The Digital Divide That Wasn't

Remember how the Web was going to bypass the poor? It didn't. Access is there, awaiting the guidance -- and desire -- to use it

If the digital divide were a line in the sand separating those who have access to the Internet from those who don't, Gary Israel might qualify as a referee between the haves and have-nots. Israel, who teaches courses in business and technology at Morris High School, a large public school located in New York City's South Bronx, is a Web aficionado who urges students to use the high-speed connection in his classroom.

Israel can still count on one hand the kids who use the Internet at home -- not surprising for a mostly black and Hispanic student body in the poorest urban Congressional district in the U.S. Thus, he's sure that most of his students don't yet spend as much time as wealthier kids devote to gleaning useful information from the Web -- and that many remain intimidated by it. Sometimes, overwhelmed by spam solicitations or lost in a maze of links, "They shut down," Israel says. "It just becomes too much for them."

And yet, all students at the alma mater of Secretary of State Colin Powell "have Internet access at school, and each year it has gotten better," Israel says. At lunchtime and during breaks, he regularly coaches his young charges on how to use the medium effectively. And every year, more and more of them take advantage of that opportunity.


  Welcome to the digital divide, circa 2003. Roughly seven years ago, when the term was coined, it described a presumed problem of uncertain dimensions. Policymakers speculated that despite its promise, the Web -- which was then dominated by wealthy, white males -- might exacerbate societal divisions of race, income, gender, and education.

There's still a gap, of course, as Israel can testify. But research shows that it's narrowing -- and that no problem serious enough to earn the scary label digital divide really exists, even as the Web has found its way to the furthest reaches of the globe. There are now slightly more women than men using the Internet. And the percentage of African Americans and Hispanics who are going online should soon match their representation in the broader population, according to Nielson/Net Ratings.

"The Internet doesn't seem to be performing a socially divisive function at all," says Donald Hicks, a professor of economics and public policy at the University of Texas at Dallas. In a recent study, he found that broadband access is now available in 82% of Zip Codes in Texas, up from 55% two years ago. When he controlled for education and income, he found that broadband had been deployed more rapidly in minority areas than in white neighborhoods over the past two years.


  Best of all, Hicks says, the average number of broadband providers per Zip Code has jumped from 1.4 to 4.6 over that time period -- enough to create the kind of competition that should eventually drive prices down to levels most households can afford. Says Hicks: "The market seems to be taking care of digital divides."

In a kind of virtuous cycle, in fact, minority representation on the Web continues to grow, as new sites and Web businesses spring up that attract black and Hispanic audiences. Consider the Black Wealth Network, based in Cleveland, which sells mutual funds offered by African American-owned investment-management firms via its Web site. Since launching in May, the site, which requires no minimum investment, has attracted assets totaling about $500,000.

Steve Washington, founder and managing director of the Black Wealth Network, says worries about the digital divide weren't an impediment to launching the business. "There's probably still some lag" in blacks going online, says Washington. "But we found that to support our business model, there's more than a large enough audience."


  In fact, the trend that comes closest to a digital divide seems to be voluntary avoidance of the Net. An April report from the Pew Internet & American Life Project found that even as the Internet audience has become more representative of the overall population since 2001, growth in the number of people who use the medium has started to flatten. The Pew survey found that 49% of American adults had Internet access in April, 2000, and 58% in the spring of 2002. But researchers note that growth in the number of Internet users has stalled, hovering between 57% and 61% since late 2001.

A good share of the 42% of Americans who don't go online today probably skip the Web due to habit or generational factors. Many are probably among the 31% of Americans who don't use a computer for any reason. But the Pew report also describes a new class of "Net evaders" -- people who reject the Internet as a point of pride, even though other family members have Internet access in their homes. It also identifies a growing number of Internet drop-outs -- people who once used the Internet, but no longer do because of factors such as technical problems or cost.

Even so, experts forecast that Internet usage will expand in the years to come, as the economy improves and the cost of the technology declines, as children and young adults (who now have the highest rates of online usage) grow up, and as secondary devices with wireless access (such as cell phones or handheld computers) proliferate. Potentially, the number of Net surfers could surpass the population with home computers -- although it likely will never reach 100%.


  Of course, it's possible to find two meanings in the Pew findings. One is that, for many people, Internet access isn't desirable or necessary. The other is proof that a digital divide does indeed exist -- just one that isn't nearly as pronounced as doomsayers had feared. "It continues to be an issue because there is such great information and opportunity available online that one would like to think that the entire economy could benefit" from access to it, says Charles Buchwalter, vice-president of analysis for Nielsen/NetRatings.

Time, training, and education will be required to eliminate this less pernicious divide. "There is still a big gap between those that are online and those that aren't," argues Norris Dickard, director of public policy at the Benton Foundation in Washington, D.C. He faults the Bush Administration for claiming that federal initiatives that help provide Internet access in poor communities, such as the Technology Opportunity Program and the Community Technology Centers Program, have fulfilled their mission and thus can be cut.

"You can't wish away" discrepancies in opportunity, says Dickard, who believes that community technology centers, where the public can both connect to the Internet and learn to use it, need ongoing government support.


  Internationally, efforts to bridge the digital divide between developed and emerging nations involves this same emphasis on training and support. For example, the Grameen Technology Center, based in Seattle, provides small loans to individuals in developing nations to buy technology for communications-related startups. One of its projects provides loans and technical support for entrepreneurs who set up village computing centers, where local residents in rural India pay to tap into the Web.

These businesses should be self-sustaining, since residents have proved willing to pay for Internet access to do things like navigate their way through government bureaucracies or find the price local produce is fetching in distant markets, giving them an edge when haggling with distributors.

"These kinds of efforts have to happen locally, and you have to back them up with resources and training on the ground," says Peter Bladin, Grameen's director. He contrasts this approach with often-failed philanthropic efforts that entail simply donating computer equipment to impoverished communities, while failing to provide the technical support that allow benefits to flow from that largesse.

As the economy emerges from its doldrums, more Web businesses should spring up -- attracting a larger swath of the population that, as the price of computing falls, should be able to afford the costs of going online. Even before that happens, however, it's becoming clear that the divide that does exist between the Web and non-Web proficient is no longer defined simply by income, gender, race, or education. And that's just one more plus of the Net.

By Amey Stone in New York

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