'Racial ravine' divides Net users

Even as Americans continue to get online in droves, the digital divide between blacks and whites and between urban and rural Americans is on the increase, according to the U.S.

Even as Americans continue to get online in droves, the digital divide between blacks and whites and between urban and rural Americans is on the increase, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce's third annual "Falling Through the Net" survey, released Thursday.

The report, based on December 1998 census data, reveals that while 40 percent of all American households have computers and a quarter of all households have Internet access, black and Hispanic families are only two-fifths as likely to have home Net access as white families.

The survey also shows that Americans in poor rural communities are 50 percent less likely to have Internet access at home than those earning the same income in urban centres. While Americans earning more than $75,000 (£46,000) are 20 times more likely to have Internet access than the poorest Americans, the access disparities can't be blamed solely on income differences -- race is still playing a role, said Larry Irving, assistant secretary of commerce for telecommunications, in an interview.

Among families earning $15,000 to $35,000, some 33 percent of whites own computers, while only 19 percent of blacks do, a gap that has increased since 1994 even as computer prices have fallen. "Most blacks simply don't have access at home," regardless of income, until the highest income levels, Irving said. (Among families earning more than $75,000, there is almost no access gap between blacks and whites, according to the report.)

And among poor white families, the survey shows that Internet access is also still elusive, he said. "It's not just a rural problem, or just a black problem. Education levels, urban/rural demographics, and race are all playing a role here," Irving said. "But overall, the Southern rural states are the worst off, and the Clinton administration is not happy about that."

To address the problem, the Commerce Department is promoting partnerships between government and private companies to build "community access centres" in poor and rural areas, he said. "There's $10 million in the federal budget right now for public access centres, and we're hoping to increase that next year," Irving said.

The report shows that government and private companies must continue to seek solutions to help poor rural and urban Americans take part in the tech-fuelled economic boom, said Keith Fulton, National Urban League director of technology programs and policy. "If we shore up our efforts now, we can keep the divide from widening," Fulton told ZDNet. "People are more likely to plug in [to the Internet] when they realise that technology skills are so important to getting good jobs." The National Urban League will use a $350,000 grant from Ameritech, announced Thursday to build high-tech job training centres in Aurora, Ill.; Columbus, Ohio; Detroit, Indianapolis and Milwaukee, Fulton said. The centres, to provide training for low-income adults, are to be completed within 90 to 120 days, he said. He added that an additional three job training facilities will be built in as-yet-unnamed cities using a $250,000 grant from AT&T, also announced Thursday.

America Online Inc. said it is planning a similar training centre initiative.

Oxygen Media Inc., which runs Web sites geared toward women, said it is developing a cable television show on learning how to use computers and the Internet. The show will feature talk show host Oprah Winfrey, and videotapes of the show will be distributed to inner-city schools.

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