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Bridging the Digital Divide

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A topic of great concern to most countries around the world, the “Digital Divide” is usually defined as the gap in technology ownership and access between those who are affluent and those who are poor or live in rural areas with limited or no access to the Internet. This ownership and access can depend primarily on three factors: race, geography and economic status.

A number of projects in the U.S. have addressed this issue. The most extensive is the Federal Communication Commission’s E-rate program for inner city schools and low-income areas. $1.5 billion has already been made available to schools based on the number of students served by the national school lunch program and the number of parents below poverty level.

Businesses are also taking a more active role in promoting technology in disadvantaged areas. This can be seen in the graph above, which was based upon a study of 500 IT and business professionals and published in the March 26th issue of Information Week.

A variety of interesting projects involve technology leaders and non-technical companies who provide funds and volunteers so that the opportunity to have access to computers and to the Internet is available. For example, in New York City, public Internet kiosks are located throughout the five boroughs. During a four-year pilot project identified as “City Access,” more than 2.7 million people used several dozen kiosks. In Atlanta, GA, more than 5,000 residents have visited technology centers created by the city’s Community Technology Initiative, which provides access to computers and the Web, as well as an opportunity for technology training.

Mouse.org, a nonprofit organization, links New York state public schools to grants and equipment, and also provides volunteers from the New York IT community to work with students and teachers. Three Pennsylvania school districts serving students from urban, suburban and rural areas are receiving state funds and are provided 24-hour access to Internet learning resources. In North Carolina, the state’s Rural Internet Access Authority is creating telework centers and developing online access to health, learning and commerce resources for smaller communities. Business partnerships with educational institutions are growing with the hopes of transforming the digital divide into digital opportunity for all.

According to recent data available from the National Center of Education Statistics, 95% of public schools in the U.S. are connected to the Internet. Of these, 65% use dedicated lines (including T1, T3 or 56K lines), 14% use dialup connections, and 23% use another type of connection (including cable modems, wireless connections and ISDN lines). Applications are beginning to be hindered only by bandwidth limits.

Unfortunately, inequalities still exist. Of 46 public black colleges recently surveyed by the nonprofit Thurgood Marshall Scholarship Fund, approximately $700 million is needed to meet their current technology needs. Also, nearly one-third of the institutions in the survey reported that more than 90% of their students did not even own PCs. Half of the students stated that more than three-quarters of their courses did not require e-mail.

In countries around the world, computerization and the use of networks is influencing the economic and political life of its citizenry, however many more problems exist. For example:

 

· 80% of the world’s population have never made a phone call.

· Many of the world’s disadvantaged cannot read, and cannot read English.

· 88% of Internet users live in industrialized countries, which have only 15% of the world’s population.

· Suspicion among local peoples toward Western countries continues to exist.

 

The United Nations Human Development index of 175 countries listed more fundamental factors, such as low life expectancy at birth, poor adult literacy rates, low primary and secondary enrollment and low average annual income as severe problems. In the countries ranked at the bottom, no country has a life expectancy above 50, an adult literacy rate above 46% or an average annual income above $1,000. Mali, Central African Republic, Chad, Mozambique, Guinea Bisseti, Burundi, Ethiopia and Sierra Leone are at the bottom. The U.S. is ranked third from the top after Canada and Norway.

Progress is being made. Millions of Chinese now have Internet access, even though buying a PC can cost half a year’s income. Brazil has developed a low-cost, Internet-connected PC that will sell for $300. Consumers will be able to own these after 15 monthly installments. Though its citizenry lack phone lines and the minimum wage is $75 per month, many sales are expected.

Telecenters and cyber cafes that provide Web access and services such as e-mail are spreading and are being used by many people. Users pay by the number of minutes of connectivity. Such a model exists in Costa Rica, where villages use facilities made of large shipping containers outfitted with computers. This concept was developed by the Costa Rican Foundation and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Laboratory. Called Lineos, these little Internet communities provide access to the Web, e-mail, videoconferencing, IT training and telemedicine via satellites.

In July 2000, the leaders of seven industrialized nations appointed a digital opportunity task force to make recommendations on bridging the digital divide. Japan alone has pledged $15 billion over five years to bring technology to unwired developing countries. Many companies in the U.S. are assisting. For example, Microsoft contributes more than $21 million ($8 million in case, and $13 million in software) to fund 95 community-based projects.

Hewlett Packard Corporation dedicated $1 billion in products and services to assist at least 1,000 villages in the first year of operation. Its goal is to “use technology to develop measurable social and economic benefits, and to provide access to information that can benefit one’s life.”

Though increasing assistance is available, obstacles still exist, primarily political ones. Countries still see networks as a threat to their infrastructure. However, the need for information, as well as the advantages of being able to communicate, find jobs and experience economic growth, is acknowledged.

In a recent survey of 500 IT and business professionals, three out of five have educational policies or programs with schools or universities, 52% donate equipment or funds, 46% offer training and 34% are involved in community outreach programs. It is also noted that the continued shortage of IT workers is a driving force behind these initiatives. Bridging the digital divide has become a universal concern and is looked upon as “big business” with unlimited potential. However, closing the digital divide involves more than placing computers in locations for easy access. How to use the information effectively and efficiently must be addressed.

A topic of great concern to most countries around the world, the “Digital Divide” is usually defined as the gap in technology ownership and access between those who are affluent and those who are poor or live in rural areas with limited or no access to the Internet. This ownership and access can depend primarily on three factors: race, geography and economic status.

A number of projects in the U.S. have addressed this issue. The most extensive is the Federal Communication Commission’s E-rate program for inner city schools and low-income areas. $1.5 billion has already been made available to schools based on the number of students served by the national school lunch program and the number of parents below poverty level.

Businesses are also taking a more active role in promoting technology in disadvantaged areas. This can be seen in the graph above, which was based upon a study of 500 IT and business professionals and published in the March 26th issue of Information Week.

A variety of interesting projects involve technology leaders and non-technical companies who provide funds and volunteers so that the opportunity to have access to computers and to the Internet is available. For example, in New York City, public Internet kiosks are located throughout the five boroughs. During a four-year pilot project identified as “City Access,” more than 2.7 million people used several dozen kiosks. In Atlanta, GA, more than 5,000 residents have visited technology centers created by the city’s Community Technology Initiative, which provides access to computers and the Web, as well as an opportunity for technology training.

Mouse.org, a nonprofit organization, links New York state public schools to grants and equipment, and also provides volunteers from the New York IT community to work with students and teachers. Three Pennsylvania school districts serving students from urban, suburban and rural areas are receiving state funds and are provided 24-hour access to Internet learning resources. In North Carolina, the state’s Rural Internet Access Authority is creating telework centers and developing online access to health, learning and commerce resources for smaller communities. Business partnerships with educational institutions are growing with the hopes of transforming the digital divide into digital opportunity for all.

According to recent data available from the National Center of Education Statistics, 95% of public schools in the U.S. are connected to the Internet. Of these, 65% use dedicated lines (including T1, T3 or 56K lines), 14% use dialup connections, and 23% use another type of connection (including cable modems, wireless connections and ISDN lines). Applications are beginning to be hindered only by bandwidth limits.

Unfortunately, inequalities still exist. Of 46 public black colleges recently surveyed by the nonprofit Thurgood Marshall Scholarship Fund, approximately $700 million is needed to meet their current technology needs. Also, nearly one-third of the institutions in the survey reported that more than 90% of their students did not even own PCs. Half of the students stated that more than three-quarters of their courses did not require e-mail.

In countries around the world, computerization and the use of networks is influencing the economic and political life of its citizenry, however many more problems exist. For example:

 

· 80% of the world’s population have never made a phone call.

· Many of the world’s disadvantaged cannot read, and cannot read English.

· 88% of Internet users live in industrialized countries, which have only 15% of the world’s population.

· Suspicion among local peoples toward Western countries continues to exist.

 

The United Nations Human Development index of 175 countries listed more fundamental factors, such as low life expectancy at birth, poor adult literacy rates, low primary and secondary enrollment and low average annual income as severe problems. In the countries ranked at the bottom, no country has a life expectancy above 50, an adult literacy rate above 46% or an average annual income above $1,000. Mali, Central African Republic, Chad, Mozambique, Guinea Bisseti, Burundi, Ethiopia and Sierra Leone are at the bottom. The U.S. is ranked third from the top after Canada and Norway.

Progress is being made. Millions of Chinese now have Internet access, even though buying a PC can cost half a year’s income. Brazil has developed a low-cost, Internet-connected PC that will sell for $300. Consumers will be able to own these after 15 monthly installments. Though its citizenry lack phone lines and the minimum wage is $75 per month, many sales are expected.

Telecenters and cyber cafes that provide Web access and services such as e-mail are spreading and are being used by many people. Users pay by the number of minutes of connectivity. Such a model exists in Costa Rica, where villages use facilities made of large shipping containers outfitted with computers. This concept was developed by the Costa Rican Foundation and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Laboratory. Called Lineos, these little Internet communities provide access to the Web, e-mail, videoconferencing, IT training and telemedicine via satellites.

In July 2000, the leaders of seven industrialized nations appointed a digital opportunity task force to make recommendations on bridging the digital divide. Japan alone has pledged $15 billion over five years to bring technology to unwired developing countries. Many companies in the U.S. are assisting. For example, Microsoft contributes more than $21 million ($8 million in case, and $13 million in software) to fund 95 community-based projects.

Hewlett Packard Corporation dedicated $1 billion in products and services to assist at least 1,000 villages in the first year of operation. Its goal is to “use technology to develop measurable social and economic benefits, and to provide access to information that can benefit one’s life.”

Though increasing assistance is available, obstacles still exist, primarily political ones. Countries still see networks as a threat to their infrastructure. However, the need for information, as well as the advantages of being able to communicate, find jobs and experience economic growth, is acknowledged.

In a recent survey of 500 IT and business professionals, three out of five have educational policies or programs with schools or universities, 52% donate equipment or funds, 46% offer training and 34% are involved in community outreach programs. It is also noted that the continued shortage of IT workers is a driving force behind these initiatives. Bridging the digital divide has become a universal concern and is looked upon as “big business” with unlimited potential. However, closing the digital divide involves more than placing computers in locations for easy access. How to use the information effectively and efficiently must be addressed.

This article originally appeared in the 05/01/2001 issue of THE Journal.

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