The Interminable Digital Divide Debate

U.S. President Bill Clinton has made the so-called digital divide a major focus of his last full year in office, crossing the country three times to carry the message that in order for the nation to continue to thrive, everyone — regardless of background or income — must have access to the Internet.

Clinton and the two major candidates who hope to succeed him next year have made a lot of noise on the topic. Much of their rhetoric was spurred by a 1999 report from the U.S. Department of Commerce (DOC), which found that families with higher incomes were 20 times more likely to be online as lower income families.

Louder Than Words

But while U.S. politicians talk, Canadian government officials are quietly taking action. Earlier this month, the Province of Quebec announced a plan to spend $120 million CDN ($81 million US) over the next two years to get families onto the Internet.

The program includes subsidies of up to $450 CDN ($303 US) per year for families to rent computers with Internet access, or $200 CDN ($135 US) a year for Internet access alone. Families can rent the computers from government-approved agencies and they have the option of buying them at the end of a two-year lease period.

Any hesitation about consumer demand was quickly put to rest when 65,000 phone calls deluged program offices on the day the project launched. The call center had to be shut down briefly due to the response.

Disproportionate Investments

Although the United States is far larger than Canada, with 220 million residents compared to Canada’s 31 million, the largest sum of money appropriated for a similar program in the United States is $12.5 million (US$), which was set aside by the DOC for local grants aimed at boosting access.

According to the DOC, Clinton’s 2001 budget includes a total of about $90 million (US$) for boosting access, with $50 million aimed at increasing the number of rural poor and minorities who are online. Much of that money will be spent on training and establishing Internet access at rural and poor schools.

The budget also funds another in-depth study of Net usage in the United States.

Canada, meanwhile, is focusing more heavily on the problem of rural access, with its federal government set to invest about $200 million CDN ($135 million US) over the next three years to bring the Internet to outposts in northern British Columbia and other remote areas.

Long-range View

Of course, there are some major differences between the United States and Canada besides population size. A larger percentage of Canadians live in rural areas, where gaining access to the Web can prove more difficult, which is why Canada’s federal government has pledged to set up hundreds of rural Internet access points where the public can get online for free.

Canada recognizes that providing access to the Web today — especially for children — will enable the country to reap benefits a decade from now, when the next generation of high-tech workers reach the labor market.

More Talk

In the United States, the digital divide has become a highly charged topic of political debate. Some question the existence, or at least the nature, of such a gap. A report from Forrester Research says that the divide is not ethnic in character, but income-based, and that regardless of background, people behave the same way — in terms of online spending — once they gain access to the Net.

While Clinton has issued a “National Call to Action” to close the digital divide, some Republicans argue that the best approach would be to help fuel the growth of high-tech firms through tax breaks and other incentives.

A Solution Now

It does not take new reports or lengthy debates about the nature or extent of the gap, however, to make the simple observation that millions of U.S. homes lack Internet access primarily due to economic reasons.

By taking swift action, the Canadians are setting an example that U.S. officials should follow. Barely a month after the Quebec program began, the Canadian families that signed up have received their computers and are surfing the Internet, according to published reports. Given the potential of Internet speed to spark radical change — and the possible impact on political careers — the United States would be well-advised to get with the program.

Yes, private companies have a role to play. And many, including AT&T, Yahoo! and 3Com have already stepped up to pledge resources for the battle. After all, private industry will be the big winner if the digital divide is closed, gaining a broader customer base and more qualified employees down the road.

But the U.S. government should not wait for the private sector to intervene. Now is the time to stop studying the issue and put some serious money on the table.

There has been much talk about how best to spend the huge federal surplus. A relatively modest investment in a direct Internet access subsidy could help thousands — if not millions — of Americans get online for the first time. Even better than the immediate benefits would be the benefits reaped by future generations. It would be money well spent.

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