The Digital Divide Non-Problem

Commentary by Pete du Pont

Lost among the rhetoric about fighting for the people and against the powerful at last months Democratic convention in Los Angeles, was any prime time discussion of an issue given great importance in their very own platform - closing the so-called digital divide.

As computers and the Internet revolutionize society, the need to have access to the latest technology is becoming paramount to becoming an active and productive member of society. Nothing has increased individual freedom and empowerment more than the personal computer.

Yet since 1995, the Commerce Department has released three reports stating that certain segments of society have access to advanced technology, while others do not. This "digital divide" is said to be based on ethnicity, income and locale. Because of this, President Clinton has proposed a $2 billion initiative to close the divide, and Vice President Gore has proposed some similar ideas in a perfect example of how liberals continue to offer nothing more than government solutions for problems that may and may not really exist.

The question must be asked however: is the digital divide a real problem that requires government intervention? A close examination of the facts suggests that if a divide does exist, it is small and rapidly closing. Furthermore, it is not "classic apartheid" as the Reverend Jesse Jackson, the king of overstatement, has labeled it.

In fact, whites do not even have the highest percentage of Internet users. According to Forrester research of Cambridge Massachusetts, only 34 percent of white households use the Internet. At the same time, 36 percent of Hispanic households and a whopping 64 percent of Asian American households are Internet users. While it may be true that only 23 percent of black households currently use the Internet, blacks are increasing their spending on computers at a rate 14 times faster than that of whites. And Latinos, blacks and Asians are all signing up for the Internet faster than whites.

Most researchers attribute the differences in computer ownership and Internet access to differences in income and education, not race. But thanks to rapidly falling prices, computers and Internet access are rapidly becoming available to people at all income levels.

Just how fast are prices dropping? The average price of a basic personal computer for example, fell from $1,434 in 1997 to only $916 in 1999 while its computing power almost doubled. Complete computer packages can be found at many stores such as Bestbuy and CompUSA for under $500, with some models available for less than $400.

As the economy is increasingly moving online, some companies have decided that it is in their best interest to get more and more people online. That's why several Internet service providers have offered free computers for individuals who sign up for an Internet service costing $20.00 to $29.99 a month. Similarly, Internet access is itself getting cheaper; costing as little as $9.99 to $19.99 a month.

Just as Henry Ford enabled the working class t own an automobile by making the Model T cheaper, computer companies are facilitating computer ownership and Internet access by making them cheaper. And there is no indication that price decreases and quality increases are slowing down. In fact, according to Jupiter Communications, nearly 50 percent of Americans earning less than $15,000 a year will be online by 2005, just 10 years after the Internet became readily available.

Another indication that the private sector is successfully tackling this problem on its own is the fact that many companies, realizing the potential of a computer-empowered workforce, have been giving away computers to their employees. For example, Ford Motor Company bought most of its employees a Hewlett Packard computer and printer for free and offered Internet access for $5.00 a month.

Companies have been equally generous with charities, donating millions of dollars worth of equipment and money. Microsoft and its employees, for instance, have donated over $100 million in money and software, creating more than 15 technology centers in cooperation with the Boys and Girls Club of America. US West has provided more than $10 million worth of used computers to schools and nonprofits since 1997.

While people with means will always have access to the newest technologies first, access to computers and the Internet is spreading faster than any advance in recorded history -- and it hasn't been due to any intervention by government bureaucrats. Rather, it has been private industry, or those "powerful forces," which have realized it is in their best interest to grant access to the new economy to all Americans as fast as possible.



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