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Photo: Daley, Clinton, & Case
President Clinton said he wants to 'slam shut the digital divide' and make computers and the Internet as common as the telephone for all Americans. Standing next to the president are AT&T CEO C. Michael Armstrong, left, and AOL CEO Steve Case, right.
U.S. takes aim at ‘digital divide’
Clinton to make closing technology gap
a highlight for next year
By Brock N. Meeks
    WASHINGTON, Dec 9 —  President Clinton is urging federal agencies to ramp up efforts aimed at closing the so-called “digital divide,” the quantifiable technology gap in which economically disadvantaged groups have less access to new technologies because of their income levels or geographical location.  

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I’m convinced this is not just a matter of technology haves and have nots. This is a matter of have or have later ... How we make later sooner?
Commerce Secretary
       THE COMMERCE DEPARTMENT held a “digital divide summit” Thursday to examine the problem. The summit brought together CEOs from major corporations such as AT&T, BellSouth and America Online as well as grassroots activists and civil rights groups.
       Clinton issued a memorandum Thursday calling on the departments of Commerce, Education, Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development and Labor to “take specific steps to close the digital divide.”
       Last year the Commerce Department released a report, “Falling through the Net,” which detailed the widening gap. The report showed that in 1997 20 percent of whites were connected to the Internet, rising to 30 percent in 1998. By comparison only 7.7 percent of African American families were connected in 1997 and 11.2 percent in 1998. Hispanic families fared just as badly, according to the Commerce report, with only 8.7 percent connected in 1997 and 12.6 percent in 1998.
       “I’m convinced this is not just a matter of technology haves and have nots,” said Commerce Secretary William Daley. “I’m convinced this is a matter of have or have later. The question we have to ask is: How do we make later sooner?”

       Several public-private initiatives were announced Thursday. Among those efforts is the “Digital Opportunity Partnership” led by AOL and the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, which will help civil rights groups gain access to important information online. In addition, the coalition will recruit a group of teachers, dubbed “circuit riders,” which will help train other teachers.
       The Benton Foundation said Thursday it is creating an online clearinghouse where various groups working on the digital divide problem can trade information and locate additional resources.
       The National Telecommunications Information Agency is setting up a new Web site ( to help organizations track the government’s efforts at closing the gap.
       Daley said he’ll conduct the “Digital Divide Tour” in which he’ll visit 12 cities in 12 months to “shine a spotlight” on the problem. Clinton also will make the problem the focus of his “New Markets” trip in the spring of next year, in an effort to raise the problem to the level of the national stage.
       The issue of haves and have nots isn’t new, of course. But in the roiling atmosphere of a runaway stock market and a hard charging economy fueled, primarily, by new technologies, those without access to the tools of this new era have rarely been on the nation’s radar screen.
       Thursday’s summit brought more than 800 people from a wide cross-section of public and private organizations, each involved to some measure in attacking the digital divide problem. But the number of separate initiatives is itself a hurdle, attendees noted.
Access to technology is no gift, especially to low-income families, unless it meets their needs.
Markle Foundation
       There are “lots of people doing something” about the problem, said Steve Case, chairman and CEO of AOL. “But [those efforts] are very fragmented,” he said, noting that more must be done to bring these groups online in a single place so they can share information.
       And as much time and money as the government and private sector have thrown at the problem, leading to more than 90 percent of the nation’s school’s being connected to the Internet, huge problems still remain.
       Indian reservations, for example, are one of the most underserved groups in the nation, said Susan Masten, president of the National Congress of American Indians.
       Because the reservations aren’t economically attractive for the nation’s telecommunications companies they have the lowest telephone-per-household penetration rates — about 50 percent on average — in the nation.
       “It’s a shame that in this day [native Americans] must live like they are in a Third World country,” Masten said.
       Another problem is how corporate America looks at minority groups, said Darien Dash, CEO of DME Interactive Holdings.
       “There’s a poverty perception about the African-American and Hispanic communities” that corporate America has, Dash said, noting that the combined buying power of these groups is $533 billion.
       These aren’t “people that need digital welfare,” Dash said. “I think it’s important that we have commercial incentives” for minority groups, he said.
       Adding to the problem is that content providers don’t have a good handle on what kinds of information are needed by minority communities, said Zoë Baird, president of the Markle Foundation.
       The Markle Foundation is undertaking a research project to find out just what types of online resources are wanted and needed by underserved communities, Baird said.
       “Access to technology is no gift, especially to low-income families, unless it meets their needs,” Baird said.

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