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The haves and the have-nots.

Does the information superhighway shun the poor? A study backed by groups including the Consumer Federation of America and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) charges that the advanced electronic communication systems now being planned and built in the U.S. are shunning poorer neighborhoods and minority populations in what amounts to "electronic redlining" -- designating neighborhoods as bad for business.

One telecommunications company spokesman, US West's Jerry Brown, counters: "To say that we are going to stay out of areas permanently is dishonest and ridiculous. But we had to start building our network someplace. And it is being built in areas where there are customers we believe will use and buy the service. This is a business." (New York Times, 5/24/94.)

Thus far, the electronic revolution has been waged by information-rich drivers on the superhighway. Generally, these drivers are highly educated, informed, and capable of acting as their own advocates. They articulate their own needs, such as more video dial-tone networks. These networks could become the primary communication system for millions. Customers eventually will be able to link their phones and televisions so they can participate in meetings, shop at their favorite stores, and choose from hundreds of movies and television programs at their convenience.

For several years now projections have been made about increasing diversity in the U.S. The traditional majority (commonly viewed as "haves") is becoming a minority in many locales, and U.S.-born people of color and immigrants (commonly viewed as "have-nots") are expected to represent 43 percent of the new entrants to the work force between 1985 and 2000. If the haves possess the new communication technologies and the have-nots don't, couldn't a major, and unnecessary, socioeconomic rift occur? As a practical matter, won't the haves encounter a more difficult time than ever finding "qualified" personnel to fill jobs?

If you are information poor, you don't know what you don't know. Who speaks for you and your need -- and right -- to participate in the information revolution? Who can you count on to do the right thing? What do you, as a fairly information-rich reader, see between the lines of the following excerpt from a 1994 Associated Press release?

"... In some cities, like Chicago and Denver, minorities and low-income people are the predominant residents of areas where the companies do not plan to lay the initial groundwork for video dialtone facilities."

Rick Blake, in his article "Blacks and the Information Superhighway" (Focus, Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, Washington, D.C.), says, "Our society has critical choices to make in the next several years that will define to what extent our democracy survives the onslaught of new technology. We are building a new society in which technologies and access to them may well define all of our public, commercial, and private transactions. The question is whether this new system will include all of us."

The government's response

I sent an E-mail message to my U.S. congressman and asked him to provide me with information on existing or pending legislation on how government will assure "equal access" to new technologies, especially new communication technologies. He faxed his response. The information he sent included S.2195, the "National Public Telecommunications Infrastructure Act of 1994," and H.R.3636, the "National Communications Competition and Information Infrastructure Act of 1994."

Both documents "talk the talk." That is, they use the proper words to indicate that the government has a compelling interest in ensuring that all citizens of the United States have access to noncommercial governmental, educational, informational, cultural, civic and charitable services through all appropriate telecommunications networks. Since private telecommunications carriers respond to marketplace forces, the proposed legislation pointed out that the private carriers were to "make available, so far as possible, to all the people of the United States, regardless of location or disability," the new telecommunications technologies.

An administration white paper on Communications Act reform dated January 26, 1994, "talks the talk" too. It says that since the announcement of the National Information Infrastructure (NII) in September 1993, the administration has proposed legislative and administrative reform of telecommunications policy based on:

* encouraging private investment in NII,

* promoting and protecting competition,

* providing open access to the NII by consumers and service providers,

* preserving and advancing universal service to avoid creating a society of information "haves" and "have-nots," and

* ensuring flexibility so that the newly adopted regulatory framework can keep pace with the rapid technological and market changes that pervade the telecommunications and information industries.

Using a modem, I dialed into an electronic bulletin board and downloaded chapters of the "National Performance Review, Making Government Work, and Electronic Delivery of Federal Services." Among other issues, the publication discussed how new communication technologies would enable the government to tackle and resolve concerns of the poor -- another one that "talks the talk."

Using my internet access, I obtained White House files on technology for education. The "Technology for Education Act" "talks the talk" too. It lists findings that note school systems need help to meet national educational goals. The act then states remedies and describes "the manner in which traditionally underserved students, such as students who are disadvantaged, limited English proficient, disabled or illiterate, will participate in the benefits of the telecommunications facilities, equipment, technical assistance and programming."

In her letter transmitting a recent issues report to U.S. President Clinton, National Commission on Libraries and Information Science Chairperson Jeanne H. Simon gave the following information:

* 20.9 percent of U.S. public libraries are connected to the Internet,

* public library access to the Internet is not equitable,

* public libraries serving larger communities are more likely to have access to the Internet than public libraries serving smaller communities,

* few public libraries offer direct public access to the Internet,

* federal assistance for connecting public libraries to the Internet is required, and

* public libraries are using Internet services to procure answers to reference inquiries, access federal information resources and perform inter-library loan transactions.

Public libraries are vital to a democratic society. They ensure public access to information from a variety of sources, including federal, state and local governments. They serve as societal equalizers. Without access to the information superhighway, libraries become have-nots. Without the knowledge of how to use the access, public librarians become have-nots.

All of my research, thus far, shows that the NII addresses the concerns of public librarians and library patrons without making specific recommendations -- "talking the talk" once again.

The private sector responds

According to corporate communication folks with whom I spoke, basic information services their companies may provide on the information superhighway will be available to everyone. It will be just like telephone service today, where no one is excluded. "At the same time, service is not free to anybody," they say. "Today, books aren't free, computers aren't free, subscriptions to on-line services aren't free. We already have a system of haves and have-nots. The information superhighway will be no more of an entitlement than telephone service is today."

They further note that some telephone services now are provided below cost and subsidized with revenues from other services. In a fully competitive communication marketplace, which is where the industry is headed, subsidized services aren't possible unless there are regulations that impose rules on all service providers to fund the subsidy. Right now the industry lacks a clear policy to make this happen. Various industry groups are studying the issues, and their companies are a part of those groups. Everyone is well aware of what the information superhighway portends in a competitive marketplace for the economically disadvantaged, but no one yet has an answer. An answer will evolve as the industry matures.

Increasing access to the information superhighway

Community members, including an ad-hoc alliance of librarians, educators, network and bulletin board systems users, and activists all over the world have developed and are developing community-oriented electronic bulletin boards or community networks. These were given a local focus that provides entrances to the information superhighway for the have-nots.

These community networks, some with user populations in the tens of thousands, are intended to advance social goals such as building community awareness, encouraging involvement in local decision making or developing economic opportunities in disadvantaged communities. These electronic bulletin boards allow have-nots access to, among other items, government employees and information, social services, electronic mail and, in many cases, the Internet and the information superhighway itself. The information superhighway needs to add another lane.

The issue is no longer whether have-nots will enter the information age. That has been settled. They have. The issue is now whether the information age happens to have-nots or for them. That decision rests in our hands.

History shows that in many cases "the law of the land" is merely "talking the talk." "Talking the talk" has given us separate and unequal rights and level playing fields with 90 degree inclines.

U.S. slaves' expectations that they'd receive 40 acres and a mule when they were freed from bondage were a fantasy. Let's not let equal access to America's electronic future become a fantasy as well. We as information haves must "walk the walk," not merely "talk the talk."

EVERY FEW DECADES, NEW TECHNOLOGIES appear that the "experts" claim will revolutionize the world -- the printing press, the television, the gun, the horseless carriage, the boat, the telephone, the airplane. The next technological step is the "information superhighway." Like the U.S. interstate highway system, however, the information super highway has limited access.


A recent survey by the Consumer Technology Group of Porter/Novelli showed new technologies still have far to go before winning over the public.

Close to 40 percent described themselves as "going the wrong way," "on the entrance ramp," "at a nearby pit stop," or "going nowhere." An additional 15 percent said they don't know where they are.

Other findings include:

* Americans still spend less time each week at their computers than they do on the telephone.

* Respondents rated their microwave ovens, TV remote controls and VCRs as the products that most favorably affected their quality-of-life. PCs edged out only CD-players and cellular phones for their positive impact.

* Personal computers were deemed the most difficult new technology to learn to use. Microwave ovens were deemed the easiest to learn.

* More than twice as many people trusted the U.S. Postal Service to deliver a message more reliably than a computer E-mail system.

* On a scale of one to 10, only a modest five percent expressed any interest in interactive television.

* When asked to identify themselves as "early adopters," "in the middle of the pack" or "the last in line" when it comes to purchasing and using new technologies, 52 percent said they were in the middle, while 28 percent said they were last in line. Eighteen percent called themselves "early adopters."

Percentage of respondents that:

 Use a Have a
 computer at computer
 work at home

Educational level

less than high school 10 13
high school graduate 26 19
some college 43 32
college graduate 58 38
postgraduate 68 60

Income level

$7,500 or less 10 13
$7,501 - $15,000 20 12
$15,001 - $25,000 29 21
$25,001 - $35,000 33 22
$35,001 - $50,000 43 34

(SOURCE: Based on a 1990 U.S. national survey of 2,254 library patrons
conducted by Louis Harris and Associates.)

Edward J. Rose is a senior public affairs specialist in the Office of Information at the Social Security Administration Headquarters in Baltimore, Md.
COPYRIGHT 1994 International Association of Business Communicators
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1994, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:includes related article; access to information technologies
Author:Rose, Ed
Publication:Communication World
Date:Nov 1, 1994
Previous Article:As easy as 123.
Next Article:'On screen, Mr. Worf!' (space-age communication technologies)(includes glossary)

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