Remarks of Assistant Secretary Irving at the CBC Science and Technology Braintrust

New Century, New Media, New Opportunities
September 17, 1999
"New Century, New Media, New Opportunities"

Remarks by Larry Irving
Assistant Secretary for Communications and Information
National Telecommunications and Information Administration
U.S. Department of Commerce

at the

CBC Science and Technology Braintrust
Washington, D.C.
September 17, 1999

 



Good afternoon. I'd like to thank Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson and Texas Instruments for inviting me here today to join the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) Science and Technology braintrust. For those of you who don't know, this is one of my last speaking opportunities as the Assistant Secretary for Communications and Information, and I could think of no better event for my departure speech than the CBC braintrust.

As most of you know, I have spent much of my six-year tenure working with the Administration examining opportunities in information and communication sectors, and making sure that those opportunities are available to all members of our society. There is no doubt that the last few years have shown us the promise of the next century. Our economic growth has been spurred by the stunning development of the high-tech sector and Internet commerce, which have created tremendous new opportunities and new jobs. These opportunities promise only to grow in the next century.

Our goal now, as Federal officials, legislators, and community activists, is to ensure that these opportunities and jobs are available to people of all races, all ages, and all areas, so that our "new economy" is truly an inclusive economy. And the CBC has been, and can continue to be, at the forefront of those efforts.
 

The Growth of New Media

And what do we mean by the "new economy"? The economy of the next century will be a digital economy, spurred by the growth of information technologies and electronic commerce. Already, approximately one-third of this nation's economic growth in the past few years (or over $1.1 trillion) has come from information technologies, according to a recent Department of Commerce report. It is an economy fueled by unparalleled investment. For example, just this year, $8 billion in ventured funding has poured into Internet companies; that's twice last year's rate [USA Today, 9/17/99].

The most stunning example of high-tech growth is the surge in electronic commerce (or e-commerce). According to a recent University of Texas study, e-commerce is growing at a far faster rate than anticipated. The Internet economy generated more than $300 billion in revenue and was responsible for 1.2 million jobs in 1998. In several years, revenues are expected to well exceed $1 trillion.

The opportunities created by the new economy are tremendous. As Vice President Gore declared, "In this emerging digital marketplace, anyone with a good idea and a little software can set up shop, and become the corner store for the entire planet." You can be 18 or 81 and run a store online. And because the Internet is color-blind, it is opening up new commercial opportunities for people of color. No one knows if the owner of an on-line store is an African American, a Hispanic, an Asian American or a Native American.

The creation of new jobs in the high-tech sector are opening up other doors as well. In 1997, IT-producing industries added 350,000 jobs, an increase more than double the employment growth in other sectors. And the opportunities in this sector are only expected to grow. More than 80% of the nation's technology companies expect to increase their information technology (IT) staff in the next several years. The Department of Commerce recently reported that, by 2006, almost half of American workers will be employed by industries that are either major information technology producers or users of technology. And these are jobs that pay well: more 78% more than the average job ($52,920 compared to $29,787).

The Implications of the Technology Gap

These opportunities are there, but they're there only for those who are computer-literate and can participate in the new economy. Unfortunately, what we have today is a society where not everyone can participate in the new digital age. We now have a nation divided between technology "haves" (those who have access to new technologies and understand how they work), and a nation of technology "have nots." This has the potential to aggravate economic divisions that already exist in America. If we want the economy to flourish and our society to grow, we cannot continue to exclude whole segments of America from the Information Revolution.

NTIA recently illustrated the problem of the "digital divide" in a report released in July. In that report, we found that there are extreme disparities in access to new technologies based on income, education, geography, and race. For example, if you are Black or Hispanic, your chance of having Internet access at home is less than one in ten. More than one-quarter of Whites, by contrast, have home Internet access. To put it another way, Blacks and Hispanics have significantly less access to the Internet from any location (including work, home, or school) than Whites do just at home.

The disparities between races are significant, and they are growing. Between 1997 and 1998, the gap in household access to the Internet between Blacks and Whites, and Hispanics and Whites, grew approximately five percentage points (by almost 40%). Over the last four years, the gaps in computer ownership have also grown approximately 40%.

This technology gap exists across all facets of life. Last weekend, for example, Jesse Jackson took 3 busloads of high school kids from a predominantly African-American school on Chicago's South Side to a state-of-the-art school in the wealthy suburb of Naperville. This visit was an eye-opener for these kids: from a school with peeling paint and a computer room without Internet connections, they saw a suburban facility with elaborate computer centers, Olympic-sized swimming pools, and new science laboratories and music rooms. Obviously, the kids in the South Side are not going to be acquiring the same computer skills, or have the same access to information, as the kids in Naperville.

These discrepancies exist, not only at schools, but also at the college level. For example, historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) still are not using computers at the same level as other universities. Four out of five students at elite private universities say they use computers regularly. Only two of five students at HBCUs have reported that to be the case.

The technology gap among Americans can have a real impact when you're looking at the job market. In fact, a recent study of 250 high-tech businesses in Silicon Valley found that minorities were significantly underrepresented, especially in managerial and professional positions. The study found that, even though African-Americans represent 8 percent of the regions labor force, they represent less than 4 percent of the workers in high-tech, and less than 3 percent of managers and professionals. Similarly, while Hispanics represent 14 percent of the regional workforce, they compose only 5 percent of professionals and 3 percent of managers.

The low rate of minority participation is particularly troubling when many of the jobs in the high-tech industry are still unfilled. Nationwide, more than 10% of the information technology jobs (or 346,000) positions remain open because, companies claim, they are not able to find skilled workers.

The U.S. Congress has responded to this worker shortage by lifting the cap on the number of foreign workers that can be imported to fill these jobs. This will enable high-tech companies, over the next few years, to employ nearly double the number of foreign computer programmers than is currently allowed. But I hope and believe that this legislation is a short-term, stopgap measure. What we really need to focus on is ensuring that our citizens have the training to hold these jobs. Our long-term priority should not be importing skilled workers, but imparting work skills to our communities.
 

Opening Opportunities to All Americans

So what can we do to make sure that new media developments in the next century provide real opportunities for all Americans? We need to be sure that minorities gain access to new technologies, and training in those technologies, both of which are necessary for jobs in the high-tech sector.

I have suggested a three-pronged approach: we need to increase "connectivity," raise "receptivity," and heighten "activity" in these sectors. That is, we need to connect more schools and communities; we need to inspire our communities to explore opportunities in the new media; and we need to provide the minority community tools to take advantage of these opportunities.

First, "connectivity." One of our primary tasks is to connect the schools in our minority areas. The Clinton Administration has long supported the "education-rate" or "e-rate" program, which provides a discounted rate to schools and libraries that are purchasing telecommunications services, Internet access, and classroom connections. This program will help more inner city schools, and underserved areas, get online. Already we have made significant strides: almost 90% of all schools have some kind of Internet connection, but those schools without Internet access are far more likely to be found in low-income and minority neighborhoods.

Connecting our communities will also take a broader array of efforts. Not everyone has access to a school or library, or wants to spend time in a school or library to get information. We need to reach out to communities through additional facilities, such as community centers, churches, Boys and Girls Clubs, or 4H Clubs. The Congressional Black Caucus should be proud to be one of the most active advocates in this effort. Thanks to Congresswoman Maxine Waters' efforts, the Department of Education is now running a program to fund community technology centers around the country.

NTIA also administers a program, called the Telecommunications and Information Infrastructure Assistance Program (TIIAP), which brings new technologies to underserved communities. TIIAP has funded projects that provide access to electronic job databases, provide computer training for the community, or help retrain adults in lifelong skills.

Industry efforts are also bringing more people online. Last month, Secretary Daley helped announce the opening of a new community technology training center in Southeast Washington. The center has come about through the work of a public/private partnership between the Greater Washington Urban League, AT&T, and Microsoft. This is just one of the many examples of corporate efforts to connect underserved communities.

But we need to make sure that more companies get involved and coordinate their activities. Toward that end, Secretary Daley announced that he will be holding a national roundtable to examine ways to close the digital divide. As he has explained, we need a serious dialogue on ways to bring technology to underserved communities. And that dialogue should include major technology companies, civil rights organizations, civic leaders, and community groups.

We also need to work on "receptivity;" that is, we need to inspire the minority community to explore opportunities in the telecom and new media sectors. Most kids today would rather grow up to be Michael Jordan than Michael Dell, and spend time on a basketball court than in a computer room. We need to teach them that the chances of fame and fortune are far greater in the telecom and high-tech fields than on the playing field.

We also need to challenge our companies to do more for our youth. Companies should be thinking about how to reach out to the young and minority markets. Take the Visor, for example. This new personal digital assistant is like a Palm Pilot but can transform into a wireless phone, a fax modem, a digital camera, or a MP3 music player simply by snapping on the right module. Because it comes in trendy flourescent colors, it is particularly likely to attract youth.

Examples like this can teach our kids that technology is not just for geeks, but can be cool information tools.

Finally, we need more "activity" to open doors to the minority community, whether you're looking for a job or starting your own business. The opportunities are there; we just need to be make sure that they're universally available.

One component of this effort is training. We need to make sure that training in high-tech skills is available, not only for K-12 students, but from K through retirement. We all need access to training to develop new skills, or refresh old ones, in today's changing job market. That's why the Administration announced a plan earlier this year for lifelong skills training that will help companies address the skills gap.

We also need to make sure that minority and small businesses are significant players in this commercial development. Minorities have long been consumers of communications services, whether it be cable, television, or wireless devices. Now, we need to shift our focus so that we become the providers. We need to be the entrepreneurs, the creators of content, and the ones to provide the tools for telecommunications services. We should not only be thinking about using software and hardware, but manufacturing them. We should not only be viewing video streaming services, but marketing them. And we should not only be buying goods online, but creating new niche markets in the Web marketplace. Only then will we ensure that all Americans are truly benefitting from the new economy.

Conclusion

The next century promises a digital economy that is profitable and dynamic. And it is worth all our efforts to ensure that every American can participate in the digital world. Author William Gibson has been quoted as saying that "the future has arrived; it's just not evenly distributed." As we move into the digital world, we cannot afford to let technological literacy become unevenly distributed. We cannot afford to become a nation divided between "information haves" and "information have nots." CBC is one of the alliances that can prevent that result, and I look forward to working with you in that campaign.