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E-rate boosted by digital divide concerns

The Clinton administration is rallying public support for the e-rate, armed with a Commerce report about the growing disparity between tech haves and have-nots.

    Clinton administration troops are making strategic moves this week to rally public support for the e-rate, an embattled federal program to hook schools and libraries up to the Net.

    Armed with a fresh Commerce Department report about the growing racial and class disparity between technology haves and have-nots, White House officials are making public appearances to tout the e-rate (or education rate) as a key solution to close the so-call digital divide.

    Education Department Secretary Richard Riley yesterday encouraged those at the National Young Leaders Conference in Washington to voice their support for the e-rate. Larry Irving, assistant secretary of Commerce's National Telecommunications and Information Administration, made the same comments to the nation and Congress Tuesday.

    The Federal Communications Commission set up the e-rate under direction of the Telecommunications Act of 1996. The program is expected to dole out the Net access discounts, which are supported through universal service fees paid to phone companies by long distance carriers. The bulk of the costs for universal service fees are then passed on to consumers.

    The FCC and the Clinton administration argue that long distance companies got other price breaks to offset the new cost of subsidizing Net access for schools and libraries.

    Still, earlier this year, the White House lost control of the debate when foes nicknamed the e-rate the "Gore tax," and the fire quickly spread.

    The e-rate was under siege by influential members of Congress, such as Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona), who said that the FCC was out of bounds when it created two "bureaucratic" nonprofit companies to administer the discounts to schools, libraries, and rural health care facilities.

    Consumer groups also criticized the program because they said it results in unfair surcharges for millions of telephone customers.

    And long distance companies have promised to raise phone rates by up to $1 per month to pay their share into universal service, although the administration estimates that consumers should only be charged about 18 cents extra per month, to support the Net access portion.

    This heated political battle spurred the FCC last month to cut money earmarked for the program by 43 percent this year from $2.5 billion to $1.275 billion.

    And the hits keep on coming. House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Georgia) said he wants to pull the FCC out of the driver's seat. Then last week, Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Montana) and Rep. Billy Tauzin (R-Louisiana) introduced legislation to do so, and to change the way the e-rate is funded.

    The administration is hitting back, pointing to the Commerce report as evidence that the e-rate program should be preserved in its current form.

    "Let's fight the war on every front," Irving said Tuesday.

    The Commerce report found that white households were more than twice as likely as African-American and Latino homes to own a computer, breaking the estimates down to 40.8 percent for white households, 19.4 percent for Latino households, and 19.3 percent for black households. Computer ownership levels are lower for everyone living in rural areas--especially minorities.

    On the heels of the report, Riley told the crowd at the leadership conference that the time has come to "break the cycle" of technological inequity.

    "The future can be a rich and limitless one, full of opportunity for students of all ages," he said.

    "To achieve this kind of bright future requires a real commitment by this nation to end the race disparity between these who have and those who do not have these exciting tools for learning," he continued. "The ['e' in] 'e-rate' could also stand for equality or equal access."

    The administration even brought in a hero to plead its case. A former astronaut, Sen. John Glenn (D-Ohio), introduced Riley and pledged his support for the program.

    "Because of my involvement in the space program, I'm very much aware of the critical need to include technology in our education system," he said.

    Riley also used the time to blast critics and long distance companies.

    "Even the best ideas can get sidetracked or derailed by powerful special interests," he said. "Some members of Congress have sought short-term political gain by trying to pull the plug on the program."