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

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.

s. e. anderson (author of "The Black Holocaust for Beginners" - Writers + Readers) +