Chapter 4: Should Universal Access to Computer Technology Be Guaranteed?
Computer Haves and Have-Nots: An Overview
An unintended consequence of the information revolution, according to many observers, is the widening gap between the information haves and have-nots. It has been dubbed “the civil rights and economic rights issue of the 21st century,” “information apartheid” and “electronic redlining.”
Computer Haves and Have-Nots
Currently [as of 1995] only 10 percent of Americans have the know-how and $1,000-plus worth of equipment—computer, modem, telephone connection and gateway software—needed to cruise the information superhighway. A survey by PC World concluded that households with incomes of $50,000 and up are five times more likely than others to own a personal computer and 10 times more likely to have access to on-line services. The gap is racial as well as economic. A 1993 Census Bureau study found that 37.5 percent of whites have computers at home, work or school compared with only 25 percent of blacks and 22 percent of Hispanics.
Only 20 percent of public libraries are hooked to the Internet, according to the American Library Association (ALA), the vast majority of them in urban areas. Only 12 percent of the classrooms in U.S. schools have a telephone jack, but only 4 percent of all classrooms are wired to the Internet, according to the National Education Association.
This is why a coalition of groups that includes the NAACP, the Consumer Federation of America, the Center for Media Education, the...
(The entire section is 1155 words.)
Universal Access to E-mail Should Be Guaranteed
It doesn’t quite have the ring of John F. Kennedy’s vow, in 1961, to land a man on the moon “before this decade is out.” But you’d think a President or candidate for President would by now have hurled a similar challenge, with the promise of raising the nation’s literacy, its computer skills and its technical prowess: E-mail for All by 2010!
The Power of E-mail
As millions of Americans already know, E-mail is electronic mail that can be sent by anyone with a computer and telephone to everyone similarly equipped, anywhere on earth, almost instantaneously, at virtually no cost. It is by far the most popular feature of the Internet, that amorphous network of computer networks. E-mail’s digital messages can be coolly deliberate, like a letter, or warmly spontaneous, like a phone call. They can be sent at any hour and read at the receiver’s convenience. They can be addressed to a single person or simultaneously to thousands—thousands chosen by the sender for some shared interest or thousands who asked for a certain type of mail.
Although E-mail will eventually carry moving pictures and oral messages, it is now mostly written—typed, to be precise, on keyboards. Its messages are sliced up and wrapped inside small electronic packets, all of which pick their way along the best available Internet routes to an electronic postal station, where they reassemble and wait in storage for an addressee—like...
(The entire section is 1022 words.)
Minority Communities Should Be Guaranteed Access to the Internet
You can now confidently say “Welcome to the planet” to anyone who has not heard of the Internet. Nearly every household in the country has been bombarded by shrink-wrapped diskettes and CDs offering “free trial access” to the Net, as it’s commonly called. Yet in spite of the heavy media coverage of online culture and the business world’s newfound obsession with Internet-related companies and activities, fewer than 10 percent of North Americans actually have any kind of meaningful access to the Net. The Internet may be the main component of the information superhighway, but making the conversion from what is now a limited-access road to a true public-access thoroughfare will require some work.
Private Party or Public Revolution?
Understanding the language of the Net and being able to utilize its material are rapidly becoming part of a new basic survival literacy. Every field of employment has been changed by computers and computer-mediated communication. However, telecommunications-industry marketing is primarily geared toward “early adapters”—those who can easily and readily purchase its products and services. In fact, the average annual income of “Net households” is approximately $60,000. According to a study by analyst Kofi Asiedu Ofori, electronic redlining (i.e., bypassing poor communities) “will contribute to the economic decline of impoverished city neighborhoods and create isolated islands of ‘information...
(The entire section is 1381 words.)
Subsidies for Universal Access Should Not Be Expanded
Author’s note: Although the Telecommunications Act of 1996 differs in important regards from the Markey-Fields bill referenced in this viewpoint, it requires the Federal Communications Commission to address the issues surrounding the definition and reform of universal service that are analyzed below.
Members of Congress and the Clinton administration are seeking to mandate subsidized access to the much ballyhooed information superhighway. Just what this new infrastructure would look like is not clear. Nevertheless, legislation sponsored by Reps. Edward Markey (D., Mass.) and Jack Fields (R., Texas) seeks to expand universal service policies for telephones to include new services such as interactive television. In addition, Vice President Al Gore proposed that telecommunications companies provide subsidized access to public schools and libraries. This is necessary, Mr. Gore said, to prevent the creation of a society of “information haves and have-nots.”
These proposals are well-intentioned. But at best they are premature and fail to come to grips with the real challenges facing universal service today. At worst, they could delay the implementation of new interactive services and set back the telecommunications revolution.
Telephone service in the U.S. is now virtually universal. As of November 1993 over 94% of U.S. households had a telephone and nearly 96% had access to one. Under current universal service policies,...
(The entire section is 1213 words.)
Minority Communities Are Not Being Denied Access to the Internet
The structure of the data superhighway is “the civil rights issue of the twentyfirst century.” This opinion comes from the United Church of Christ, part of a coalition of liberal groups that landed on the front page of the New York Times with a study alleging “electronic redlining.” The study looked at neighborhoods where the Baby Bells are testing fiber-optic “video dial tone” service. It sensed a recurring theme of affluence and whiteness and concluded that the superhighway is bypassing the underprivileged. The study’s sponsors, among them the NAACP, want “anti-redlining” rules in the epic telecommunications legislation now forming in Congress. [The Telecommunications Competition and Deregulation Act eventually signed into law in February 1996 requires communications companies to provide information services to all areas of the country at affordable rates.]
There is certainly much to dislike in the emerging data superhighway (including the name—hereafter: the “dataway”). And there are things about it that will indeed harm the urban underclass. But whether “redlining” is among them, and warrants a liberal crusade, is another question.
Different Visions of the Information Highway
The issue turns partly on which of the two basic visions of the dataway you buy. One is the “cornucopia of edification” vision: in the world of tomorrow, you will download interactive cello lessons, join in a global...
(The entire section is 1189 words.)