Study: Digital Divide Not Race-Based

A new study by Cambridge, Massachusetts-based Forrester Research indicates that the U.S. government’s perceptions of why some Americans lack access to the Internet are widely divergent with reality.

According to the study, ethnic background or race — as is commonly believed — does not explain the existence of such a “digital divide.” Although a combination of factors determines if a consumer is online, income is the determining factor for Internet penetration, followed by age, education and technology optimism.

As for electronic commerce, all population groups tend to shop online most often for convenience goods, such as books, music recordings and clothing. The items least likely to attract consumer attention online are classified as “replenishment items,” including health and beauty products and food.

Study Dispels Myths

According to Forrester analyst Ekaterina O. Walsh, the research should be a wake up call for legislators and others who focus on closing the digital divide.

According to the new study, Caucasians, typically defined as the wealthiest and least disadvantaged group in the U.S., actually rank third behind Asian-Americans and Hispanic-Americans in online access.

“It’s really about income and whether someone has the opportunity,” Walsh said. “The approach that we see now, for public funding, for public subsidies, is the right one, because the Internet is no longer a luxury. It’s no longer an emerging technology. It’s becoming a necessity. And it’s hopefully becoming a tool that can help some disadvantaged groups achieve a better level.”

Clinton Takes to the Road

Meanwhile, President Bill Clinton is embarking upon a two-day trip to heighten awareness of the need for universal access to the Internet. His first stop will be East Palo Alto, California, a low-income neighborhood populated mostly by African-Americans and Latinos.

“One reason we’re going to East Palo Alto is to show that, a stone’s throw from Silicon Valley, there is still a divide between families and between schools,” said Clinton economic adviser Gene Sperling.

Sperling said Clinton’s visit is part of his “national call to action on closing the digital divide. “This [the Internet] is becoming too central in modern life that it can’t simply be a privilege for the better off,” Sperling said. “This trip is geared toward that end.”

Clinton will also visit the Navajo Nation reservation in Shiprock, New Mexico, where many people do not even have telephones. At that stop, Clinton will unveil a new Federal Communication Commission (FCC) program that would ensure that every member of a federally recognized Indian tribe who cannot afford a phone can have basic phone service for as little as $1 a month.

Where Will Funding Come From?

The Clinton administration’s task will be to not simply suggest that all citizens become connected to the Internet, but to facilitate connectivity through supplemental government or public funding and computer training.

The Navajo Nation telephone program, for example, will require an additional $17 million. That funding would be derived from a 0.4 percent increase in the assessment on long-distance phone calls, according to FCC Chairman William Kennard, who identifies people living on Indian reservations as “the most distressed people in the country.”

Along with funding, a major step in closing the digital divide will be to increase awareness of the advantages of technology.

Toward that end, during Clinton’s two-day trip, the Kaiser Family Foundation will unveil its own plans to produce public service announcements featuring celebrities who will encourage young people to recognize the advantages of becoming “technologically literate.” All major television networks have agreed to air the announcements, according to the White House.

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