Welcoming Remarks by Assistant Secretary Irving to the June 26 Town Hall Meeting on Universal Service and the E-Rate sponsored by NTIA and the American Library Association
Good afternoon. This town hall meeting on universal service and e-rate comes at an opportune time. As you know, the e-rate program has been besieged on many fronts: by some members of Congress and the long distance carriers, to name a few. This meeting comes at a point when those of us supporting e-rate must regroup to ensure that it remains an effective, viable program.
The Clinton Administration is fully committed to connecting America's classrooms by year 2,000 and to maintaining the e-rate program. Two weeks ago, when the FCC was considering the program's funding, Vice-President Gore repeatedly stressed the need for the program's continuation and pledged that he "would fight any effort by Congress to end the e-rate."
The Administration recognizes that technological literacy is as necessary a skill as reading, writing, and arithmetic. By the year 2,000, an estimated six out of ten jobs will require computer skills that only 22% of our work force currently possesses. Our nation's future, and the future of children depend on learning the skills needed to handle these jobs.
As President Clinton so eloquently put it at his Commencement Speech at MIT earlier this month:
"[U]ntil every child has a computer in the classroom and a teacher well-trained to help, until every student has the skills to tap the enormous resources of the Internet, until every high-tech company can find skilled workers to fill its high-wage jobs, America will miss the full promise of the Information Age."
In fact, President Clinton proposed that, not only high school students, but even middle school students, should have access to Internet's resources and learn computer skills in class.
Thanks to your hard efforts, we have made significant progress in connecting our libraries and classrooms. Currently, 72% of our public libraries offer Internet access, and roughly 60% make it publicly available. Almost 80% of our schools are connected, more than twice as many as in 1994. And now 27% of our classrooms are connected, compared to only 3 % in 1994.
But we still have a significant ways to go, particularly in our inner cities and rural areas. Only a little more than half of rural libraries offer Internet access. Classrooms in poor and predominantly minority public schools are almost 3 times less likely to have Internet access as those in wealthy schools.
We must continue to make discounts available to those libraries, schools, and health facilities that are not yet connected to Internet. And we should allow these facilities to choose the appropriate means to make those connections, whether through wireless technology or wired telephone service. Our goal is to make connections as easy and effective as possible so that those in our inner cities, and rural communities, have the same access to information and new technologies as those in more affluent suburbs.
I'd like to tell you about another program, also under siege, that is making a significant difference in bringing new technologies to our communities. That is the Telecommunications and Information Infrastructure Assistance Program (TIIAP), operated by NTIA. TIIAP is a demonstration program that provides federal, matching grants to non-profit and public entities that are using electronic services in new, and socially valuable, ways. TIIAP selects projects on the basis of their ability to serve as national models for innovative applications of computer technology. Only a small percentage of TIIAP grant applicants or recipients are eligible for universal service programs.
To date, TIIAP has funded 332 demonstration projects in all fifty states. These grants support public needs in a wide range of areas, including public safety, health, economic development, and continuing education. Examples of these projects include:
- Technology Access Centers in Baltimore, Binghamton, Roxbury, and Newark, which provide computers to assist neighborhood residents with literacy training, preparing for the GED, and employment searches.
- an integrated public safety data network in Utah, which links mobile laptop computers in police, fire, and ambulance vehicles to over a dozen different information databases.
- a hospital in Mississippi for chronically ill children, which uses Internet to enable its patients to continue enrollment in their schools and connect to family and friends outside the hospital.
Libraries have played a particularly important role in TIIAP, both as grant recipients and as partners with other grantees. In a number of projects, libraries have teamed up with other non-profits, schools, and community centers to make information services available to different communities. For example:
- In New Hampshire, community residents are able to participate in on-line Community Technical College courses through their libraries.
- In Oakland, California, the Eastmont Computing Center, which trains local residents in computing skills, is developing a program in conjunction with the Oakland Public Library and other community groups.
These projects have helped make information resources available to people that might otherwise not have access to them.
Despite TIIAP's successes, Congress is now threatening to reduce TIIAP's current level of funding of $20 million. The Senate Appropriations Committee recommended a 50% cut, and the House Appropriations Subcommittee recommended a reduction to $16 million. Part of the problem is a major misunderstanding that TIIAP duplicates the e-rate program. At one point this past week, Congress even proposed language that would eliminate schools and libraries as eligible TIIAP grant recipients.
We need to correct the apparent confusion between the e-rate and TIIAP programs. Both programs are essential and serve different purposes. The e-rate program will ensure that schools and libraries can afford access to the Internet and to advanced telecommunications services. TIIAP will continue to break new ground in connecting the entire community. We believe that schools and libraries should continue to be involved in the TIIAP program if they are promoting innovative uses of technology and reaching out to different segments of the community. The focus should not be on the type of organization, but on the type of service offered.
The continuity of e-rate and TIIAP is essential to ensuring that all communities and children -- even those in rural areas and inner cities -- have access to computers and informational services. We cannot afford to be a society of "haves" and "have-nots" when it comes to technological literacy, since that is our ticket for survival in the 21st century.