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Clinton, Native Americans to discuss "digital divide"

The president is expected to visit the Navajo Nation in New Mexico to address the lack of Internet access for Native Americans living on reservations.

    President Clinton is expected to visit the Navajo Nation in New Mexico this week to address the lack of Internet access for Native Americans living on reservations across the country, according to the White House.

    Although tribal governments and Native Americans residing on reservations have made great strides in getting online, federal officials and tribal leaders are concerned about the lack of Internet access for schools, homes and businesses on reservations.

    Native Americans are largely behind the rest of the country in obtaining access to the Internet. Only 18.9 percent are surfing the Web, compared with the national average of 26.2 percent, according to the National Telecommunications and Information Administration's (NTIA) July report on the so-called digital divide.

    But reporting on Native Americans' lack of Internet access may be putting the cart before the horse: Government statistics show that most Native American households don't even have phone service.

    According to the Department of Commerce, 53 percent of Native American households do not have telephones, compared with just 5 percent of American homes. In addition, the proportion of rural Native American households with access to computers--26.8 percent--is also lower than the national average of 42.1 percent.

    "To put it bluntly, it's really bad," said Marcia Warren, senior policy adviser for Native America at the Commerce Department. "There are a number of obstacles preventing access to telecommunications. First, there is a lack of information, like data and reports on the problem, especially local assessments of what needs to be done. There is also a lack of capital for establishing connections."


    Patty Stonesifer, co-chair and president of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, discusses the public library program for Native American reservations.
    In an attempt to bring the Internet to more Native Americans living on reservations, the Clinton administration has launched a program to connect reservation schools to the Internet and is expected to unveil a new initiative to address the problem during his trip next week. White House representatives would not provide further details.

    Clinton recently hosted a White House conference of two dozen Wall Street gurus, economists and high-tech entrepreneurs to examine how to keep America's economy strong and spread prosperity to neglected poverty pockets.

    He announced at the meeting that he would spend two days traveling from Palo Alto, Calif.--the heart of Silicon Valley--to Chicago, site of a computer conference. The trip, scheduled for today and tomorrow, will focus attention on efforts to help poor people gain computer skills and access to high technology. The visit to the Navajo Nation will be part of that trip.

    The lack of Internet access among Native Americans reflects just one example of a digital divide between technology "haves" and "have-nots." NTIA data shows that those living in rural areas and those at the lowest income levels have much less access to computers and Net connections compared with those in upper-income households in urban areas.

    But Native Americans face unique obstacles in overcoming the problem, according to government reports.

    "There is a great need to develop a different type of relationship with Native America than what we have with other communities because the tribal governments are separate entities that have their own needs," said Gregory L. Rohde, assistant secretary of commerce and head of the NTIA, which conducted the latest survey. "There are many diverse issues that are impeding access to telecommunications and the Internet" on Native American reservations, he said.

    Schools crucial for Net access
    The NTIA report found, in rural areas especially, that K-12 schools are a primary point for online access. Of those living in rural areas, 30 percent have Net access only at school. Nationally, 21.8 percent of people who access the Net do so from outside of their homes.

    Realizing the importance of a connected school, the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) is working to connect all BIA-run schools on Native American reservations.

    "There is a big push now to get Native American schools connected," said Harlan McKosato, producer of Native America Calling, the first national call-in radio program to focus on Native American issues. "If you get the school online, you get the whole community."

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    McKosato's national radio show also broadcasts over the Web. "Our audience can listen to us anywhere," he said.

    Tribal leaders said the lack of access to technology is particularly frustrating given the Internet's ability to close rural distances and give people greater opportunities to participate in the community and benefit from government services.

    "It's a way to get our Cherokee soldiers who are serving overseas and our students who are scattered about to check in and find out what's happening with the tribe," said Todd Enlow, director of information systems for the Cherokee Nation. "One of the challenges is getting the elders and rural members interested in getting online."

    To spur interest about getting online among tribe members, Enlow said he is trying to demonstrate how Net access can make the process of applying for government or tribal services easier.

    "On our Web site, tribal members can fill out applications for all sorts of services," he said. "What may take a two-hour trip to get to a government building to fill out the application by hand can now be done in minutes."

    Enlow said he is applying for grant money to finance a program that would set up central locations in some of the more remote counties of the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma, so those living far from tribal services can get online and have access to those resources.