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Testimony of Administrator Irving on The Digital Divide: Bridging the Technological Gap

July 27, 1999










JULY 27, 1999

Mr. Chairman and Members of the Subcommittee:

Thank you for this opportunity to testify today on the findings of Falling Through the Net: Defining the Digital Divide ("Falling Through the Net"), the study on the "digital divide" authored by the Department of Commerce's National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA). Today, I would like to describe the key findings of this new study. I have also attached to my testimony copies of slides that I will be presenting in my oral testimony before the Subcommittee.

President Clinton and Secretary of Commerce William M. Daley released Falling Through the Net on July 8, 1999, during the Administration's New Markets tour through the United States. During this tour, the President and Secretary Daley discussed the fact that, even though information technology underlies much of our nation's economic growth, too many Americans are left out of the digital economy. As a result, the digital divide -- that is, the divide between the so-called information "haves" and "have nots" -- has become one of the critical economic and civil rights issue of this decade.

Access to new technologies, such as the computer and the Internet, will be key to the future economic success of American businesses, communities, and individuals. To begin with, the Internet is becoming an important tool for personal success and professional advancement. Increasingly, Americans are using it to find jobs, contact colleagues, locate public information, or take courses online. Familiarity with new technologies will also prepare more Americans for the high-tech workplace of the 21st century.

Equally important, access to new technologies has become critical to the success of small businesses. Electronic commerce is increasingly helping small companies and entrepreneurs in rural, remote, and traditionally underserved areas. It is enabling small businesses to connect with a global market, find cheaper products, and sell to buyers worldwide. In addition, new technologies, such as the Internet and high-speed telecommunications networks, are allowing many companies to expand to new regions, supporting the development of new businesses and creating new jobs in many economically depressed areas.

Because of the increasingly important role of new technologies, Secretary Daley has concluded that "[e]nsuring access to the fundamental tools of the digital economy is one of the most significant investments our nation can make." As we enter the 21st century, it will become even more essential to ensure that all Americans -- whether rich or poor, urban or rural, Hispanic or Black -- can reap the benefits of these new technologies.

Falling Through the Net: Defining the Problem

Falling Through the Net: Defining the Digital Divide provides a key starting point in bridging the gap between the nation's information rich and poor. It serves as an important diagnostic tool to help determine which Americans have access to new technologies, and which do not. The report therefore provides an important factual basis for policymakers and the private sector to formulate ways to provide greater access for more Americans.

This is NTIA's third report documenting household access to telephones, computers, and the Internet. The first report, released in July 1995, was a landmark subscribership study of U.S. households. The study received much attention and provided important empirical findings for the Administration and other policymakers seeking to assure that no Americans are being left behind in the emerging Information Age. A successor study, released in July 1998, documented the rapid growth of PC penetration and online activity in US households, and underscored the widening "digital divide" between the so-called information "haves" and "have nots."

The new study, Falling Through the Net: Defining the Digital Divide, expands on the previous two reports. In addition to documenting connectivity among households, the study includes valuable new information on how people are gaining access to the Internet; how Americans choose to spend their time online; and why some people are not connected.

As with the previous two reports, NTIA utilized data from the U.S. Department of Commerce Census Bureau. NTIA contracted with the Census Bureau to add questions to its December 1998 "Current Population Survey" ("CPS") on household penetration, specifically to formulate a Computer and Internet Use Supplement survey. The Census Bureau obtained data on these surveys by interviewing 48,000 sample households across all fifty states. This survey asked additional questions regarding points of Internet access, methods of access, types of use, and reasons for discontinuing use, among other topics.

Key Findings from Falling Through the Net

Overall, the study presents much good news: more Americans are connected today than ever before. Computer ownership has nearly doubled in four years, and Internet access has increased more than 40 percent in the last year. More than one-quarter of American households have Internet access at home and approximately one-third of Americans are going online from some point. 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.

The Growing Disparities

Nevertheless, there is also some very troubling news. To begin with, there is a persisting "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 new data reveal significant disparities, including the following:

  • Households with incomes of $75,000 and higher are more than twenty times more likely to have access to the Internet than those at the lowest income levels, and more than nine times as likely to have a computer at home.

  • College graduates are nearly sixteen times more likely to have home Internet access than those with an elementary school education level, and more than eight times as likely to have a computer. In rural areas, college-educated households are more than twenty-six times more likely to have Internet access.

  • Black and Hispanic households are approximately one-third as likely to have home Internet access as households of Asian/Pacific Islander descent, and roughly two-fifths as likely as White households. Significantly, Whites are more likely to have access to the Internet from home than Blacks or Hispanics have from any location.

  • Those in rural areas, across all income levels, are less likely to have Internet access than 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.

  • Northeast central cities and the rural South are lagging behind all other areas in household access to new technologies. For computer ownership, Northeast central cities (30.4%) and the rural South (34.6%) are well behind the national average (42.1%). The same is true for home Internet access: 18.7% for Northeast central cities and 19.0% for the rural South, compared to the national average of 26.2%.

Perhaps even more troubling, the digital divide has widened in the last year 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:

  • The gaps between White and Hispanic households, and between White and Black households, are now more than six percentage points larger than they were in 1997.

  • The digital divides based on education and income level have also increased in the last year alone. Between 1997 and 1998, the divide between those at the highest and lowest education levels increased 25 percent, and the divide between those at the highest and lowest income levels grew 29 percent.

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.

The Importance of Public Access Points

Until every household can afford access to information resources, it will be important to provide access to computers and the Internet outside the home through public access points. The data in Falling Through the Net demonstrate that schools, libraries, and community centers are particularly well used by groups that lack access to new technologies at home and at work. The following examples are illustrative:

  • Blacks who use the Internet outside the home are nearly twice as likely to use a public library or a community center for access than Whites.

  • Americans earning less than $20,000 are more than twice as likely to get Internet access through a public library or a community center.

  • People without college degrees are also significantly (1.4 times) more likely to use these access points than those with college degrees.

Promoting public access points and training programs are, therefore, essential steps to connecting American communities. The data also demonstrate that 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. 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.

Solving the digital divide will involve both government and private sector efforts. Government programs, such as NTIA's Telecommunications and Information Infrastructure Assistance Program (TIIAP), are already expanding access to technological resources to underserved areas. TIIAP provides matching grants to non-profits and public entities serving underserved populations through new technologies. The program has helped support such programs as the Mountain Association for Community Economic Development, which is providing technological resources to promote entrepreneurship in rural communities in Kentucky.

The assistance of non-profit organizations and private industries is also necessary a necessary component in expanding access to new technologies. Industry has already come forward with significant assistance. Companies are supporting the creation of community technology centers, helping connect schools through "NetDays," and donating computers and software to schools and neighborhood centers. The private sector's contribution is essential because these companies know what kinds of skills Americans will need in order to find jobs in the future.

Additionally, community-based organizations can help provide access to computers and the Internet where communities need it most. Each community knows best how to reach and connect its residents, whether it is through traditional community centers, churches, housing projects, senior centers, museums, fire and police stations, Boys and Girls Clubs, or other centers.

These efforts - on the part of industry, community organizations, and government -- are all necessary to providing additional access points for those without Internet access at home. They will provide Americans with the skills they need to compete in the high-tech workplace and to find new business opportunities. Only with through these continued, combined efforts can we reach our goal of enabling all Americans to participate in the digital economy.