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Study: Digital divide persists

Although more Americans are getting online, race and class lines still segregate those who have access, a Commerce Department report says.

Although more Americans are getting online, race and class lines still are sharply segregating those who have access, according to a report issued today by the Commerce Department.

In the agency's third annual look at the so-called digital divide between technology "haves" and "have-nots," the 1998 data shows that those living in rural areas and those at the lowest income levels have much less access to computers and Net connections in comparison to upper-income households in urban areas.

Although 40 percent of U.S. households were online last year, there is a perpetuating trend in which whites are on the Net at a much greater rate than African Americans, Latinos, or those of Asian/Pacific Islander descent, according to the report, Falling Through the Net: Defining the Digital Divide, which is based on U.S. Census data.

"For many groups the digital divide has widened as the information 'haves' outpace the 'have-nots' in gaining access to electronic resources," the executive summary of the report states. "Until every home can afford access to those resources, however, we need public policies and private initiatives to expand affordable access to those resources."

The gap has expanded since 1994, according to the report. The disparities between whites and both African American and Latino households are now six percentage points larger than they were four years ago. The gulf between those with high and low incomes also has widened by 25 percent between 1997 and 1998.

The Clinton administration has long supported a Net-access subsidy for schools and libraries--known as the "e-rate--as a primary way to get all Americans online. But critics of the e-rate, which is supported by the Universal Service fund and paid for via extra charges on telephone bills, say telephone customers shouldn't have to support the Net-access program.

The report found that, in rural areas especially, K-12 schools are a primary point for online access. Thirty percent of those living in rural areas have Net access only at school. Nationally, 21.8 percent of people who access the Net do so from outside of their home.

"This demonstrates the need for continued Universal Service programs to connect all rural households," the report states.

The following are among the report's key findings:

• Despite income level or race, overall, Americans who live in rural areas are trailing in getting online.

• African American and Latino households are about one-third as likely as those of Asian/Pacific Islander descent to have Net access, and two-fifths as likely as white households. The 1997 data found that white households were more than twice as likely as African American and Latino homes to own a computer.

• For African Americans and whites with incomes of $75,000 and higher, the digital divide has actually decreased in the past year, confirming theories that Net users are mostly affluent Americans.

• Native Americans/Aleuts/Eskimos and Asians/Pacific Islanders outpaced African Americans and Latinos in getting online by more than 22 percentage points in 1997, compared to 2 percent in 1989.

General Net usage
For the first time, the Commerce Department's report goes beyond documenting the digital divide and takes a look at a wide range of Net usage patterns.

Email was the No. 1 application in 1998, used by 77.9 percent of those online. The other popular activities were general searches (59.8 percent), checking news (45.9 percent), taking online courses (36.1 percent), job-related tasks (29.1 percent), shopping and online banking (24.5 percent), job searches (14.5 percent), and games and entertainment (5.8 percent), according to the report.

Distance learning is one online application being utilized more frequently by minorities and those living in rural areas other than white Americans, the study found.

About 37 percent of whites take courses online compared with 50.3 percent of Latinos, 47 percent of American Indians/Eskimos/Aleuts, 46.3 percent of African Americans, and 40.4 percent of Asian/Pacific Islanders. Moreover, 45.4 percent of people in rural areas take courses, compared with 36.8 percent in central cities and 36.9 percent in urban areas.

The type of Internet service providers U.S. residents use is another area the report covers. National ISPs, such as America Online, captured the majority of customers with 60 percent, followed by local phone companies (14 percent), long distance companies (4 percent), cable providers (2 percent), and wireless firms (1 percent); the remaining 10 percent accounts fall into an "other" category.

Based on the 1998 Census, the report also categorizes how people connect to the Net from home, with 61 percent logging on via personal computers with modems and just 1 percent using a WebTV.

In another finding, online users who were surveyed said they worry about online privacy. Overall, 40 percent stated that they were "very concerned" about the confidentiality of information they transmit over the Net, with 24 percent responding that they were "somewhat concerned" or "not concerned."