Houston to make computing a right, not a privilege

By giving all residents access to Web and other technology, city tries to close gap in digital opportunity.

Verinique Chambers, a bright 15-year-old with short braids, is part of the generation whose vocabulary has always included words such as e-mail and online chat rooms.

Indeed, she spends countless hours on the Internet each week, researching homework or keeping in touch with friends. But that's not true for most of her neighbors, who live in one of Houston's poorer neighborhoods, just south of downtown.

Disparities of race, income, and age persist, leaving many to dub the digital revolution a "digital divide" between haves and have-nots.

In an effort to bridge that gap, the city of Houston unveiled plans this week to connect every resident to the Internet and other computer programs - free of charge.

At a time of growing emphasis on computers in education, Houston would be the first city to cover the whole population. Step 1 is not to buy lots of new computers but to provide e-mail addresses, software, and storage space that can be accessed from existing computers in municipal buildings or homes.

"I worry about the digital divide," says Mayor Lee Brown at the Smith Branch Library in Verinique's neighborhood. "It feels like some people are on supersonic jets flying into cyber space, and others are standing on the platform waiting for a slow train to nowhere."

Nationwide, about 47 percent of whites are online, versus 23.6 percent of Hispanics and 23.5 percent of African-Americans.

The numbers look grimmer when viewed through an economic lens.

Only 13 percent of households with incomes below $15,000 have Internet access, compared with 78 percent of those with incomes above $75,000, the US Department of Commerce recently reported.

"The discrepancies are really due to large income differences, not cultural differences," says Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Internet & American Life Project in Washington.

While some people use the Web mainly to e-mail friends or to buy music CDs, it has also become an increasingly important forum for doing research, conducting business, and applying for jobs. As more and more Americans do such business online, experts say those left out are falling behind.

Consider a major motion-picture studio in southern California, which used to hire summer interns in equal numbers from the inner city and suburbs. Slowly, the mix changed to almost exclusively suburban youth. When questioned about it, studio recruiters said the city kids lacked the computer skills to jump right into the job.

Such stories make Robert Knowling Jr. cringe. He is CEO of SimDesk, the company that is providing Houston with the Internet software.

"We are leaving communities behind," he says. "We need to level the playing field."

Dubbed SimHouston, the software works like this: A user will log on to one of the 1,000 computers that already exist in municipal buildings such as libraries around town. In their language of choice, the computer will walk them through a tutorial on the system. Then they can create their own documents, such as spreadsheets, letters, or e-mails. Documents can be stored for later use from any device connected to the Internet.

"I see it as a democratizing piece of infrastructure," says Joel Kotkin, a senior fellow at the Milken Institute in Santa Monica, Calif., and author of "The New Geography: How the Digital Revolution is Reshaping the American Landscape."

He points to the example of how President Roosevelt finally brought electricity to rural America back in the 1930s and '40s, decades after cities were aglow.

In the same way that electricity opened new economic doors, says Mr. Kotkin, the Internet is similarly vital infrastructure.

And it's especially important in cities such as Houston, where there is such a diverse mix of people, he says. SimDesk is hoping to move its technology into other cities such as Chicago and Indianapolis.

"We are at a point in society where equal access to the Internet must be guaranteed," Mayor Brown says. "It must be a right and not a privilege."

It is unclear how much Houston will spend on the program, and some observers are skeptical of whether users will truly be on "equal" digital footing with the gadget-rich. But experts say that doesn't diminish the potential benefits.

For one thing, it could help close a significant age gap online. A recent study by the Pew Internet & American Life Project found that nearly 80 percent of those aged 18-29 have Internet access, while only 15 percent of people 65 and older do.

While older Americans continue to struggle with the complexity and cost of technology, parents often stretch themselves financially to get their children Web-connected. "They don't want their children to be handicapped," Mr. Rainie says.

That may help explain why the digital divide is already closing. Hispanics, for instance, are the fastest-growing group of users. They are also more likely to use the Web to find out about jobs.

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