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The Digital Divide: Is There A Solution?

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Definition of the Digital Divide: The difference in opportunities available to people who have access to modern information technology and those who do not.

Traditionally the working poor and homeless have been at a big disadvantage by not having access to the latest technology available. The disadvantages are many. Lack of access to information and being less competitive in the job market are two of the most significant.

Projects like CLIC (Computers for Low Income Calgarians) operated by the Calgary Drop-In Centre have helped to bridge the gap by giving people free computers. This was a good start, but there were still some important building blocks missing. The computers available through the CLIC program are generally not of the latest generation. Many are in the 750mz range, whereas most new systems are in the 3000-4000mz range, making them considerably faster and more capable of running programs.

The other important building block is software. By far the most common software found in businesses is Microsoft Office. This includes a word processor and spreadsheet program. Microsoft Office retails for several hundred dollars, putting it out of reach to the working poor.

There have been some important shifts in the computer industry of late that will have a significant effect on the Digital Divide. The almost blanket coverage of Internet access via cable and DSL at a reasonable price now puts high speed access within most people’s budget. The advent of Wi-Fi in urban areas also offers the possibility for very low cost, or even free Internet access.

Maybe the most significant change is happening on the Internet itself. Since the early 1980’s and the arrival of the personal computer, the strategy had been to create ever increasingly complex software to run on it. This started a sort of arms race between the hardware and software companies. Bigger programs needed faster hardware. Once again the Low Income sector found themselves at a disadvantage. The 750mz computer supplied by the CLIC program cannot run the latest versions of the programs.

Over the past year there has been a significant shift within the computer community. I like to refer to it as the ‘what is old is new again’ theory. Prior to the advent of the personal computer, the strategy was to have all of the computer power in one centralized place, commonly called a Mainframe, and to use terminals to access the central location. These terminals were often called ‘dumb terminals’ because they had no processing power of their own; they merely allowed the user to enter information and display results.

The industry once again seems to be heading back toward the centralization concept as more and more programs are appearing as web-based, moving the need for computer power from the user’s computer to the computer hosting the web site. This trend started with web-based email. All of the storage and processing is performed on the server. The user can access his or her email from any computer hooked up to the Internet. Many of these web-based email systems also include address books and calendaring systems. This removes the need for a program such as Microsoft Outlook.

One of the more interesting companies working toward a centralized system is Google. Google started as a search engine and has grown into many other areas, some of which have a very direct bearing on the digital divide. Google’s free email system (Gmail) gives each user 2.8 gigabytes of storage. This is a huge amount of space. Typing at 20 words a minute, 24 hours a day, it would take over 45 years to fill it up.

Their recently released calendar function seems to be in direct competition with Microsoft Outlook. The big advantage with Google’s version is that you can access your calendar from any Internet computer. Google announced Google Pages in February of 2006. This is a free web-hosting facility. Everyone can now host his or her own homepage. It is designed for either the novice or the expert. At the novice level, anyone can create a professional looking web page with no technical knowledge.

Maybe the most significant event for the digital divide occurred in late March of 2006 with Google’s purchase of a small Silicon Valley software company called Upstartle. Upstartle was the creator of a web-based Word processor. What sets this word processor above the others is its ability to read and write Microsoft Word documents. The Writely word processor was quickly followed up by a spreadsheet offering. While it is not as feature-rich as Microsoft Excel, it does have some advantages – easy to access and easy to share information with other users being two huge ones.

It is impossible to predict the future, but based on Google’s actions to date, it would seem reasonable that we are going to see at least one more important feature added to their current offerings, a generalized data repository. The impact on the digital divide will be enormous as these new emerging technologies become mainstream. With the web-based philosophy, it does not matter if you have a new or old computer, the only important thing is that you have Internet access.

In summary, the world is a changing place. Maybe the Digital Divide is getting narrower. Maybe it is even close to being a phrase that is no longer in the dictionary.

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About Simon Barrett

  • Free computers and Google aps are great, but we still have a significant digital divide regarding high speed Internet access in rural areas. Some friends of mine live about thirty miles outside of two major Kentucky cities, but due to the landscape of the area, they don’t even get cell phone reception. The cable company doesn’t service the area, and the phone company won’t replace the lines with ones that can handle DSL. They tried high speed Internet access via their satellite TV subscription, but that wasn’t fast enough to make it worth paying the extra $$ for it. So, they’re stuck with dialup in an Internet world that is increasingly needing high speed lines to function well. Digital divide indeed.

  • Yes broadband access is a current issue, but it is my contention that it is only a short term issue. Here in Alberta we are beginging to see rural comunities sponsoring wi-fi type access.

    From the tech articles that I have read recently it would seem that the technology for long range wi-fi type access is very close to fruition.

    Working in the non-profit world, and more specifically with low income and no income clients I watch the Digital Divide very carefully.

  • Interesting view of the digital world of the 21st c. There are huge gaps between medical services, education and income in the “developing” nations. There are gaps back in the States even if the world thinks every American is rich. Digitally, most are.

    Here in southeastern Mexico in a rural area the other gaps are life-threatening and culture-deadening. But the digital gap is narrowing somewhat.

    When we moved here 9 years ago there were no phone lines and poor cell service. Then, with phones, came internet cafes and, slowly, more and more access.

    Now I have a phone, a cell phone and, most recently, the Mexican version of broadband (1MB). My guard bought his sons a laptop and high-speed access from the phone company (which works after 4 months of fighting over the DOA computer from HP). They cannot afford a car but the digital future is coming even to the edge of the jungle.

    Web 2.0 and web-based apps can help. Even wi-fi is coming to the cities. But I was in Miami for a few weeks and was blown away by all the new services, gadgets and their almost universal use.