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Netizens ponder universal access

Participants in the online conversation discuss universal email and Net access, digital communities, and public vs. private networks.

After rural schools and underfunded libraries get plugged into the Net, an online event kicking off today asks, "Who's next?"

The "Universal Access Conversation: Building a Networked Nation on the Global Internet" goes on through May 15 and will tackle four themes: universal email and Net access, digital communities, and the convergence of the public and private computer networks.

Coordinated by Email For All, a facet of the Markle Foundation, the event will collect data on the status of Net usage and then explore the so-called digital divide between the technology "haves" and "have-nots."

"The goal is to try and get more people online to be participants in society. Now all the early adopters are online, and the tough phase has come in," said Steven Clift of Email for All. "I have a sense that it will help create an archive of information that will help associations and governments see what the marketplace is providing and what they need to still contribute."

The "conversation" really is a set of essays about the future of online access submitted by industry leaders, politicians, and Netizens and sent to a mailing list.

The dialogue is meant to be a springboard for drafting an agenda for how to broaden Net access after the government carries out its plan to wire all public schools and libraries. Others needing Net connections include public housing complexes, community centers, social service agencies, and senior centers, for example.

Participants also will exchange information about international efforts to give all people Net access, email accounts, and links to online communities. The essays will be indexed and archived on a Web site during the event.

The focus the first part of this week is on email usage.

For instance, Steve Miller, the author of Civilizing Cyberspace: Policy, Power, and the Information Superhighway, advocates for universal email in his essay.

"Fortunately, the private sector's pursuit of high-bandwidth networks for commercial purposes makes it economical and possible for public policy to demand that these firms provide universal email as a condition of doing business," he wrote.

Moreover, Miller said email must be affordable and that people must receive adequate training that is "sensitive to [their] backgrounds and integrated into the institutional context of their everyday lives so that [they] are not excluded because of lack of skills."

Other expected contributors include Vice President Al Gore; Esther Dyson, chairman of EDventure Holdings; former Federal Communications Commission chairman Reed Hundt; and former Federal Trade commissioner Christine Varney.

Later this week, essays and discussion will focus on Web access and open Internet standards for content and services. Next week, participants are invited to submit essays about use of the Net for social and economic benefits. At the end of next week, private sector and government efforts to expand online access will be assessed as well as regulatory efforts.