Political tangles in hardwiring nation

Clinton sees bridging digital divide as top priority. Others say it's happening anyway.

Herbert Hoover promised Americans a chicken in every pot. Should the Clinton administration be promising a computer on every desk?

That's essentially its goal, as it seeks to bridge the gap between computer haves and have-nots. It's a theme the president's been hitting hard this week, traveling the country to areas left behind by the computer revolution, and pointing to $70,000-a-year jobs if America's poverty stricken can only get trained and online.

Generally, analysts praise the administration for attending to technology needs left untouched by the private sector, as well as for joining with private industry, volunteer groups, and state and local government to close the so-called "digital divide."

Just six years ago, for instance, only a third of the nation's public schools had computers with access to the Internet. Now, it's a phenomenal 95 percent. And federal spending on the technology gap has multiplied like a popular e-mail message, growing from $23 million in 1993 to over $3 billion today.

"Ninety-five percent, that's a pretty high number.... Three billion, that's quite a bit of money," says Adam Clayton Powell III, vice president for technology and programs at the Freedom Forum in Arlington, Va.

Mr. Powell says the federal government is acting appropriately by concentrating its efforts on wiring schools to the Internet and providing access to areas the private sector isn't reaching.

The latest example of this was President Clinton's announcement on April 17 that the government would help subsidize phone service for 300,000 native Americans so they can go online.

The program, which will cost $17 billion annually and mean a slight 0.4 percent increase in consumers' long-distance bills, was prompted by the case of a Navajo girl, Myra Jodie.

The teenager is the proud owner of a new, blueberry-tinged iMac computer which she won in a contest, but she can't connect it to the Internet because she has no phone. Neither do three-quarters of the residents on her vast reservation in Shiprock, N.M. It simply is not profitable to bring service to such a remote and impoverished area.

But Powell, and others, raise questions about the government's future role in bridging the divide. Will it need to be so robust if falling computer prices and new, free Internet services increase accessibility for millions more Americans?

According to a survey of 80,000 households by Forrester Research, the gap has closed considerably in just the past year. Now, 43 percent of America's households are online, compared to 35 percent in January, 1999.

Within three years, almost everyone will be online, and the new divide will be in the quality and speed of access, says Ekaterina Walsh, the Forrester analyst who worked on the study.

This kind of forecast leads Powell to the conclusion that "individuals are going online more or less on their own," and that government intervention will not need to be as aggressive as it is now.

"It's the classic debate," he says. "Like rural electrification, does the government need to wire everyone down to the last 97th or 98th percentile?"

Some Republicans in Congress don't think so. Although they voted for the 1996 law that allows the government to tax phone bills in order to subsidize Internet discounts for schools and libraries, some still deridingly call the measure "the Gore tax."

Rep. Thomas Bliley (R) of Virginia, plans to renew a push to dismantle the practice and reduce the tax. The subsidy, known as the E-rate, has provided Internet access for children in more than 1 million classrooms.

While his effort is not given much hope, it indicates that not everyone supports the way in which the administration has tried to close the technology gap.

Even some educators, who would presumably welcome the invasion of computers in schools, speak skeptically of the Clinton administration's efforts.

It's one thing to provide the hardware, but it's quite another to have teachers in place who know how to use it. Although the administration has provided grants to train 400,000 new teachers on computers, it's not enough, some critics say.

"It shouldn't be exaggerated, what they can do," says Tom Loveless, director of the Brown Center on Education at the Brookings Institution in Washington. Mr. Loveless would prefer that the administration provide grants to schools to use in the best way they see fit, instead of tying the grants to computers.

Still, there is no shortage of advocates for continued government attention to the digital divide. Sen. Bob Kerrey (D) of Nebraska, who chairs the bipartisan Web-Based Education Commission, would like to significantly increase federal spending on computers and schools.

And a whole army of technology executives, from Microsoft's Bill Gates to America Online's Steve Case, support the president's efforts, and have signed on to significant joint-projects with the government.

Despite her research that shows more Americans going online, Ms. Walsh says the Internet is no longer an emerging technology and that "both the private and the public sector have to do whatever they can ... to make sure that no one is left out."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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