Information tools, such as the personal computer and the Internet, are increasingly critical to economic success and personal advancement. Falling Through the Net: Defining the Digital Divide finds that more Americans than ever have access to telephones, computers, and the Internet. At the same time, however, NTIA has found that there is still a significant "digital divide" separating American information "haves" and "have nots." Indeed, in many instances, the digital divide has widened in the last year.
This report, NTIA's third in the Falling Through the Net series, relies on December 1998 U.S. Department of Commerce Census Bureau data to provide an updated snapshot of the digital divide. The good news is that Americans are more connected than ever before. Access to computers and the Internet has soared for people in all demographic groups and geographic locations. At the end of 1998, over 40 percent of American households owned computers, and one-quarter of all households had Internet access. Additionally, those who were less likely to have telephones (chiefly, young and minority households in rural areas) are now more likely to have phones at home. (Chart I-1)
Accompanying this good news, however, is the persistence of the digital divide between the information rich (such as Whites, Asians/Pacific Islanders, those with higher incomes, those more educated, and dual-parent households) and the information poor (such as those who are younger, those with lower incomes and education levels, certain minorities, and those in rural areas or central cities). The 1998 data reveal significant disparities, including the following:
For many groups, the digital divide has widened as the information "haves" outpace the "have nots" in gaining access to electronic resources. The following gaps with regard to home Internet access are representative:
Nevertheless, the news is not all bleak. For Americans with incomes of $75,000 and higher, the divide between Whites and Blacks has actually narrowed considerably in the last year. This finding suggests that the most affluent American families, irrespective of race, are connecting to the Net. If prices of computers and the Internet decline further, the divide between the information "haves" and "have nots" may continue to narrow.
Until every home can afford access to information resources, however, we will need public policies and private initiatives to expand affordable access to those resources. The Clinton Administration is committed to connecting all Americans to the National Information Infrastructure. Pro-competition policies, to reduce the prices of basic phone and information services, and universal service policies will continue to be important parts of the solution.
Community access centers (CACs) -- such as schools, libraries, and other public access points -- will play an important role. The 1998 data demonstrate that community access centers are particularly well used by those groups who lack access at home or at work. These same groups (such as those with lower incomes and education levels, certain minorities, and the unemployed) are also using the Internet at higher rates to search for jobs or take courses. Providing public access to the Internet will help these groups advance economically, as well as provide them the technical skills to compete professionally in today's digital economy.
Establishing and supporting community access centers, among other steps, will help ensure that all Americans can access new technologies. As we enter the Information Age, access to computers and the Internet is becoming increasingly vital. It is in everyone's interest to ensure that no American is left behind.