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Friday, April 18, 2003  
The Digital Divide: The Webless are among us

I consider myself more aware of issues of income, class, education and race than most people. And, I believe I'm pretty hip. Therefore, I am surprised to learn so many people across the nation do not use the Internet. According to the Washington Post, the person sitting beside you on the bus or train, standing in line in front of you at the grocery store or fueling your car, is almost as likely not to use the Internet as he or she is to know her email account name and password. I would have guessed 30 percent at most of adult Americans don't use the 'Net at all, with most of them being the poor and the elderly. But. . .

Forty-two percent of Americans still don't use the Internet and the majority of them do not believe they ever will, according to a study released yesterday.

There was considerable discussion of the digital divide a couple years ago.

The U.S. Department of Commerce in 2001 reported more than 78 percent of people making $75,000 or more had Internet access, while just 25 percent of families earning under $15,000 a year were online. This is the much-discussed 'digital divide.'

The issue came down to whether society should finance computers or accounts with ISPs as a basic need in a high tech culture. Liberals were more sympathetic than conservatives, who sometimes described computer and internet access as a luxury. The research the Post reports reflects the digital divide, but it says more.

Internet use also continues to vary by race, income and education level, according to the Pew report. While only 40 percent of white Americans are nonusers, 55 percent of African Americans and 46 percent of English-speaking Hispanics are offline as well. Forty-one percent of nonusers have a yearly household income below $30,000 and a quarter of them did not graduate from high school. People living in rural areas and in the South are also less likely to go online.

Most non-users are over the age of 50.

It is unclear whether efforts to equip public buildings such as libraries, schools and community centers with internet access have made a difference for low-income households. However, 22 percent of non-user survey respondents said they did not "know of public Internet access points in their community."

One new mechanism for getting the poor connected to the Web is to use WiFi instead of wired connections, which can cost more upfront. There is a pilot project in Philadelphia.

For less than a dial-up connection ($5 to $10 per month), the United Way of Southeastern Pennsylvania is installing two hotspots in a twenty square block area of the West Powelton and Haddington sections of West Philadelphia. The users are either residents of the People's Emergency Center homeless shelter or clients of the Philadelphians Concerned About Housing community group.

The more surprising aspect of the story is that a significant segment of those offline are not computerless or unable to afford ISP fees. Some people choose not to be part of the worldly wide web. They include Luddites and those who turn up their noses at popular trends. After all, if everyone is doing it, it can't be novel, can it?

Missing out on the most popular movement of the 1990s didn't seem to bother the unwired survey respondents. More than half of nonusers said they don't want Internet access or don't need it, a study by the Pew Internet and American Life Project found.

It is the drop outs (people who used to be online but gave it up) and the snobs I am most curious about.

I've never looked back during my nine years online. (As a reporter, I was sort of online line even before then.) I've changed ISPs, from Compuserve to AOL to Earthlink to Qwest, with some I've forgotten in-between. I've changed methods of connecting, too. My first personal computer used to surf the web was a PowerBook 165c. It had a 9,200 baud modem, cutting-edge at the time. I now find my home DSL slow and prefer the T1 that is the rule of thumb with 802.11b networks.

Some of what I've done online over the years has changed, too. I haven't participated in a live general chat since my AOL days. I gave up my twice-a-week news chat when TalkCity turned to dust. My old webpages are so out of date that sometimes I have trouble remembering putting them up. But, some activities, such as reading or downloading news from newspapers and magazines online, have remained constant.

I wonder if the dropouts in the non-user population realize the things people do online have changed over time.

Twenty percent of non-Internet users live in wired homes and yet remain offline.

Seventeen percent of the current group of non-users is online drop outs. They formerly used the Internet but no longer do.

Do these people know about the digital hub, which integrates photography, music and filmmaking with computer use, especially on the Macintosh? Did they bow out before CD-R and CD-RW burners were added? Do they realize DVDS look better on a good computer screen than on a television set? Or that they can get their daily or weekly news and opinion pieces tailored to them at news sites and blogs? Are they aware of the increased speed of DSL, cable, and WiFi connections or do they still believe one can do the dishes while waiting for a graphic-heavy page to load?

I will have to absorb the information about the broad population of non-users for integration into my daily life. I've been taking it for granted that just about everyone I meet at least has a home computer and phone line access to the Internet. (Though, truth be told, I have to resist the temptation to yell Stop! whenever I see someone buying a new 56 Kb modem at CompUSA. I want to tell him to get a cable or DSL modem at the very least.) I could accept that some people were not on the bleeding edge, but knowing so many aren't on the cliff at all is going to take some getting used to.

The Post gathered the data it used to reach its conclusions from two sources.

Phone interviews with 3,553 people in the spring of 2002, along with group interviews conducted in the Washington and Baltimore areas, provide the basis for the report. The survey had margin of error of 2 percentage points.

12:28 AM