The Bush administration should protect federal programs that promote internet access in homes and should do more to close the gap between technology haves and have-nots, consumer groups said in a report issued May 30.

The groups contend the administration is misinterpreting a government study on the topic of the digital divide by looking at internet access at work and in schools rather than concentrating on homes, where most families use the internet and the gap is greatest.

“The administration’s claim that we no longer need policies to close the gap is simply wrong,” said Chris Murray of the Consumers Union, publisher of Consumer Reports, which released its analysis along with the Consumer Federation of America and the Civil Rights Forum on Communications Policy.

“Rather than misdefine the problem of the digital divide, the Bush administration would like to misinterpret it out of existence,” Murray said.

The issue is an important one for school leaders, many of whom believe students who lack computers and internet access at home are at a disadvantage and often must compete for limited computer time while at school.

Michael D. Gallagher, deputy director of the Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration, said the administration agrees the digital divide is a serious issue.

But he said the government now is taking a different approach from the Clinton administration’s, which included a program launched in 1994 that brought computers with internet access to inner cities.

“This administration focuses much more on digital opportunities as opposed to divides,” Gallagher said. “We believe in expanded opportunities, which happen in schools, in libraries, in workplaces, and at home.”

Gallagher pointed to the adoption of cable television and wireless phones, which are now popular across the economic spectrum.

“That occurred without a government subsidy, a government program, or a government handout,” Gallagher said.

In an annual digital divide report released by the Commerce Department in February, the administration pointed to a trend that showed internet use growing at a faster rate among the poor and minorities and in rural areas.

Emboldened by the survey, officials then declared that the digital divide was closing and expensive government programs such as Commerce’s Technology Opportunities Program are no longer needed. That program, which once cost $45 million per year, creates self-sustaining technology projects, such as public computer labs in inner-city schools and communities.

Bush cut funds for the program to $15 million last year and marked it for elimination in his 2003 budget.

Gallagher said the administration is encouraged by $20-per-month internet access and $500 computers, common prices for low-end access, “which are much more robust than what was available in 1994 when this program was initiated.”

Bush’s 2003 education budget terminates several other technology projects, including a $33 million program that creates community technology centers and a $63 million program to help teachers learn how to use computers in the classroom.

Administration officials contend that these projects duplicate others, and they cite the need to put more money into anti-terrorism projects.

The consumer groups’ report says 45 percent of Americans still do not have internet access. It also laments the second-tier digital divide brought by broadband, in which richer Americans are getting high-speed internet access, while many poor families have none at all.

Critics also cite the Federal Communications Commission for policies that loosen requirements on the local telephone giants. Consumer Federation of America research director Mark Cooper said the policies will result in higher prices for home and school internet access.

The administration’s policies “will only worsen the problem, ensuring that the internet will not be a mechanism for increasing equality and spreading opportunity, but will be a case of the rich getting richer,” Cooper said.

Links:

Consumers Union
http://www.consumersunion.org

Consumer Federation of America
http://www.consumerfed.org

“Does the Digital Divide Still Exist? Bush Administration Shrugs, But Evidence Says Yes” (requires Adobe Acrobat Reader)
http://www.consumerfed.org/DigitalDivideReport20020530.pdf

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

“A Nation Online: How Americans Are Expanding Their Use Of The Internet”
http://www.ntia.doc.gov/ntiahome/dn/index.html