The chasm that separates the digital “haves” from the “have-nots” might get a little smaller soon, as corporate, government, and education leaders implement ideas generated at a meeting held in Washington on Dec. 9 to discuss ways to close the technology gap.

The “Closing the Digital Divide” summit, hosted by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) and Secretary of Commerce William M. Daley, focused on expanding access to new technologies for underserved populations.

President Clinton attended a preconference breakfast, at which he commented, “I believe we should set a national goal of making computers and internet access available for every American.”

With beliefs like this at the focus of discussion, Gregory L. Rhode, NTIA’s assistant secretary for communications and information, opened the summit to an overflow audience of more than 800 journalists, educators, and civic leaders.

Rhode began by outlining the necessity for closing the ever-widening digital divide. “We want to ensure that all people can benefit from today’s telecommunications revolution,” he said, adding that more than one-third of the global domestic product is now related to the information technology industry.

Rhode next introduced David Bolt, producer of the new PBS documentary series, “Digital Divide,” which aired in January.

Bolt showed the audience a 10-minute preview of the documentary, narrated by Queen Latifah, and encouraged community leaders to schedule events in connection with local technology centers and area PBS stations to support the documentary’s first screening.

Rhode then introduced Daley, who briefed the crowd about the actual size of the problem being addressed that day.

According to research published by NTIA in the agency’s 1998 report, “Falling Through The Net: Defining the Digital Divide,” whites are more likely to have internet access from the home than blacks or Hispanics are likely to have from any location, and this ethnic gap increased by five percentage points from 1997 to 1998. Statistics also show that rural America is a vastly underserved population, indicating that income really does matter in terms of internet connectivity.

Daley concluded his introductory remarks with a challenge to business and community leaders: “It is not important to set a goal [on internet connectivity] today, but the important statement is if you individually set a goal.”

He added that although all the chief executive officers in attendance were certainly looking to increase their markets by encouraging a tech-savvy work force, they also have a higher responsibility to ensure the prosperity of workers at all socioeconomic levels. “Companies can do well by doing good,” he said.

Daley then introduced the participants of “Roundtable: Connecting Underserved Communities” and opened the panel for discussion.

Corporate leaders such as BellSouth CEO F. Duane Ackerman, AT&T’s C. Michael Armstrong, Electronic Data Systems’ Dick Brown, and America Online’s Stephen Case reiterated their commitment to doing everything in their power to close the digital divide and ensure technological equality.

Case commented, “It is important that as we build this new medium, we really make sure no one is left behind. The next century will be the internet century.” Added Brown, “We need to find capable, energized, well-trained people with a high aptitude who are capable of working in a technological atmosphere.”

The group also discussed the importance of developing relevant internet content for all ethnic groups and economic levels to encourage widespread internet use.

Darian Dash, founder of Digital Mafia Entertainment, a N.J. company that develops content aimed at the black population, drew shouts and applause when he said, “Black America does have a large portion of the market share. Don’t you think my aunt and cousin, who can spend $400 on a sweatshirt or some sneakers, can afford to buy a machine?”

Tessie Guillermo, executive director of the Asian and Pacific Islander Health Forum, added that for many Asian-Americans, a sense of isolation creates a need to connect and communicate within their community, which could account for Asian-Americans having the highest rate of internet connectivity of any ethnic group. However, she noted that 63 percent of the Asian community comes from foreign countries, and that while long-distance access is critical to this population, the language of the internet is English, a fact that deters many Asian-Americans from getting online.

Hugh Price, CEO of the National Urban League, emphasized the problem facing educators and leaders concerned about closing the divide between haves and have-nots. “We face an achievement gap, which breaks out around ethnic lines as well as around urban and rural lines,” he said.

The roundtable group also addressed how educators can help bridge the technological divide. Irma Zardoya, superintendent of the Bronx School District in New York (the largest in the state, with 42,000 students enrolled), said, “Public schools are keenly focused on making technology accessible, but it’s very hard to do that.” She outlined two potential remedies: “First, home-based access programs like fully funded laptop programs, where students can check out the laptops, and second, professional development opportunities for teachers.”

AT&T’s Armstrong emphasized his company’s dedication to training and professional development for educators. “We all face learning a whole new language of technology. We formed the AT&T Learning Network to help educators with this training,” he said.

To affirm the community dedication of such training, Wade Henderson of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights (LCCR) announced that his organization is teaming with the AOL Foundation to launch the “Digital Opportunity Partnership,” a national coalition to address technology gap issues.

After the roundtable discussion, attendees were invited to one of several breakout sessions on more specific topics led by technology, education, and community leaders. Among the topics addressed: “Technology and economic development in underserved areas,” “Lowering barriers to access through new product development,” and “Marketing and content for underserved populations.”

Rhode and the NTIA also announced a new web site devoted entirely to issues pertaining to closing the digital divide (see link below).

Digital Divide
http://www.digitaldivide.gov

PBS Digital Divide documentary information
http://www.pbs.org/digitaldivide

National Telecommunications and Information Administration
http://www.ntia.doc.gov

BellSouth
http://www.bellsouth.com

AT&T
http://www.att.com

Electronic Data Systems
http://www.eds.com

America Online
http://www.aol.com

Digital Mafia Entertainment
http://www.dmeinteractive.com

Leadership Conference on Civil Rights
http://www.civilrights.org

National Urban League
http://www.nul.org

New York Board of Education
http://www.nycenet.edu