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."

Creative Communities

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

Steve Towns, Editor Steve Towns  | 

Steve Towns is the former editor of Government Technology, and former executive editor for e.Republic Inc., publisher of GOVERNING, Government TechnologyPublic CIO and Emergency Management magazines. He has more than 20 years of writing and editing experience at newspapers and magazines, including more than 15 years of covering technology in the state and local government market. Steve now serves as the Deputy Chief Content Officer for e.Republic.