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Digital divide an income gap

Government posturing aside, low-income communities have much less access to the Internet than the wealthy, a new study says.

Despite posturing by government officials and others about the importance of a ubiquitous Net across all segments of society, low-income communities have much less access to the network than the wealthy, a new study says.

"Class Divisions Emerging on the Net"--conducted by professor Mitchell Moss, director of the Taub Urban Research Center at New York University, and research associate Steve Mitra--found that "higher concentrations of the poor (those earning less than $20,000) were strongly correlated with lower densities of those with Internet access whereas higher densities of the rich (those earning over $100,000 a year) were correlated with more wired communities."

The so-called digital divide has been broken out before along racial lines, as well as other demographic data. The NYU study looked at data provided by a national Internet service provider to determine how income levels affected online subscribership. The researchers declined to name the ISP, but said the data it provided involved its 20 top cities nationwide.

Moreover, the widening gap in online access could grow with the advent of faster, more sophisticated, and more expensive on-ramp to the information superhighway. "The current emerging cost structure ($20 a month for unlimited Net access) may exclude certain segments of our society. Furthermore, if this price goes up when broadband access to the home becomes a reality, the increase may exacerbate and clearly carve out class divisions on the Internet."

Understanding what separates the technology haves from the have-nots has become a particularly relevant issue of late, as lawmakers, lobbyists, and others debate the e-rate, the government's ambitious but embattled program to wire the nation's schools and libraries.

"Basically, we found that the story of Internet access is the story of income," Mitra said in an interview.

"The poor will not get Internet access to their homes, See related Q&A: Education official: E-rate must survive so there have to be other ways for people to log on if we all agree--and I think we do--that Internet access is a necessity," he added, suggesting such venues as libraries and community centers, which could be candidates for the roughly $1.275 billion in Net access and internal wiring discounts provided under the e-rate program.

Mitra noted that cutting the program "would really be a mistake. Aside from pushing the [e-rate], I'm not sure what the government can do."

Moss seconded that assessment. "The results of our study highlight the need for rapid diffusion of the Internet," he said in a statement. "The study shows that public policies that assure universal Internet service are vital to the nation's future."

According to the study, there is "a strong positive correlation between the density of households that make more than $100,000 a year and subscriber density in a metropolitan area, i.e., the greater the density of households that make over $100,000 a year, the greater the density of subscribers."

Similar patterns were found in the opposite scenario: "the greater then density of households in a metropolitan area making less than $20,000 a year, the lower the subscriber density. The negative correlation persists for households making up to $40,000 a year."

Mitra also said that "in communities that had higher percentages of blue-collar workers, there were lower numbers of subscribers.

"Blue-collar jobs are vanishing slowly in this country, and these are the people that most need the Internet," he elaborated. "But these are exactly the people who are not getting access."

The study found a higher concentration of Net subscribers in areas with a high percentage of well-educated, white-collar workers.

The Taub Urban Research Center at NYU is charged with studying issues faced by cities and metropolitan regions. It offers research and hosts forums including members of the government, business, nonprofit organizations, and academia.