"Households with incomes of $75,000 and higher are more than twenty times more likely to have access to the Internet than households at the lowest income levels -- and nine times as more likely to have a computer in the home."
an article from The Digital Beat v.1 no. 11
THE DIGITAL DIVIDE Introduction Defining the Digital Divide What's Going On: The Policy Arena Federal Universal Service Programs The Community Technology Center Program State Regulatory Commissions What's Working National Urban League: Technology Education and Access Centers HUD's Neighborhood Networks Blue Line TeleVillage Prairienet The Digital Divide Clearinghouse I. Introduction As PCs and Internet connections become more ubiquitous in the home, school, and workplace, many people have come to view computers as an integral, if not necessary, part of their daily lives. Given the realities of the information age, what are the ramifications for children and adults who don't have access to the technologies that shape the way we play, learn and work? In July of 1995, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) released its first major study on access to Internet technologies: _Falling Through the Net: A Survey of the 'Haves' and 'Have Nots' in Rural and Urban America_. This groundbreaking study found that income, education levels, race and location (urban vs rural) were significant determinants of computer ownership and online access. In a follow-up study last year, the NTIA discovered that despite the general growth in information access, the digital divide was in fact widening. There was a growing technology gap between those at upper and lower income levels. And even though all racial groups owned more computers than they did in 1994, Blacks and Hispanics trailed even further behind Whites in their levels of PC-ownership and online access. NTIA's data also revealed that poor rural households had replaced poor central city households as the least connected group of Americans. Once again the NTIA has released findings that shatter our convictions that the high tide of the information age raises all boats. Although over 40% of American households owned a computer at the end of 1998, there are fault lines in the information age that continue to separate Whites, Asians/Pacific Islanders, those with higher incomes and educational levels and dual-parent households from those who are younger, those with lower incomes and education levels, African Americans, Hispanics and those in rural areas or central cities. With respect to home Internet access, gaps along racial, ethnic, income and educational lines continue to widen -- falling prices for computers and a healthy economy notwithstanding. In 1998, the Benton Foundation published _Losing Ground Bit by Bit: Low Income Communities in the Information Age_ -- part of our continuing What's Going On series -- to examine the growing information access gap between the rich and the poor. In the wake of the latest data released by the NTIA, it is time to revisit some of the major issues examined in Losing Ground -- identifying what work still needs to be done to bridge the gap between information haves and have nots. This Digital Beat is the first installment in a new series relating to the "Digital Divide" and marks the beginning of a collaboration between Benton and the America Online Foundation -- the Digital Divide Clearinghouse. Here we provide an overview of this critical issue and once per month in the coming year we'll discuss the technology gap and some of the barriers to bridging it. The Digital Beat will chronicle policy initiatives and non-governmental projects that are helping to ensure that all American's can take advantage of the potential of the "Information Revolution," and will examine, in depth, the impact of technology access in several areas including education, information access, employment, minority communities and health care. II. Defining the Digital Divide The contrast between affluent and low-income communities is apparent around the country. Poor communities are entering the Information Age far behind their wealthier neighbors. The technology gap is not simply a reflection of the choices made by an individual household; it reflects deeper problems -- like access to infrastructure. While public attention is often focused on whether individuals can get a service, an equally important problem is lack of adequate telecommunications facilities, a reality that makes an area less attractive for businesses investment. This can feed a spiral where the lack of investment at the community level leads to fewer economic opportunities for people who live there. As a result, the poverty in the neighborhood makes it a less inviting target for investment, further aggravating the problem. In research commissioned by the Markle Foundation in 1996, Bellcore Labs found that "a disproportionate number of African American and Hispanic respondents reported not being aware of the Internet." Some 58 percent of those who weren't aware had household incomes below $25,000. Those figures may understate the problem. "Despite massive amounts of publicity, few people know what the World Wide Web is, how it can be accessed, and what kinds of information can be obtained by its use," Theresa E. Anderson and Alan Melchior wrote in _Assessing Telecommunications Technology as a Tool for Urban Community Building_. The Falling Through the Net findings released today highlight persistent, significant disparities in the US: * Households with incomes of $75,000 and higher are more than twenty times more likely to have access to the Internet than households at the lowest income levels -- and nine times as more likely to have a computer in the home. * Black and Hispanic households are roughly two-fifths as likely to have home Internet access as White households and one-third as likely as Asian/Pacific Islander homes. This divide between White and Hispanic, and between White and Black households is widening and are now six percentage points larger than they were in 1994. * Regardless of income level, American living in rural areas are lagging behind in Internet access. At the lowest income levels, households in urban areas are more than twice as likely to have Internet access than those earning the same income in rural areas. * The divide is also widening based on education levels: between 1997 and 1998, the gap between those at the highest level and lowest education levels increased 25%. * 16.8% of households with out Internet access responded that it was too expensive. * NTIA also suggested that awareness and understanding about the relevance of technology were important barriers. III. What's Going On: The Policy Arena Much of the recent progress made in increasing computer and Internet penetration can be attributed to falling computer hardware prices and the proliferation of Internet service providers. But to bridge bridging the Digital Divide many communities will rely, in part, on federal and state programs that attempt to provide universal access to basic information networks. Federal Universal Service Programs The Federal Communications Commission has a number of programs to support telecommunications companies that serve the customers who have the hardest time maintaining service including: 1) Consumers in rural and other high cost areas where telecommunications services are often more expensive to provide, 2) Low-income consumers through two programs: LinkUp which provides reductions in initial connection charges, and Lifeline which provides monthly reductions in service charges, and 3) Community institutions -- schools, libraries, and rural health care providers. The NTIA reported today that households with income less that 20,000 and Black households are twice as likely to get Internet access through a public library or community center than are white households, or households earning more than $20,000. Public access points are essential for helping connect some of the most technologically underserved populations. Perhaps the most widely recognized government initiative to help increase access is the Erate program, which provides discounts on telecommunications services of 20%-90% (depending on income level of the community) for schools and libraries. The program targets money first at the schools and libraries that serve the least affluent areas and the areas that are most expensive to serve. According to a study by the National Center for Education Statistics, Internet access in classrooms has nearly doubled -- from 27% of classrooms wired in 1997 to more than half (51%) in the first year of Erate funding. While there appears to be great progress in gaining access to the Internet for schools in general, and disadvantaged schools in particular -- there is great variation in quality of that Internet access. A recent study conducted by the University of California at Irvine's Center for Research on Information Technology and Organizations concludes that low-income schools were much less likely to have high-speed network connections than higher income schools. Only 16% of schools in low-income communities have high-speed Internet access (T1 lines or faster), whereas 37% of schools in wealthier communities have some form of broadband access. Earlier this year, the Federal Communications Commission voted to support the second year of funding at the legal limit of $2.25 billion. With $2.435 billion in request for discounts from schools and libraries around the country, the FCC's commitment will go a long way in reducing the costs for telecommunications services for these educational institutions and lowering the costs of wiring the neediest ones. The Rural Health Care Division of Universal Service Administration Corporation was formed to ensure that health care providers in rural areas obtain the benefits of current telecommunications technology. Through the FCC, an annual fund was established so that rural health care providers pay no more than their urban counterparts pay for telecommunication services. The Community Technology Center Program Community Technology Centers (CTCs) provide low-income, minority and other disenfranchised individuals free or low-cost public access to technology tools and services. CTCs are an especially important element in closing the digital divide because they offer training and support in addition to computers and Internet connections. According to CTCNet's Peter Miller, as computer penetration rates increase, the popularity of CTCs grows as well. He explains that even many people with computers in their homes are flocking to the centers, because they provide a much sought after service: training in computer and Internet skills. As a result of growing awareness about the need for technology training and access in low-income and rural communities, Congress budgeted $10 million in FY 1999 to support Community Technology Centers as part of the budget for the Adult and Vocational Education Office of the U.S. Department of Education. The purpose of the grant program is to promote the development of model programs that demonstrate the educational effectiveness of technology in urban and rural areas and economically distressed communities -- centers that will provide access to information technology and related learning services to children and adults. The first round of grant applications closed in June and the three-year grant awards will be distributed on August 31st. The Administration budgeted $65 million for the program for FY 2000; the budget will be finalized later this year. The CTC grants will be targeted to state and local educational agencies, institutions of higher education, and other public and private nonprofit or for-profit agencies and organizations. State Regulatory Commissions Some states have begun to realize that phone mergers can provide important opportunities to improve consumer welfare and community access to technology. In both California and Ohio, the state utility commissions have opened up the merger review process to include a discussion of strategies for using the deals as an opportunity to secure funding for much needed community telecommunication services. As part of the 1997 merger between Pacific Telesis and SBC, the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) approved a unique approach to expanding support for California's communities. Working with nine community coalitions, representing 134 different Latino, Asian American, African American, civil rights, and disability populations, Pacific Bell developed the Community Technology Fund, which will distribute $5 million in grants a year over the next decade. The fund is intended to bring technologies to traditionally underserved communities. The Public Utilities Commission of Ohio (PUCO) negotiated approval of the merger of Ameritech and SBC to improve customer service and attempt to increase residential competition in Ohio. Additionally, the combined company has agreed to create two $2.25 million funds to benefit consumers. One fund will focus on informing and educating customers about their rights concerning communication services. The other fund, much like California's Community Partnership agreement, will help insure that rural and low-income areas in Ohio have access to communications technologies. IV. What's Working Examples of efforts around the country to bridge the digital divide. National Urban League The National Urban League's Technology Programs & Policy (TPP) department (www.nul.org/tpp) has been working to establish Technology Education and Access Centers (TEACs) in 114 local Urban Leagues by the year 2006. "The Urban League is helping to create institutions in communities that are the hub of the wheel for community development and training," says B. Keith Fulton, director of TPP. In the age of information technology, the TEACs are vital components to these community establishments. With the support of a $1 million grant from the Bell Atlantic Foundation and additional support from the Department of Commerce, the Microsoft Corporation and other businesses and organizations 65 local Urban League technology centers are being established or upgraded. Housing And Urban Development Neighborhood Networks (www.neighborhoodnetworks.org) is a community-based initiative of the U.S. Department of Housing and Development (HUD) that brings technology to residents of HUD-assisted and/or insured housing. "Neighborhood Networks" encourages the development of resource and computer learning centers in or near HUD multi-family housing developments. The project's ultimate goal is to create vibrant communities that foster economic opportunity and encourage life-long learning. Residents and managers are involved in the planning and development of self-sustaining centers. The centers consist of a room or a series of rooms that have computer access, staff assistance and training programs. They are easily accessible for children to use after school and for adults and senior citizens as well. They offer a range of technical and non-technical services including computer training, Internet access, job readiness support, microenterprise development, GED certification, health care and social services, adult education classes and youth services. Additionally, HUD residents, owners, managers and local businesses create partnerships that have help reenergize communities. Public Transit For The Information Highway Blue Line TeleVillage -- a project in Compton, CA developed by Los Angeles consulting firm Siembab Associates with the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transit Authority -- is as a non-commercial network access center (NAC) that was strategically created to simultaneously reduce environmental pollution and provide community groups with access to high-tech digital broadband networks. Blue Line TeleVillage is located near the center of community activity and is close to bus and train lines. According to Walter Siembab of Siembab Associates, NACs can transform urban communities by making them more sustainable environmentally and commercially. By adopting this policy -- which he calls public transit for the information highway -- NACs can be positive examples of good-quality neighborhood or village life. Prairienet (http://www.prairienet.org/) Prairienet is a member- and donation-supported community network for Champaign-Urbana and the surrounding rural East-Central region of Illinois. Offered as a community service by the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Prairienet's efforts are funded by donations, foundation grants and a Telecommunications and Information Infrastructure Assistance Program (TIIAP) grant, awarded by the U.S. Department of Commerce. The project's mission is to promote equity in access to computer resources for everyone in the community. Prairienet has established public access sites in public buildings to provide access to community members who do not own computers. A community computer recycling program distributes reconditioned computers to low-income community residents and service organizations as part of the Community Networking Initiative. Additionally, a Community Links Program offers training, computer equipment donations, consulting and technical support to technology-poor social service agencies. V. Bridging the Digital Divide Clearinghouse Although computers and connections to the Internet may appear to be commonplace in what many call an information or digital era, for many in our society, these tools are anything but common. Market forces are driving down the costs of technology and making connections affordable for many people. But we cannot afford to leave major segments of communities behind. Benton and the AOL Foundation are creating an online clearinghouse committed to building access and capacity in disadvantaged communities by combining our expertise and resources for aggregating knowledge and producing communications forums. Our shared goal is to facilitate a meaningful public platform for the problems of access and diversity, and for the proposals and programs that aim to solve them. We now possess as a nation a growing body of experience from technology efforts to create a more connected and inclusive society. In upcoming Digital Beat's, we will chronicle those efforts and highlight innovative programs -- featuring the Best Practices and Lessons Learned from these successful projects that people can build on. We will also provide a place where users can get plugged into the information and contacts they need, from points of public access to local funders to public policy debates -- it will be a public space, providing a home for experts and activists, but it will be a solution-oriented service for the public that engages and equips people with the data, the policies and the programs to help them understand what's at stake and what it takes to bridge the digital divide. Resources _Falling Through the Net II: New Data on the Digital Divide_, National Telecommunications and Information Administration (http://www.ntia.doc.gov/ntiahome/net2/) The Condition of Education, 1999. The National Center for Education Statistics. U.S. Department of Education Office of Educational Research and Improvement (NCES) (http://www.nces.ed.gov/) The University of California at Irvine's Center for Research on Information Technology and Organizations. (http://www.crito.uci.edu/TLC/) The 1998 National Survey of U.S. Public Library Outlet Internet Connectivity: Final Report By John Carlo Bertot (firstname.lastname@example.org) Associate Professor, School of Information Science and Policy University at Albany, State University of New York and Charles R. McClure (email@example.com) Distinguished Professor, School of Information Studies, Syracuse University For The American Library Association The National Commission on Libraries and Information Science September 1998 [Revised February 1999] (http://istweb.syr.edu/~mcclure/Finalsurvey_rev4-99.pdf) The Digital Divide Confronts The Telecommunications Act Of 1996, Consumers Union and Consumer Federation of America, (February 1999) (http://www.consunion.org/other/telecom4-0299.htm) --------------------------------------------------------------------------- (c)Benton Foundation, 1999. Redistribution of this email publication - both internally and externally -- is encouraged if it includes this message. This and past issues of Digital Beat are available online at (www.benton.org/DigitalBeat). The Digital Beat is a free online news service of the Benton Foundation's Communications Policy & Practice program (www.benton.org/cpphome.html). The Digital Divide Series of the Digital Beat is made possible by support from the America Online Foundation.
Last modified: Sunday, 11-Jul-1999 06:46:29 EDT