Gaping digital divide shrinking quickly

Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Americans’ access to computers and the Internet has grown dramatically over the past 20 months with computers now in more than half of all households, a new government report said Monday.

The share of households with computers rose from 42.1 percent in December 1998 to 51 percent in August of this year — a total of 53.7 million households, the Commerce Department found in its latest survey of computer usage.

The number of households with Internet access also soared, hitting 41.5 percent in August, up from just 26.2 percent in the previous 1999 survey.

But as in past surveys, the government found a gap with whites and people living in cities much more likely to have computers and Internet access than minorities and those living in rural areas.

The report found that 23.5 percent of black households had Internet access in August. While this was up from 11.2 percent in the 1999 survey, it still lagged behind the rate for white households of 46.1 percent.

The percentage of Hispanic households with Internet access stood at 23.6 percent in August while Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders continued to have the largest Internet penetration at 56.8 percent.

The report, "Falling through the Net: Toward Digital Inclusion," was released by Commerce Secretary Norman Y. Mineta as he began a West Coast "digital divide" tour aimed at highlighting efforts to close the gap in computer and Internet use.

"Each year being connected becomes more critical to economic and educational advancement and to community participation," Mineta said. "That’s why it is so important that we move as quickly as we can toward digital inclusion."

The Commerce Department report showed that computer ownership has been rising steadily, going from 8.2 percent of households in 1984 to the current 51 percent. Internet access in homes has risen from 18.6 percent in 1998 to 26.2 percent in 1999 and 41.5 percent in the August survey.

Among the report’s other findings:

  • The disparity between men and women in their use of the Internet has largely disappeared with 44.6 percent of men and 44.2 percent of women now using the Internet.

  • Sending messages remains the most popular use for the Internet with 79.9 percent of Internet users reporting that they use e-mail. Online shopping and paying bills showed the fastest growth.

  • By state, Utah ranked No. 1 in computer ownership with 66.1 percent of households owning a computer followed by Alaska at 64.8 percent of households. States with the lowest percentage of computers in homes were Mississippi at 37.2 percent and Arkansas at 37.3 percent.

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