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UCLA plans sweeping Net-use study

The university will spend decades tracking 2,000 U.S. families to study how they adopt and use technology, and how they are affected by it.

UCLA is launching a major study of worldwide Internet usage designed in annual installments to follow how computer usage, technology, and the Net are changing people's lives.

"This study looks not just at who's using the technology but ties it into media usage, political attitudes, how parents regulate media use, and circles of friends," said Jeffrey Cole, principal investigator on the project and director of UCLA Center for Communication Policy.

The study aims to track Internet usage of 2,000 U.S. households for decades, cooperating with similar studies around the globe. Singapore and Italy will run similar studies this year, with 15 other countries joining over the next five years.

"We're almost more interested in the families that are without technology today for whatever reason--fear, cost, lack of perceived need," Cole added. "The beauty is to get to watch them over the years adopt the technology to see how those things change, how their social networks and buying behaviors change.

Big names like Walt Disney, Microsoft, Sony, America Online, GTE, and Pacific Bell are funding the study, which Cole estimates will cost $600,000 to $800,000 per year to run. For their financial support, they'll get data a few days early and extensive briefings that might help mold marketing strategies.

Cole, whose center has worked on a variety of communications issues, even has a canned quote from vice president Al Gore, with whom Cole has worked on earlier projects.,

"The Internet is a very powerful tool that is changing the way we work, the way we live, and the way we learn," Gore said in a statement. "But we also need to make sure this new technology supports our oldest values."

Cole says his study will grab an opportunity missed as television became an ubiquitous technology.

"Nobody did this for TV in the '40s, and this technology will dwarf the power of TV. Television is mostly about leisure time, but this is about work, school, and play," he said. "There is not an activity that will not be affected by this, and most will be transformed. This dwarfs the power of television."

The first year of the study will be conducted this fall, with early results due by year's end. Next year, UCLA plans to host an international conference for policymakers and industry leaders to evaluate the first two years' results.