The Internet and communications technology are transforming American society. The lightning pace of technological change and its rapid adoption is impacting every aspect of our lives from how we do business, access government services, communicate and exchange ideas, gain knowledge and skills, to how we define the notion of community. Technological innovation has brought with it extensive economic growth and opportunity for many Americans.
Recognizing that no one should be left behind in the information age, both the executive and legislative branches of the federal government, working in bipartisan fashion, have played important leadership roles in bridging the knowledge gap between the "information haves" and the "have-nots"-what some refer to as the digital divide.
Federal leadership has taken many forms from public policy, from bipartisan majorities enacting community technology programs, to speeches and summits that merged the efforts of government, industry and public interest groups working to bridge the digital divide. This leadership has helped to accelerate the adoption of 21st century literacy skills among economically and geographically distressed and otherwise underserved communities.
Earlier this year, the US Department of Commerce released its latest report examining Americans' use of computers and the Internet. Entitled, A Nation Online: How Americans Are Expanding Their Use of the Internet, the report paints an overly optimistic picture of Americans' use of information technology. Celebrating Americans' increased access, Commerce Secretary Donald L. Evans stated, "I am heartened by this report's findings that all groups of individuals are using [computer and Internet] technologies in increasingly greater numbers."
While some of the data clearly show that there are increasing numbers of Americans connected to the Internet and computers, the same data also shows how specific segments of society-particularly underserved communities-continue to significantly lag behind and that the digital divide remains a persistent problem.
Significant divides still exist between high and low income households, among different racial groups, between northern and southern states, and rural and urban households. For people in these communities, the enormous social, civic, educational and economic opportunities offered by rapid advances in information technology remain out of reach.
At the same time that the Bush Administration released its report, they also announced plans to zero out funding for two premier grant programs that bridge the technology gap: the Technology Opportunities Program (TOP)1 and the Community Technology Centers Program (CTC)2. Notwithstanding the continuing need for federal involvement, the Administration concluded that these programs were no longer necessary and that the private sector rather than government should be responsible for supporting programs to close the digital divide.
The pages that follow present a detailed examination of the data in A Nation Online and highlight the sharp gaps between those who are using these communications and technology tools and those who are not.
This report also provides a closer look at the two federal programs targeted by the Bush Administration for elimination. Included in the report are profiles of 44 TOP and CTC grantees in communities across the country. These profiles provide "real life" examples of innovative, community-based projects that are enhancing economic opportunity and strengthening community-serving institutions. Not only are these programs expanding technology access and literacy among underserved populations, but they are also improving the quality of, and the public's access to, education, health care, public safety and other community-based services.
In addition, the report provides a state-by-state analysis of how TOP and CTC grants enable partnerships and leverage additional investment in states and local communities. Through 2001, TOP awarded 530 grants representing $192.5 million in investment, in all 50 states, Puerto Rico, the District of Columbia, and the U.S. Virgin Islands, which in turn has attracted an additional $268 million in public and private support.4 The CTC program to date has awarded 227 grants based on $107.5 million in allocations from Congress5, and attracted an additional $92.5 million in financial support from public and private funding sources.6
While competition policies will continue to drive down the cost of new technologies, the market alone will not assure digital opportunity. Government must take steps to create policies and programs that provide people in underserved communities with the opportunity to gain access to technology. Now is the time to expand these effective programs and open this door of opportunity for more Americans-not slam it shut to those most in need.
The federal government must continue playing a leadership role in assuring that all Americans have the access and skills needed to participate fully in the Digital Age. While we have made some progress, we cannot ignore the communities still at risk. To do so jeopardizes the opportunity to truly be a nation online.