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