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Bridging the Digital Divide

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“Opportunity for all requires … having access to a computer and knowing how to use it. That means we must close the ‘digital divide’ between those who’ve got the tools and those who don’t.”Thus spoke President Clinton in his final State of the Union address, reiterating his views on the importance of information technology. In his proposed fiscal 2001 budget, Clinton has earmarked funds to connect classrooms and libraries to the Internet, train teachers in information technology, and create one thousand community technology centers.Clearly there’s a need for government action here. “The ‘digital divide’ … is now one of America’s leading economic and civil rights issues,” according to the US Department of Commerce’s most recent report on the subject. Many people lack access to the Internet, particularly minorities, the poor, the less educated, and those living in rural and inner city areas. What’s more, the gap separating the information haves and have-nots is widening, according to the report.Some argue that government involvement will increase costs to those already connected and lead to regulation of the Internet’s content. Others point to overriding issues, arguing that everyone today has the inalienable right to life, liberty, and surfing the Net.”Internet access is increasingly necessary to fully participate in the democratic process,” says Richard Civille, Executive Director of the Center for Civic Networking. “Those connected have greater access to information and stronger voices in shaping public opinion and influencing government.”What’s more, there are widespread economic benefits from widespread Internet access. “When more people are connected, new markets are created, and this grows the economic pie for everybody,” says Bunnie Riedel, Executive Director of the Alliance for Community Media.Of course, there are those who aren’t online because they’ve chosen not to be. However there are many who would like to get connected but can’t because they feel Internet access requires a computer they can’t afford or knowledge they don’t possess.“Free” Internet Service

Opportunities exist today for getting Internet access for no charge or a low fee, and you don’t even have to know the difference between a POP and SMTP server. Anyone looking to save a few bucks can benefit.If you already have a computer, you don’t necessarily have to pay the typical monthly fee of $15 to $22 to surf the Web and exchange e-mail. A growing number of services in the US and Canada now provide free Internet access, including brand-name Internet companies such as AltaVista, at http://www.zdnet.com/downloads/altavista, and Excite@Home, at http://freeworld.excite.com.Other options are affinity services marketed to groups such as blacks, the elderly, or gays and lesbians. Blinks.net, at http://www.blinks.net, is targeted to black people and includes content for Afro-Americans as well.The free services are catching on. The oldest and largest free Internet service provider, NetZero, at http://www.netzero.com, now claims to be the second-largest ISP in the world, behind only America Online.But the maxim “There’s no such thing as a free lunch” still applies. These services have their negatives, such as ads that continuously appear on screen or pop into your e-mail in-box. According to reports from some users, these services are also prone to busy signals as well as slow and frequently lost connections. Still you can’t beat the price for either primary access or a backup.Help for the Computerless

For those who don’t have a computer, there are other ways to get online for free or inexpensively. Local public libraries and technology centers increasingly provide free Internet access, though the user may have to wait to use a computer and his or her time online may be limited.Becoming a Computer Owner

Computers themselves have continued to become more affordable, despite a small spike in prices recently. Even so, the least expensive new computers with monitor are priced around $500, and brand-name machines start at around $700, which isn’t chump change.Offers for “free” PCs can be enticing but come with caveats. These deals typically lock you into using a particular Internet service provider for three years, and a lot can change in that time, including the quality of the ISP’s service.Buying a used or surplus computer from a company such as Egghead.com, at http://www.egghead.com and 800/344-4323, is another option. It’s best if the unit comes with a warranty.Net Appliances

You may not need to use a computer at all to connect to the Net. Internet appliances such as the I-opener, at http://www.netpliance.com and 888-iopener, are inexpensive computer-like devices that automatically connect you, no technical skills required. The units cost $300 plus $22 per month for Internet access.To Stay Informed

For more information about the digital divide including local initiatives, check out the Digital Divide Network at http://www.digitaldividenetwork.org.
Reid Goldsborough is a syndicated columnist and author of the book “Straight Talk About the Information Superhighway.” He can be reached at reidgold@netaxs.com or http://members.home.net/reidgold.
This article is from thePMA Newsletterfor March, 2000, and is reprinted with permission of Publishers Marketing Association.

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