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Binary America: Split in Two by A Digital Divide

By Jose Antonio Vargas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 23, 2007; C01

CHARLESTON, S.C. -- Less than a mile and a half from the Citadel, the  
site of the Democratic presidential debate tonight, sits Cooper River  
Courts, a public housing project. Forget the Web. Never mind YouTube,  
the debate's co-sponsor. Here, owning a computer and getting on the  
Internet (through DSL or cable or Wi-Fi) is a luxury.

"I am low-income and computers are not low-income," says Marcella  
Morris, sitting on the front step of her apartment building on a  
sweltering day last week.

The unemployed 45-year-old adds: "I know how to use a computer. I  
just can't afford one right now."

There exists "two Americas," as John Edwards, South Carolina's own  
son, likes to say: an America for the rich and an America for the  
poor. But what Edwards and the rest of the presidential field have  
yet to adequately address are the two Americas online: one that's  
connected to high-speed Internet -- socializing, paying bills,  
uploading debate questions to presidential candidates on YouTube --  
and one that's not. This is the digital divide, now more than a  
decade old, a rarely discussed schism in which the unconnected are  
second-class citizens. In some parts of this so-called Internet  
ghetto, the screech of a telephone modem dialing up to get online is  
not uncommon. And with dial-up, YouTube is impossible to use.

Between 40 to 45 percent of Charlestonians, city officials here  
estimate, subscribe to high-speed Internet. That figure is nearly in  
line with the national average, according to the nonpartisan group  
Free Press. And though a study released last month by the Pew  
Internet & American Life Project found that broadband use among  
African American adults increased from 14 percent in 2005 to 40  
percent this year, blacks continue to lag behind whites and English- 
speaking Latinos. In fact, a great number of American households ,  
especially in rural areas and poorer parts of cities such as  
Charleston, are without broadband.

And in a presidential election that's being fought as much online as  
off it -- all campaigns employ Web strategies -- some say the  
candidates have generally ignored the issue.

"I would argue that the digital divide is worse than it was 10 years  
ago. Back then everyone -- schools, businesses -- was trying to get  
online. These days every single Fortune 500 company has its  
employees, its customers and its suppliers connected 24 hours a day,  
seven days a week. In the meantime, while our students have online  
access at school, many of them don't have it at home," says Andrew  
Rasiej, a member of a panel studying universal Internet access in New  
York, and co-founder of TechPresident, a nonpartisan blog that tracks  
the online campaign.

"Our presidential candidates may all have BlackBerrys, but they have  
no vision when it comes to bringing all our citizens to the 21st  
century. If you go to look at the presidential candidate Web sites,  
the word 'Internet' practically doesn't exist. Breaking the digital  
divide has not been recognized as a critical issue," Rasiej continues.

Two months ago, TechPresident challenged the candidates to adopt  
specific policies to get everyone online. "Declare the Internet a  
public good in the same way we think of water, electricity,  
highways," reads a policy statement. "Commit to providing affordable  
high-speed wireless Internet access nationwide," reads another. So  
far most of the candidates have not adopted any of it, Rasiej says.

"At one level, the YouTube debate shows that the Web has really  
become a centerpiece of American political culture," adds Lee Rainie,  
director of Pew Internet. "At another level, it also shows that the  
debate is not for everybody. It's certainly not available to all  
Americans."

That is especially true at Cooper River Courts, where Tiara Reid, 14,  
in her jeans shorts and pink striped top, runs up and down the  
complex asking friends if anyone wants to go the library. Finally her  
mom, Jossie, who works at a deli, drives her and a neighbor's  
daughter. With school out and without Internet access at home, the  
library is the only place where she can go on the Web -- for a  
maximum of two hours a day. Says Tiara: "It's 10 minutes to get to  
the library if someone drives you. It's 15 minutes if you take the 30  
bus. It's about 30 minutes if you walk." On the library's second  
floor, she folds herself up on a chair and updates her MySpace  
profile, sends e-mails on her Yahoo! account and, if there's time,  
surfs Disney.com.

Across from the Reids' apartment stands LaToya Ferguson, holding her  
grandson Marquis. She's one of the few residents here to have  
Internet access at home. It's a sense of pride for her. "You're  
falling behind if you're not online, now that's the truth," says  
Ferguson, a nail technician in her 30s.

Nearby Marcella Morris runs after her son Donny, who's nearly 2.  
Morris says she relies on "the three F's" -- food stamps, family and  
friends -- to provide for Donny and her 7-year-old daughter, Jordan.  
Money's tight. She has a phone, subscribes to cable, but that's it.  
No cellphone, no car, no computer. At 3 in the morning, when an  
infomercial about the Web-based Specialty Merchandise Corp.comes on  
TV, she dreams of owning a business, she says.

A few weeks ago, she signed up for a computer program at Trident  
Literacy Association, a 10-minute walk from her apartment. At the end  
of the 10-week program, she will receive a refurbished computer, free.

"Never too late to start, right?" Morris says. "But after I get the  
computer I have to worry about the Internet."

It's a familiar story around the country, even in places as Internet- 
savvy as San Francisco, Chicago and the District. Who can get online?  
Who can't? And what can be done about it?

Charlestonians pay as little as $20 or as much as $99 (which covers  
phone, cable and the Internet) a month to get online, depending on  
the package. There are a few free Wi-Fi "hot spots" in town, such as  
the Cereality cafe on King Street, where a cappuccino costs $2.99.

Nearly two years ago, officials vowed to spread Internet access  
across the city. An initiative called the Charleston Digital Corridor  
selected a proposal to build a citywide Wi-Fi grid. It was meant to  
give everybody free Wi-Fi -- and the city didn't even have to pay for  
it. As in other municipalities that are developing public Wi-Fi  
projects, now numbering around 400, the goal is twofold: to empower  
small businesses and to plug poorer neighborhoods such as Cooper  
River Courts into the online world.

But like other cities, including San Francisco, Charleston has  
struggled with its Wi-Fi project. The city originally said the  
service would be up and running at the end of 2005. It was delayed.  
Twice. When it finally was launched last spring, the Wi-Fi reached  
only about 30 to 40 percent of its intended coverage.

And the Charlestonians tapping into the free Wi-Fi network --  
sometimes more than 200 surfers a day -- were largely the ones who  
could already afford to pay for it.

Now the citywide Wi-Fi project is in limbo. But Ernest Andrade, head  
of the Digital Corridor, is optimistic: "We're evaluating right now  
and I know that we'll bring Wi-Fi access to the rest of this city,"  
he pledges. Morris sounds upbeat, too. She plans on sticking with her  
10-week computer course. "Not having the Internet in this day and  
time makes me feel disconnected from a whole other world. Things I  
could see, things I could hear, things I could do.

"I could take my kids to other places on the Internet," says Morris  
as Donny naps on her lap. "Sometimes I feel shortchanged. Not  
envious, but shortchanged."

She just turned 45 three days ago. By her 46th birthday, she hopes to  
own a computer -- and be online.

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s. e. anderson (author of "The Black Holocaust for Beginners" -  
Writers + Readers) + http://blackeducator.blogspot.com