Government, Industry Attack Digital Divide

Government, Industry Attack Digital Divide

Cathy Martin

By Jennifer Freer, Staff Writer

Government and industry initiatives to make computers and Internet technologies more readily available are helping to close the digital divide, but these are only the first steps toward solving this pressing social problem, said industry experts.

Much of the gap separating those who have access to advanced computer technologies and those who do not can be attributed to socioeconomic factors, such as education and income, according to the GartnerGroup Inc., a market research firm in Stamford, Conn.

In an October report, "The Digital Divide and American Society," the research company found that 35 percent of lower socioeconomic status Americans have Internet access, compared to 83 percent in the upper socioeconomic.

"We're not talking about uneven access to a particular technology, but uneven access to key tools and social mobility," Gartner analyst Mark Smolenski said. "To not have access to the Internet for large segments of the population is a pretty dangerous thing from a socioeconomic standpoint."

The digital divide also could hamper electronic government efforts because, while government is for everyone, not everyone is online, he said. Expanding citizens' access to the Internet is important to the transformation to an electronic government.

The Education Department, for example, is leading one effort to close the digital divide. The department developed the Community Technology Centers program to provide computer access and Internet education services to poor areas and communities with lower education levels, said Norris Dickerson, head of the program.

The program received a $10 million grant in September 1999, which allowed it to create 87 new centers and expand 61 existing ones. In spring 2000, the department got another $32.5 million to create 288 new centers and expand 166 others, Dickerson said.

The department also formed the America Connects Consortium, an entity to provide technical assistance and create products to help the centers use technology effectively, he said.

The department also partnered with the Small Business Administration to connect Community Technology Centers with small business development centers and business center classrooms.

Some companies also are trying to close the gap.

Hewlett-Packard Co. of Palo Alto, Calif., for example, began a Digital Village program, investing $5 million in East Palo Alto, Calif. The company set up a center where young people learn Internet applications and Web design, then turn around and develop Web pages for local businesses. Classes to teach adults professional skills are also available.

HP also is developing handheld wireless products that are Web-enabled and less expensive than desktop computers, making the Internet available to more and more people, said Cathy Martin, national business manager for state and local government for HP.

"This program is putting technology in the community and making it accessible to people that wouldn't otherwise have it, which is helping solve the digital divide," Martin said.

Cisco Systems Inc. of San Jose, Calif., is also working with federal, state and local governments to help resolve the digital divide, said Michael Timmeny, Washington representative for Cisco. Cisco began a Network Academy program that has grown into 5,300 Network Academy Programs worldwide, of which 3,500 are in the United States.

In the program, students take at least four courses in which they learn the fundamentals of building, designing and maintaining networks. Courses are given in high schools and junior colleges with online instruction and exams, and students can get certified in computer networking, Timmeny said.

The Network Academy partnered with the Communication Workers of America and the Labor Department to train people that are leaving the military for new jobs. It also worked with the Department of Housing and Urban Development to bring computers and Internet training into housing developments.

The point of the program is to expose students to networking and give them access to the Internet, Timmeny said. The digital divide is not about computers, it's about knowledge, he added.

While these are good starts, Gartner's Smolenski said the quality of access in public centers is lacking.

"Wiring a library is a step in the right direction," Smolenski said. "But what is the quality of that access? Public access doesn't really give the individual the chance to integrate the Internet services and learn all that they can do."

Gene Kimmelman, co-director of the Consumers Union, agreed. He said wiring schools and building technology centers are helpful steps, but they aren't sufficient. People won't do their banking, search for travel opportunities or research better telephone rates in public places. Citizens can't conduct all their personal transactions in a public site ? it's inconvenient or impossible, he said.

"The more government wants to put information out on the Internet, the more significant the divide develops," Kimmelman said. "The government needs to make sure it's not depriving citizens of opportunities to receive government information." The Consumers Union is a nonprofit organization providing consumers information and education.

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