Addressing the Digital Divide

MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif., Oct. 24, 2000 — Bringing a larger percentage of people into the technology age — or, more commonly known as “bridging the ‘digital divide’ ” — will require efforts by businesses, government and non-profit organizations, panelists at Microsoft’s Speaker Series said Tuesday.

From left: Professor Allen Hammond IV; Sally Jo Fifer, Executive Director of the Bay Area Video Coalition; David Eisner, Vice President of Corporate Relations at America Online; Bruce Brooks, Director of Community Affairs at Microsoft; and California State Senator John Vasconcellos.

The five panelists told an audience of almost 50 technology professionals, reporters and other attendees that all of these groups must work together and with underserved communities to find ways to bring the opportunity of the Internet and other technology to more people in Silicon Valley and across the globe,

“We cannot say it is incumbent upon communities and individuals to leap over this chasm,”
said Bruce Brooks, director of community affairs at Microsoft.
“We need to go where people are”
to help create the solution.

The panel discussion was one in a series held each month at Microsoft’s Silicon Valley campus, located in Mountain View. Brooks was joined by representatives from several organizations that play a role in bridging the digital divide.

California state Sen. John Vasconcellos, who represents the Silicon Valley area, said the digital divide is clearly evident in his own district, where 60,000 jobs are currently unfilled because of a lack of trained information technology workers. Yet, sections of the valley also suffer from high unemployment.

“The digital divide is right here, right now for us,”
Vasconcellos said.

A new government study,
“Falling Through the Net: Toward Digital Inclusion,”
found the percentage of people with Internet access or who own computers is rising, even in rural communities — one of the areas where the digital divide is greatest. But a
“noticeable divide still exists between those with different income and education levels, different racial and ethnic groups, old and young, single and dual-parent families and those with and without disabilities,”
the report stated.

In particular, persons with disabilities are half as likely to have access to the Internet as those without a disability. The percentage of black and Hispanic households with Internet access is about half the national average, the October 2000 report found.

Bridging the Gap

Sally Jo Fifer, executive director of the nonprofit Bay Area Video Coalition, said her organization has had great success helping people bridge the digital divide with its Job Link program. The program, which provides low-income people 16 weeks of technology and other training, has a 95 percent placement rate, with graduates earning an average salary of $30 an hour.

Without the economic opportunity jobs such as these provide, many people are unable to keep up with the technological change, Fifer explained.

“The digital divide is more of a symptom an economic divide,”
she said.

Fifer said businesses and others must do something nonprofits can’t: lobby governments to ensure they invest in technology training programs.

David Eisner, vice president of corporate relations for America Online, also pointed to efforts by companies such as AOL and Microsoft to provide access to technology and training at libraries, community centers and other locations. AOL and Microsoft are sponsoring the Digital Divide Network, an effort to increase the number of community centers with Internet and other technology access. It includes a Web site (, where organizations can get information on how to create technology centers
“so we can start not reinventing the wheel in every community,”
he said.

“It is up to the high-tech industry to get it right,”
said Eisner, referring to opportunity of the Internet.
“We should build opportunity for everyone to take part.”

Solutions with Values

In the United States, Microsoft has donated $26 million in cash and $187 million in software to nearly 5,000 nonprofit organizations to help bridge the digital divide. The company also contributed more than $21 million in fiscal year 2000 to fund more than 95 local, community-based projects in 67 countries outside the United States.

Brooks said that Microsoft doesn’t just throw money at the problem. Its donations are guided by the company’s core values — in particular, the need to cultivate community, diversity, partnerships and innovation.

This means that Microsoft tries to work with different communities and groups to ensure that the assistance it provides fits the local needs and is culturally relevant.
“We want to make sure we sure we find ways to strengthen community and, more importantly, have people be empowered to make their own choices and define success as they define success,”
Brooks said.

This approach increases the chances of the donation’s success by allowing individual groups to find new relevance in the technology, Brooks said. He cited the example of how Microsoft’s donations to Native American colleges have spurred efforts among students to find lost relatives and learn native languages.

“We believe people can do amazing things if they have the tools,”
Brooks said.

Series Praised

Silicon Valley technology professionals in attendance praised Microsoft for holding the monthly panel discussions.

Warren Hegg, president of Digital Clubhouse, a nonprofit organization that helps establish digital learning centers, said the discussions help him to gain new insight on technology trends and meet people he might not otherwise bump into.

“Sometimes you need somebody who is new to come in with good ideas, such as this series,”
Hegg said.

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