"Sometimes you have to really demonstrate [the demand] in a real marketing way," she said.

Shifting Focus

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."

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.