Center for American Progress

Congress Needs to Address the Digital Divide – 2005

Congress Needs to Address the Digital Divide – 2005

In 1995 the National Telecommunications and Information Administration of the Department of Commerce (NTIA) issued its first comprehensive report on the access of all Americans to advanced telecommunications services. “Falling Through the Net: A Survey of the 'Haves' and 'Have Nots' in Rural and Urban America” documented a disturbing disparity in access to computers and the Internet. In 1998, NTIA called its report “Falling Through the Net II: New Data on the Digital Divide.” The term “digital divide” proved very useful in drawing attention to the problem of inequality in an America increasingly dependent upon information technology. And in 1996, Congress established policy to monitor the access of all Americans to advanced communications technology and required all telecommunications companies to contribute to a fund that would help bridge the gap between the “information haves” and the “information have-nots.”

Those seem like the good old days. The Bush NTIA’s most recent report on American access to advanced communications technology hides the facts about minorities, the disabled and the poor in a series of mind-numbing charts, and fails to even mention racial and ethnic disparities in the text of “A Nation On-Line: Entering the Broadband Age.” There should be no surprise that this administration’s refusal to acknowledge reality extends to telecommunications.

The 1996 Telecommunications Act contained many flaws: it helped to spur an increase in media consolidation, it relied far too much on promises of competition, and it was outdated before the ink was dry. But in many ways it embodied an old progressive ideal of policymaking. Namely, several sections of that Act expressed a commitment to discover the facts (about the deployment of advanced technology and the barriers facing small entrepreneurs trying to enter the industry, for example), and to establish policy benefiting all Americans based upon those facts. As Congress reconsiders the Telecommunications Act this fall, it should reassert its commitment to this ideal.

The Leadership Conference on Civil Rights Education Fund has just released a new study of the most comprehensive database focused on home computer and Internet use, “Are We Really a Nation Online? Ethnic and Racial Disparities in Access to Technology and Their Consequences.” The study was conducted by Dr. Robert Fairlie of the University of California at Santa Cruz. What Dr. Fairlie found was dramatically different than what NTIA reported last November, specifically:

  • The digital divide is large and does not appear to be disappearing soon. Blacks and Latinos are much less likely to have access to home computers than are white, non-Latinos (50.6 and 48.7 percent compared to 74.6 percent). They are also less likely to have Internet access at home (40.5 and 38.1 percent compared to 67.3 percent).
  • Slightly more than half of all black and Latino children have access to a home computer and approximately 40 percent have access to the Internet at home (compared to 85.5 and 77.4 percent of white, non-Latino children). Ethnic and racial disparities in home computer and Internet access rates are larger for children than for adults.
  • Income differences are partly, but not entirely responsible for ethnic and racial disparities in computer and Internet access. Even among individuals with family incomes of at least $60,000, blacks and Latinos are substantially less likely to own a computer or have Internet access at home than are whites.

As a diverse panel of experts reported at a briefing on Capitol Hill in late September, the growing disparity in access will have serious consequences for a population growing both older and more diverse. The lack of information technology skills for a growing proportion of our national population will harm not only “minorities” but our national productivity.

Congress should ensure the following:

1) All information and telecommunications providers contribute to the Universal Service Fund;

2) Universal Service support should apply to a dynamic standard of advanced telecommunications services;

3) USF funds should support the deployment, maintenance and training necessary for all Americans to benefit from advanced telecommunications services at home, at school and in health care institutions; and

4) Last, but not least, Congress should insist upon the facts.

Congress understood in 1996 that a growing divide between the information haves and have-nots does not only harm the disabled, the poor and the non-white; it weakens the entire country. We need a renewed commitment to closing the digital divide.

Mark Lloyd is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.

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