|THE DIGITAL DIVIDE|
September 17, 1999
JIM LEHRER: Now, the haves and the have-nots in the information revolution. Jeffrey Kaye of KCET-Los Angeles reports.
JEFFREY KAYE: A technicians description of a high-speed Internet line is practically a mantra of the information age.
TECHNICIAN: You dont have to dial up and wait for a connection; youre always connected.
JEFFREY KAYE: Always connected. You cant get more connected than the Lifland-Rodriguez family of Temple City, a suburb of Los Angeles. For a $30 installation fee plus 50 bucks a month, the household recently got their computer wired to the Internet through the same wires used for cable TV.
CONSUMER: Its always on. You dont have to worry about a busy signal ever.
CONSUMER: Its definitely going to be worth it because youre going to just save so much time even though whatever it costs, youre just saving so much time.
JEFFREY KAYE: For their money the family now has high-speed, top-of-the-line Internet access. The hookup places them with many other Americans at the forefront of the information revolution and an age apart from those with no or limited access to information technologies. On the Navajo Indian Reservation in the Southwest U.S., 78 percent of the 56,000 homes dont even have telephone service. Most residents of the sprawling reservation live clustered in remote areas. Jennifer Yazzies family got electricity only last year and has no running water; they cant afford to install phones.
JENNIFER YAZZIE: The figure that we heard was like about three to four thousand for the poles to come this way.
JEFFREY KAYE: And could you afford that?
JENNIFER YAZZIE: I dont know. I dont know if we could afford that, but its going to be a lot for us to pay that much just to get a phone.
JEFFREY KAYE: While many Americans are increasingly getting plugged in and wired up, for others, the information age is virtually non-existent. These contrasts may seem extreme, but they are vivid examples of what has become known as the digital divide.
WILLIAM KENNARD, Chairman, Federal Communications Commission: In a society where increasingly we are defined by access to information and what we earn is what we learn, if you dont have access to technology, youre going to be left in the digital dark ages. Thats what the digital divide is all about.
JEFFREY KAYE: William Kennard is chairman of the Federal Communications
Commission. He says the
WILLIAM KENNARD: If you are black or Hispanic in this country, you are less likely to have a computer. If you live in a household earning over $75,000 a year, you are five times more likely to have a computer. If you live in a city or suburban area, you are ten times more likely to have a computer than in a rural area.
JEFFREY KAYE: The divide is also evident in schools and libraries. 51 percent of the nations public school classrooms had access to the Internet in 1998, but schools in poor areas or with high minority enrollments were less wired. The waiting time to use a computer at some Los Angeles libraries can be an hour, but its the only way some of the patrons can get onto the Internet.
LITTLE GIRL: My dad says we have to pay for it, and its too much to pay.
JEFFREY KAYE: LA City librarian Susan Kent says the publicly available computers are becoming indispensable to those who cant afford them at home.
SUSAN KENT, Los Angeles Public Library: They may never have used a computer before, and now theyre using the computer to write a resume, to do research papers in school, to improve their math, to improve their English. All of those things are now available through technology. And if they didnt come to us and if the library didnt provide it, many of these folks would have no other place to go to get that kind of information.
JEFFREY KAYE: Computer access in libraries and public schools around the country is improving. Thats in part because of subsidies built into phone rates. The subsidies go to a federal government fund that helps pay the cost of wiring up schools and libraries. The money comes from long distance fees paid by consumers. The cost comes to 30 to 40 cents a month on the average phone bill, according to the FCC. The program is called the E-Rate or Education Rate.
EDWINA FIELDS, School Principal: With the E-Rate Project this is just opening up a whole new world to our boys and girls. Our boys and girls will have global access. They will be out on the Internet. They will use E-Mail. It is a very exciting time for us.
JEFFREY KAYE: The FCC oversees the E-Rate program, and Chairman Kennard has taken delight in announcing grants. Kennard and local officials recently toured the Vine Street Elementary School in Hollywood, where his mother once taught, to call attention to the schools Internet hookup.
WILLIAM KENNARD: If we can have this technology in every office building in America, we can have it in every school in America. And thats what were doing here today. This is the start.
WILLIAM KENNARD: In the first year through the E-Rate we were able to wire about 600,000 classrooms to the Internet, touching about 40 million of American schoolchildren. This next year well invest $2 ¼ billion in the program and wire about another ½ million classrooms to the Internet. It is a wonderful program.
JEFFREY KAYE: Not everyone agrees the program is wonderful. Many fiscal conservatives complain the FCC has overstepped its authority. The 1996 Telecommunications Act requires phone companies to give schools and libraries discounts for Internet access. But Ronald Nehring of Americans for Tax Reform says Congress never meant for consumers to foot the bill.
RONALD NEHRING, Americans for Tax Reform: Congress never intended to levy a new tax on the American people of $2 ½ billion a year, and to hide that tax by refusing to even call it a tax, and then pass those costs along to everyone else. The Internet does not become more affordable when the government comes in and raises your phone bills through taxes. And thats exactly what the government is doing in this particular case.
JEFFREY KAYE: But Kennard says the real focus should be the fact that the E-Rate program, which he contends is not a tax, is helping to narrow the digital divide.
WILLIAM KENNARD: He points to research which suggests that Internet access among Latinos is likely to rise 20 percent and among blacks 42 percent. Poor schools in rural areas are also quickly gaining access to the Internet. In the town of Cayenta, on the Navajo Reservation, the phone company has been installing high-speed lines in the public schools.
TEACHER: Now heres what you want it to be. You want it to be -- or a page about Indians or whatever
JEFFREY KAYE: In a recent seminar, Karen Buller of the National Indian Telecommunications Institute showed teachers how to build Internet Web pages focusing on Navajo culture. Buller, who herself is Comanche, says she appreciates the efforts to wire up schools, but she says since most reservation homes lack basic phone service, native Americans are falling even further behind.
KAREN BULLER, National Indian Telecommunications Institute: The more that Americans in big cities have easy access to broad band widths, to big computers, and the more that we wait for years and years here on reservations to even get our first phone line, the bigger this chasm is going to be. The more that children are in urban schools get access to museums in Europe through the Internet and the more that our children dont even go a mile away from their hometown, the bigger the chasm gets to be, and thats not fair.
JEFFREY KAYE: Buller says she would like to see greater government subsidies and more generosity from phone companies. But phone company officials say they cant afford to shoulder the high costs of stringing phone lines to remote areas. The FCC has held hearings on providing assistance to Native Americans without phone service.
WILLIAM KENNARD: We are targeting Native American communities for more access, more subsidies. And that is separate and apart from the E-Rate. Were recognizing that these communities are going to need special, special help if they are going to be brought into the information age and across that digital divide.
JEFFREY KAYE: Kennard says the digital divide in rural areas could be bridged by wireless technology, such as satellite dishes, now more commonly used for TV reception. As for the technological isolation of inner cities, private contributions have allowed many schools and libraries to acquire computer equipment and government officials are seeking to help narrow the digital divide through more private-public partnerships.