The Digital Divide

"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

        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
        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

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,
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

* 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
( 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 ( 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 (

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.


_Falling Through the Net II: New Data on the Digital Divide_, National
Telecommunications and Information Administration

The Condition of Education, 1999. The National Center for Education
Statistics. U.S. Department of Education Office of Educational Research and
Improvement (NCES) (

The University of California at Irvine's Center for Research on Information
Technology and Organizations. (

The 1998 National Survey of U.S. Public Library Outlet Internet
Connectivity: Final Report By John Carlo Bertot
( Associate Professor, School of Information
Science and Policy University at Albany, State University of New York and
Charles R. McClure ( 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]

The Digital Divide Confronts The Telecommunications Act Of 1996, Consumers
Union and  Consumer Federation of America,  (February 1999)


(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
( The Digital Beat is a free online news service
of the Benton Foundation's Communications Policy & Practice program

The Digital Divide Series of the Digital Beat is made possible by support
from the America Online Foundation.


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Last modified: Sunday, 11-Jul-1999 06:46:29 EDT