensure that community technology, the Internet and new media in general [are] used to build community, serve the public and help break down barriers that keep us apart."
To staff the technology centers, Atlanta is forming a "Tech Corps" of computer-savvy high school and college students, according to a 150-page strategic plan for the initiative. Courses offered at the centers are designed both to provide computer training and improve low basic literacy rates that plague inner-city areas. In addition, the family-oriented facilities will offer security and childcare services. Atlantas initiative includes an extensive plan to market the existence of community technology centers and underscore the importance of computer literacy. The citys strategic plan envisions delivering a message of empowerment set to a hip-hop theme via television, radio and print media.
Boston also has taken a multi-pronged approach to the digital divide, which includes opening a network of community technology centers, developing advanced technology curriculum for city high schools and creating a program to give new computers to families who complete technology courses.
The latter effort, dubbed Technology Goes Home, is the most unusual. Stocked with 1,000 PCs donated by a local computer manufacturer, the program gives computers to low-income families that complete a rigorous 12-week training program. Technology Goes Home requires participating neighborhoods to form collaboratives to help staff local technology centers and provide other resources. Families are chosen for the program based on several factors, including income level and a written goals statement describing how they will use technology to change their lives.
Once chosen, families must unfailingly attend weekly two-hour training courses and complete a series of projects, culminating with a lengthy final research report. Only those families that meet all the requirements receive a computer; about 30 had done so by the middle of last year.
Good News/Bad News
Just how far has the nation come? The latest in a bellwether series of digital divide reports compiled by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) holds reason for both optimism and concern.
There are now more American households with personal computers than without, according to the report, "Falling Through the Net: Toward Digital Inclusion." The study, released in October, says PCs sit in 51 percent of homes across the country, and four out of five of those machines are linked to the Internet.
The NTIA survey points to progress on a number of fronts. For instance, rural and urban areas enjoy virtually identical rates of dial-up Internet access, and the gender-based gap in technology use has evaporated. Whats more, this progress has come more quickly than many expected.
"In 1990, if you would have said, By the year 2000, half of American homes will have computers in them and half of the American population will be accessing the Internet, I would have thought that was pretty ambitious," said Gregory Rohde, former administrator of the NTIA who served as the Clinton administrations principal adviser on telecommunications and information policies. "No one could have predicted the Internet growth. So I think it certainly is very impressive."
The fevered pace has even prompted some observers to declare at least partial victory. "Its not an income issue, because prices are so inexpensive that its hard to argue income is a barrier for very many people," said Jeffrey Eisenach, president of the Washington D.C.-based Progress & Freedom Foundation (PFF). "Computers are practically free and Internet access is free. Which part of free is too expensive?"
Yet, completely erasing technology inequities remains an elusive and exceedingly complex goal. Bound in a tangled web of social and economic factors, ethnic minorities -- particularly Hispanics and African Americans -- continued to lose ground compared with the nation as a whole. As of last August, less than 24 percent of black and Hispanic households had Internet access, compared with the national average of 41.5 percent, according to the NTIA. Indeed, the report found that the gap in Internet access rates had actually widened for each group, growing by 4 percent for Hispanics and 3 percent for black households since 1998.
For the first time, NTIA also examined the ability of Americans with disabilities to access computers and the Internet. The results were startling, indicating that individuals with disabilities were just half as likely to have Web access than those without impairments.
Finally, the report hints at what may be a significant challenge for rural communities banking on the Internet to energize tired industrial and agricultural economies: a lack of broadband Web connections. Rural citizens may have achieved near parity with their urban counterparts in conventional dial-up Internet connectivity, but they face a disadvantage when it comes to the high-speed Internet access needed to compete in a global economy.
Nationwide, 12 percent of central city households enjoy high-speed Web connections versus 7 percent for those located in rural parts of the country. The gap is even more pronounced regionally. For example, the western United States boasts the highest central city broadband penetration -- 13 percent of households -- and the lowest rural penetration at slightly less than 6 percent.
Lack of high-speed Web access spells trouble for small-town businesses hoping to carve themselves a slice of the Internet economy as customers abandon slow-moving Web sites in favor of faster alternatives.
"Youre not just competing against the guy down the street. Now youre competing against the guy in San Francisco or New York or Los Angeles. And that competition is just a click away," said Rohde.
Looming demands of the Internet economy have put high-speed connectivity at the top of the agenda for progressive small towns such as LaGrange, Ga. The 25,000-person community drew widespread attention last year when it partnered with the local cable provider in an ambitious plan to bring free Web access to all citizens.
Last April, the town began equipping cable TV subscribers with set-top boxes and wireless keyboards that allow them to surf the Web and send e-mail. About 4,000 homes are connected to the system thus far, and the city is committed to hooking up any resident who wants it -- even if that means subsidizing the modest monthly cable subscription fee.
"We thought if we could bring Internet access into every home, we might be able to upgrade the skills of our workforce and our students," said LaGrange Mayor Jeffrey Lukken.
The town worked with Charter Communications to upgrade the existing cable television system to provide broadband Web connections. That network was then linked with 150 miles of city-owned fiber already serving schools, government offices, an industrial park and local merchants.
Key to the plan was LaGranges decision to purchase Charters existing cable infrastructure and lease it back to the company, said Lukken. "That gave [Charter] enough cash-flow and enough tax benefits that they were able to upgrade their entire system. It allowed them to do a lot of improvements and modifications that they might not have been in a position to do at that time for our community."
Significantly, the deal also kept LaGrange out of the cable/ISP business. Although LaGrange considered developing and running its own system to ensure widespread Web access, the city ultimately decided against such a plan, according to the mayor.
"We felt we were capable of doing it, but the problem is you would have free enterprise competing with the government that regulates free enterprise," he said. "Eventually, we both would have cut our prices down to just bloody nothing, and I dont think there would have been [profit] margins enough to have justified the risk involved to our citizens."
The city also worried about running a network that carries adult entertainment and other potentially troublesome content, added Lukken. The current arrangement eliminates that concern. "While we are a landlord, we are not in the operation, and we have nothing to do with [Charters] cable business," he said.
Defining Governments Role
Just how deeply government should dive into the telecommunications market to solve the digital divide is a question simmering in controversy. PFFs Eisenach said a growing number of publicly owned utilities are cranking up cable television and/or ISP operations, and its an area where he contends the public sector does not belong.
In a recent report sharply critical of government-run telecom operations, PFF said more than 200 public utilities have entered the market, offering virtually every major category of telecommunications service. The group brands the trend both surprising and destined for failure.
"There is strong evidence that government-operated telecommunications enterprises have performed poorly in the past; that they rely on extensive subsidies that burden taxpayers and distort the marketplace; and that they discourage private-sector provision of the very services they seek to provide," the report said.
Before resorting to public ownership or subsidies, Eisenach urged governments to take a hard look at how they tax and regulate telecom carriers. He contended that telecom services are among the nations most heavily taxed products. Whats more, those taxes can be overwhelmingly complex, with large companies like AT&T filing 100,000 state and local tax returns each year, according to Eisenach.
"For governments to be regulating and taxing these telecommunications providers in the ways that they are, and then turn around and say [connectivity] is not happening fast enough is just the worst kind of hypocrisy," he said. "The first thing governments have to look at is what they are doing to discourage build-out."
However, Nancy Stark, director of community and economic development for the Center for Small Communities, has no quarrel with government-owned telecom if it helps expand broadband connectivity in underserved rural areas. "My personal opinion is that its great," she said. "Use whatever legal means you can to get it."
Stark added that wiring small towns for high-speed Web access is of no small concern, in light of census data showing that 85 percent of U.S. communities contain fewer than 10,000 citizens.
She said small communities often must give private industry a push if they want high-speed Internet service. Although some jurisdictions successfully operate telecom services, a more common strategy involves aggregating the telecom needs of government, schools, hospitals, libraries and local businesses into a package large enough to attract attention from private carriers.
"Sometimes you have to really demonstrate [the demand] in a real marketing way," she said.
Although high-speed access gaps clearly remain, the U.S. information infrastructure is evolving to the point where policy-makers now face a different set of questions, said Wilhelm of the Digital Divide Network.
"In a sense, we now have a national information infrastructure. Its uneven and some communities cant plug in. But in general, theres an infrastructure out there. Legislators are asking, How can we leverage that existing investment?"
As a result, communities are investigating ways to keep Internet-connected classrooms open after school to provide citizens with Web access, he said. Theyre also looking to provide better technology training at community centers and libraries.
LaGrange is developing a wide range of online applications, according to Lukken. Teachers now use the Web to send grades and progress reports to students and parents. The city has even begun holding Internet scavenger hunts aimed at spurring student and citizen involvement. "Were trying to make it fun by encouraging people to go onto the Internet and find sites for rewards that the city will give them," Lukken said.
A look across the nation also shows states taking a larger role in helping localities make effective use of Internet connectivity.
By the middle of this year, Virginia expects to complete a series of e-government blueprints designed to help local governments put a wide range of civic and business activities online. According to the state, the blueprints will give local jurisdictions a step-by-step guide for building Web-connected communities. Furthermore, Virginias non profit Center for Innovative Technology regularly holds seminars aimed at helping local businesses harness Internet technology.
In North Carolina, the states Rural Internet Access Authority not only promotes affordable, high-speed Web access to rural areas, it also spearheads the creation of telework centers and the development of online health, learning and commerce applications for small communities. The state recently created a grant process designed to put
two rural telework centers into operation by January 2002.
Using Your Strengths
Ultimately, the growing effort to address issues underlying the digital divide puts a premium on partnership. Observers say nearly any successful digital divide initiative involves a mix of public, private and non profit participation -- and the best projects are tailored to the unique requirements of each community.
"You really need governments, foundations and industry working in concert. That nexus is incredibly important," said Wilhelm.
Lukken recommends partnering with businesses or organizations that may have assisted the community in the past. "Rely on those relationships you already have, and rely on those strengths that the community has," he said. "Charter was so helpful to us because they actually believed in us and bought into our vision.
And although technology inequities persist, Wilhelm finds encouragement in the fact that policymakers are getting a firmer grasp on where the challenges lie and where government can make a difference.
"I actually think the conversation has advanced. Now we know where the market is not going to solve the problems and where we can just leave it to the market," he said. "There are just a lot of interesting efforts going on that are finally making a dent in this thing."