Remarks of Assistant Secretary Irving at the National Press Club

Falling Through the Net: Defining the Digital Divide
July 08, 1999

Remarks by Larry Irving
Assistant Secretary for Communications and Information
National Telecommunications and Information Administration
U.S. Department of Commerce
at the
National Press Club
Washington, D.C.
July 8, 1999

Good morning. All of us have been transfixed over the last several days as we've watched the President's New Markets Tour. The President has talked about how, even in these times of prosperity, many Americans across this country have been left behind. Similarly, in this time of technological revolution, we are witnessing unprecedented vitality and creativity in the telecommunications and information technology industries. Despite that, we are seeing that far too many Americans are not part of this revolution.

That is why, later today in Anaheim, California, President Clinton and Secretary of Commerce Daley will release Falling Through the Net: Defining the Digital Divide, NTIA's new report on the "digital divide" between the information "haves" and "have nots" in America. The President will also announce several major initiatives to bridge the divide by industries such as AT&T, America Online, and Lucent Technologies.

This morning, on behalf of the President, I would like to take the opportunity to provide background on the report and explain some of its key findings. I am also pleased to showcase other examples of innovative private/public partnerships that will significantly expand access to new technologies and can provide models for new initiatives.

As the President will explain later today, access to new technologies is critical to the economic success of underserved communities and to personal advancement. Six years ago, President Clinton and Vice President Gore pledged to build a National Information Infrastructure (NII), which would become the backbone for our nation's economy and communications systems. The New Markets Initiatives will help ensure that the benefits of our information economy extend to all areas, whether rural or urban, affluent or poor.

Falling Through the Net is an important diagnostic tool that will help us determine which Americans have access to those technologies, and which do not. The good news is that more Americans are connected than ever before. Computer ownership has nearly doubled in four years, and Internet access has increased more than 40 percent in the last year. Today, more than one-quarter of American households have Internet access at home.

But there is also some very troubling news: the "digital divide" between the information rich and poor persists. Even more troubling, it is widening in many cases. For example, income plays a significant role in the level of access to computers and the Internet. High-income households (earning more than $75,000) are twenty times more likely to have access to the Internet as households at the lowest income levels.

Those in rural areas, across all income levels, are lagging behind households of similar incomes in urban areas and central cities. A low-income household in a rural area has a less than one in thirty chance of having Internet access at home. A rural Black household has less than a one in thirteen chance of having home Internet access.

Education also makes a real difference. College graduates are sixteen times more likely to have home Internet access than those with an elementary school education level (48.9% versus 3.1%). In rural areas, college-educated households are more than twenty-six times more likely to have Internet access.

Another significant factor in Internet access is the family make-up. A child with two parents is far more likely to have Internet access than a child with one parent. At all income levels, two-parent households in Black, Native American, Asian, and Hispanic households are twice as likely to have Internet access as single-parent households. The only deviation are Hispanics earning less than $35,000, who are not affected by this trend.

Finally, we not only have a digital divide today; we now also have a "racial ravine." 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 data show that 19.0% of Blacks and 16.6% of Hispanics have Internet access from any point, compared to 26.7% of Whites using the Internet at home). If you are Black or Hispanic, your chance of having Internet access at home is less than one in ten. To put it another way, 90 percent of Blacks and Hispanics do not have Internet access at home. Even more troubling, 80 percent of Blacks and Hispanics do not have access to the Internet from any point at any part of any day of their lives.

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 six percentage points (or more than 50%).

Fortunately, at the highest income level ($75,000+), we are finding that the gap between Black and White households has narrowed considerably. This suggests that, if prices of computers and the Internet continue to fall, the gap between the information "haves" and "have nots" may continue to narrow.

In the meantime, there is an urgent need for continued efforts to connect all Americans. Pro-competition policies will continue to make new technologies more affordable for more Americans. The data also underscore the need for Administration programs that support community access centers, such as schools, libraries, or community centers. Administration programs, such as the e-rate and NTIA's Telecommunications and Information Infrastructure Assistance Program (TIIAP), have played key roles in expanding access to computers and the Internet. The President and Vice President have also been talking about expanding community technology centers throughout the United States; with these centers, we may see the gap narrow.

The data in our report show that schools, libraries, and community centers are particularly well used by groups that lack access to new technologies at home and at work. One powerful model of how public libraries can serve as public access centers is the Science, Industry, and Business Library (called SIBL) in the New York Public Library system. SIBL offers over seventy computers to the public, as well as training courses throughout the day to teach people how to use the World Wide Web, do online research, and find jobs on the Net. We need more public places like SIBL.

These access points and training programs are essential. People who use libraries and other access points are also proportionately more likely than other groups to use the Internet to take courses and find jobs, and they need training to learn how to use these technologies. An investment in such programs is therefore an investment in the economic, professional, and personal growth of hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Americans.

Of course, government alone cannot bridge the divide. We need the ongoing assistance of non-profit organizations and private industries to expand access to new technologies and to train Americans. The initiatives that President Clinton will unveil today will go far in achieving both goals.

As a complement to the announcements the President will make later today, I am proud that we have other representatives from private/public partnerships who are launching new solutions to the digital divide. These programs are innovative, and are demonstrating the many ways that companies can make a difference in expanding access to information resources. I am now pleased to turn this press conference over to these representatives.