Could the digital divide actually be narrowing?
It would appear so, based on "Falling Through the Net," the latest report from the U.S. Department of Commerce that tracks trends in computer ownership and Internet access.
It wasn't surprising to find that the percentage of households with Internet access has grown in the 20 months since the department's last report was issued.
Still, the actual numbers are impressive.
Those households with access to computers rose from 42.1 percent in December 1998 to 51 percent by August 2000, an increase of 21 percent. Internet access jumped even more quickly, rising an eye-popping 58 percent over the same period to reach 41.5 percent of all households. By the end of this year, more than half of all U.S. households will have Internet access, the report forecasts.
But even more gratifying for those concerned about the inequities in access to technology, a variety of specific gaps within the so-called digital divide have begun to close.
For example, the disparity in Internet usage between men and women has all but disappeared. About 44.6 percent of men surf the Net compared with 44.2 percent of women.
Similarly, rural areas that had lagged behind urban communities in getting Internet access are quickly catching up. Rural Internet access grew by 75 percent in the past 20 months and now approaches the national average.
"I am pleased to report that the geographical aspect of what had been a digital divide has virtually disappeared," said Gregory L. Rohde, assistant secretary of commerce for communications and information. "Rural areas, once left behind, are catching up quickly with other parts of the country and have surpassed some of the central cities in their Internet use."
Even the gaps between racial and ethnic groups have begun to close.
Internet access in black households doubled over the past 20 months.
Latino households nearly matched that.
Older Americans also hit the Net at record rates. The number of individuals age 50 or older on the Internet rose 53 percent during the study period, much faster than other groups.
But the Commerce Department was quick to note that certain aspects of the so-called digital divide remain.
"The Internet is no longer a luxury item, but a resource used by many," the report said. "Taken as a whole, the findings show that there has been tremendous progress in closing the nation's technology gap, but much work remains to be done."
Despite progress, black and Latino households still trail their white counterparts in Internet access. Part of the difference is the result of disparities in income and education. But what about the rest? Handicapped citizens, especially those with vision impairments, lag in access and usage. Commerce Department researchers are planning another survey in September 2001, which should show further progress. But with huge swaths of middle-class Americans having already adopted computer and Internet technologies, growth can be expected to slow.
Distributed by the Los Angeles Times-Washington Post News Service
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