Digital divide growing, study says

The "new economy" is booming, but the so-called digital divide is growing at an equally fast pace, according to a government report.

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The technology-fueled "new economy" is driving up stock prices and expanding job opportunities, but the so-called digital divide between the technological haves and have-nots is growing at an equally fast pace, the Commerce Department said today.

Commerce released its second report, entitled "Falling Through the Net II," on Americans' access to computers, phone services, and the Internet.

Although 50 percent more Americans owned computers in 1997 than in 1994, the digital divide has widened between the upper- and lower-income segments of society, according to the report. People living in rural areas at the lowest income levels are the least likely to be connected to the Net, it concluded.

The disparity also has grown among racial groups, as African Americans and Latinos buy computers and get online less frequently than whites. "Americans of all ages, races, and backgrounds increasingly are plugged in to our information infrastructure," Larry Irving, assistant secretary for communications and information for Commerce's National Telecommunications and Information Administration, said in a statement. "Nevertheless, for many Americans, access to the information superhighway is still beyond their grasp."

At a press conference earlier today, Irving issued a challenge to close this gap. "Let's fight the war on every front. Let's make sure the 270 million Americans are all prepared for this new economy."

The report found that white households were more than twice as likely than 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 homes, and 19.3 percent for black households. Computer ownership levels are lower for minorities living in rural areas.

"Single-parent, female households also lag significantly behind the national average," the report states. "They are also significantly less likely than dual-parent households to have a PC, 25 percent versus 57.2 percent."

The Commerce Department report calls on lawmakers to continue to focus on wiring these households to telephones and the Net--connections that can help improve their overall economic status.

"These findings underscore the importance of programs such as NTIA's Telecommunications and Information Infrastructure Assistance Program and the e-rate," Irving noted. "Both reach out to communities that lack electronic resources at home by making electronic services available in schools, libraries, community centers, and other public resources."

Under the direction of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, the Federal Communications Commission set up the so-called e-rate to give schools, libraries, and rural health-care providers discounts on Net access.

The program kicked off this year and is supported by universal service fees paid to phone companies by long distance carriers. But strong political opposition led the FCC to cut back the e-rate program by 43 percent in June.