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The corporate world gives digital "have nots" access to the Internet via complex networks; critics wonder when and if efforts will pay off.

Twelve-year-old Rodney F., who was born in Guatemala, has been in the United States less than a month and speaks no English, but every day after school he rushes to a state-of-the-art computer laboratory in his Falls Church, VA, housing development. There he works intently on a game that demands logic and dexterity--but no English--as he waits for a group session--in Spanish--that will help equip him with basic skills he needs to thrive in the digital age.

Half a world away in Ngoudiane, Senegal, villagers are helping build one of their country's first Joko Clubs. In Wolof, Senegal's main language, joko means link or connection, and that is what these clubs will provide. Equipped with phones and computers, the clubs will give people in Senegal, a relatively poor but politically stable country in West Africa, access to markets, information, education, and other opportunities never before available.

In both cases the corporate world is trying to help bridge the gap between those who have access to the Internet and its benefits and those who do not. The computer laboratory in Virginia is part of PowerUP, an ambitious program started two years ago by Stephen M. Case of AOL Time Warner, his wife Jean, and Colin L. Powell to bring America's children in poor communities into the technological mainstream. It also includes a site in New York City, which has brought the Internet to deaf and hearing-impaired children. Another, in Pueblo, CO, works with emotionally and developmentally impaired students. The clubs in Senegal are part of the Hewlett Packard Co.'s multimillion-dollar effort to introduce information technology to remote parts of the world--and, it is hoped, to expand the company's markets.

These are not examples of simple corporate giving. Both involve complex networks that span corporate, governmental, and nonprofit worlds and represent long-term commitments, a reflection of the scope of the digital divide, and the challenge, and opportunities, it presents.

The divide issue has become difficult for corporations to ignore but, they recognize, impossible to tackle alone. "No sector or company has the resources or the assets to make a difference," observes Dr. Tony Wilhelm, director of communications programs for the Benton Foundation, which set up and maintains the Digital Divide Network, a Web site ( devoted to these issues. The foundation is a legacy of William Benton, the advertising mogul.

When the term "digital divide" was coined in the mid-1990s, it referred mainly to computer and Internet access, though it quickly broadened to include the even wider gap between the information "haves" and "have nots." Today it has become a catch-all for a long list of disenfranchised groups--those without telephones and electricity, those who cannot read or write, ethnic and racial minorities, the disabled, and rural and inner-city populations. It also includes those in Third World countries--who seem to be a fair distance from the more affluent, educated portion of the global population already using the tools of the information revolution.

The obvious consequences of this widening divide spurred corporations into action in the form of equipment, training, and finances. Their efforts have taken very different tacks. Some focused on the 44 million Americans who are functionally illiterate. Others took on wiring and providing computers to schools, libraries, community centers, and other places that offered access. Yet others addressed content, developing new curricula, and helping teachers learn to use the new technology more effectively.

These projects have the frill commitment and often the personal support of the men and women at the top. The Case Foundation put in $10 million to jump-start PowerUP, the Waitt Family Foundation, set up by Gateway founder Ted Waitt, provides computers. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation wires and equips libraries to expand Internet access through communities. Some CEOs--like John Chambers of Cisco Systems, Carly Fiorina of Hewlett-Packard, and Craig Barrett of Intel--are known for their personal involvement, but they are far from alone. Most information technology companies and their CEOs are involved, either individually or as partners, in large undertakings.

Even CEOs from companies not involved in information technology have taken on the cause. The idea of adopting an entire middle school to bring everyone from parents to custodians into the digital age originated with William Harrison, CEO of JP Morgan Chase. Fleet-Boston is providing free computers and one year of nocost Internet banking services to selected customers in low-to-moderate income communities.

Charles Moore, deputy to the chairmen of the Committee to Encourage Corporate Philanthropy, believes that CEOs see their philanthropic efforts as investments, but that they also give for a practical reason. "Almost all recognize there is a clear business value to corporate philanthropy," says Moore. "A brand name is the name of everybody's game, no matter what kind of business or service, and to link their brand name with solid citizenship reputation is a big plus."

Corporate enthusiasm for digital divide projects has been especially contagious, possibly because there is so much to do. Though no one keeps track of everything that is going on, Wilhelm of the Benton Foundation estimates that corporations already have poured in more than $1 billion. That's only what he happens to know about, and it doesn't include incalculables like volunteer assistance to install wiring at schools and to mentor youngsters.

Numerous surveys have attempted to document the depth and breadth of the divide. The most recent Commerce Department figures, released last fall, showed that 41 percent of American households had Internet access, up from slightly more than 26 percent in late 1998. More encouraging, the report showed greater access among all groups, regardless of income, education, race, ethnicity, geographic location, age, or gender, with the greatest gains among traditional "digital have not" groups.

Some studies suggest the divide may never be fully bridged. The first survey on patterns of Internet usage by a team at U.C.L.A. last fall found that about half the people not using the Internet simply weren't interested. That translates to about 20 percent of the population who say they don't intend to join the digital age. A more recent analysis of Education Department data showed that access doesn't necessarily equate with actual use. Even though 95 percent of schools are connected to the Internet and 63 percent of classrooms are online, most teachers said they don't spend that much time online and don't use the Web to develop lessons.

That the giants of the information technology industry have taken on the divide is not surprising. Their growth depends on a technologically equipped population and a growing pool of skilled workers.

But there are other reasons, too, for as Hewlett-Packard's Fiorina said recently, "It's clear that technological change can develop a momentum of its own, widening not only the digital divide but the social or economic divide as well." But, she continued, "it's also clear that technology can help communities and countries leapfrog aspects of development," and in the process create markets where none exist.

What about other companies that have joined as partners or are developing their own projects? Why, for instance, has JP Morgan Chase adopted an entire middle school in Brooklyn--students, families, teachers, administrators, even custodians--to bring everyone online and teach them to use the tools of the new technology? For Chase's Harrison, the answer is clear. "Others see a digital divide," he asserts. "We see a digital opportunity." Rather than splintering its efforts, Chase decided "to go an inch wide and a mile deep, matching the resources of Chase with this school and wrapping it end-to-end in technology to help improve student performance." If it works, he believes others will follow.

Those who have taken on the challenge have learned that bridging the divide demands more than access. Though initial corporate efforts led to a rush of giveaways and days spent wiring classrooms and schools, experience has shown that simply providing computers or wiring is not enough if no one knows how to use and maintain it. "The simple fact is that a lot of digital divide investment hasn't made any difference," says Dr. Tracy Gray, vice president for youth services at the Molino Institute, which explores the opportunities and risks of using the Internet to advance social progress. The institute was founded by Mario Molino, an Internet pioneer. In its own pilot projects in the Washington area, the institute has emphasized training and technical support. "People are beginning to recognize that you can't just put kids in front of the Internet," Gray says. "You need goals and outcomes."

With that lesson in mind, today's programs are more targeted and inclusive, as demonstrated by PowerUP's 300-plus computer laboratories, the growing network of Intel-sponsored Computer Clubhouses and Hewlett-Packard's ambitious e-inclusion initiative. The e-inclusion project brings information technology to remote parts of the world. These projects also involve networking and partnerships. "Everyone in the tech industry wants a solution," says Rae Grad, CEO of PowerUP, "but the notion of silo distribution is not going to hit it." Silo distribution is a term used to describe go-it-alone efforts. Grad's organization approached the problem by identifying the goal, then putting together the package and the partners needed to get there. "I think people are relieved that if they give wires or switches, they are part of a package," Grad explains.

The Computer Clubhouse Network is following a parallel path, aiming to set up 100 clubhouses, mostly in blighted parts of communities where Intel or one of its clubhouse partners has a presence so that employees can become involved. The Boston Museum of Science and the Media Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are major collaborators on a project to develop technology-based curricula that they hope will eventually replace the more traditional papers and pencils. Roma Arellano, who manages the project, explains: "Access is not enough. We want to inspire young people to become creators rather than consumers of technology, which means the clubhouses are not about more schoolwork but about providing an environment where kids can create videos or follow whatever path excites them."

It also should not be surprising that global corporations have turned their attention to the global divide or to their own needs for trained workers. Cisco's Networking Academies have been training students to design, build, and maintain computer networks in much of the world. Started in 1997 with a $20 million investment by Cisco Systems and the Cisco Foundation and joined by partners like Adobe and Sun Microsystems, the 7,167-plus academies by midyear had enrolled more than 166,000 students in all 50 states and the District of Columbia and in 131 countries.

Earlier this year, when Cisco announced a major academy expansion in India, CEO John Chambers said, "I truly believe there are two equalizers in life: the Internet and education." The academy program, he continued, "is our way of increasing the pool of qualified IT professionals and ensuring that business and government work together on their common goal of preparing students for the future."

Looking to the future underpins much of Hewlett-Packard's digital divide work, especially e-inclusion. Though the company has a history of philanthropy and contributing to communities, the global push has a business incentive. "We are eager to continue to grow our business profitably," says Debra Dunn, vice president of strategy and corporate operations. "And when we look globally there is a large and growing segment of the world economy now on the other side of the digital divide."

E-inclusion was inspired by the enthusiasm of Hewlett-Packard employees who worked with Little Intelligent Communities, or LINCOS, a project started in Costa Rica, using abandoned shipping containers to develop telecommunication centers in remote areas. These centers give villagers an opportunity to communicate with physicians and other medical resources and to engage in trade electronically. As with the Joko Clubs, the e-inclusion involves a philosophy of partnering with local communities, governments, nonprofits, and other corporations.

Like others involved in the global scene, Hewlett-Packard is interested in making these projects economically viable and self-sustaining. To move toward that status, the company is developing a set of jobs that can be performed remotely over the Internet and, rather than letting illiteracy be a roadblock, has found partners who specialize in training illiterate populations. "Our goal," Dunn adds, "is not to try to put personal computers into the homes of the poorest people in the world. That is a very limited view of the way technology can be used. The technology can provide access to information about health and education that will make a difference, and also provide the poor with opportunities to sell their products via the Web." The success of e-inclusion, she emphasizes, "will ultimately depend upon its ability to pay its own way.

Bringing the Internet to remote areas has provided the local population with information about weather, soil conditions, prices, and markets and has given isolated communities a chance to communicate with the rest of the world. It has also provided a source of income.

The newly formed Digital Partnership also has a global reach. Started by the Prince of Wales International Business Leaders Forum, the partnership, headquartered in London, includes some of the world's largest corporations and institutions like the World Bank. It intends to refurbish hundreds of thousands of decommissioned computers and install them in communities on the other side of the divide, starting with 100,000 computers in South Africa.

This will be a fully packaged effort, with training, learning centers, Internet links, teaching, and whatever else is needed to make sure people know how to use the technology. "That's the only way of making this work," says Robert Davies, CEO of the business leaders group. "Without that we will have large numbers of boxes and intimidated teachers." The Digital Partnership, Davies says, "provides a socially responsible way for companies to recycle technology, demonstrate their corporate citizenship, and share the opportunities of globalization."

So far, the current financial traumas of the technology world-have not taken a noticeable toll on digital divide efforts. One reason may be the depth of involvement. Grad of PowerUP, for one, thinks the partnerships and long-term commitments have provided a buffer. "With so many involved, it's less likely these programs will fall through the cracks," she says. But there is at least one notable exception. A few months ago Joint Venture Silicon Valley Network, a group that embraces most of the major companies in the area, dropped its planned digital divide initiative to train local information technology workers when fundraising efforts fell far short.

Even as corporations spend time and money to close the divide, the dimensions keep shifting. Internet access is no longer dependent solely on computers. Cell phones and cable television give computer illiterates access to information and capabilities like e-mail, online shopping, and other services once exclusive to the computer privileged.

Still, some wonder whether Internet access will do much to solve the world's myriad social problems. Last fall, Microsoft's Gates openly questioned the wisdom of wiring the globe when billions of people lack such basic necessities as food, jobs, health care, and education. (The quick response from Internet proponents was that access would invigorate local economies and provide education and employment opportunities that would, in turn, help poor people meet those basic needs.)

Others have raised different objections. "Technology and computers won't solve illiteracy; only education will do that," says Benjamin R. Barber, who is Walt Whitman professor of political science at Rutgers. But, he adds, "it is much easier to wire than teach people how to read." Barber, who considers himself a skeptic, doesn't buy into the notion that technology will solve "problems caused by structural inequalities and society-wide ignorance and illiteracy in the Third World and in the inner cities of the First World."

The idea that everyone should have a cell phone and be hooked to the Internet is a classic equity issue that obscures the larger question of the benefits and drawbacks, says Jeremy Rifkin, president of the Foundation on Economic Trends and author of The Age of Access. "We have technology that allows us to organize at the speed of light but we aren't biologically designed to be able to do that," he says. "We haven't figured out how to make this technology an augment instead of a substitute for our lives."

Rifkin who lectures at the Wharton School when he is not writing or agitating for one of his many causes, says he often asks CEOs and other executives to give examples of what information technology has done to improve their lives. They are "wired" 24 hours a day, seven days a week, he says, so rather than freeing them, as promised, technology actually gives them less time, adds new stresses, and diminishes the overall quality of their lives.

But the technology isn't going to go away and the digital divide won't disappear on its own. Though skeptics are few, the questions they raise may be worth considering as CEOs look to new partnerships and new strategies to face the challenges.
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Publication:Chief Executive (U.S.)
Date:Aug 1, 2001
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