Ascending the Digital Divide Businesses Must Find Way to Connect Even in Affluent Suburbs

Article excerpt

If your business finds a way to bring the power of personal computers and the Internet to more people, will the world beat a path to your door?

That's the question entrepreneurs are asking themselves as the 'digital divide' draws attention nationwide, from the White House to local forums such as last week's DuPage Digital Divide Summit.

The divide strikes even in the affluent suburbs. By one estimate, one in five Lake County residents, or about 120,000 people, have little or no access to computers and the Internet, while estimates are that another 40,000 people in DuPage County are without those tools.

Federal statistics show the divide disparity falls most sharply along income and education levels. Those without access often lack a high school diploma and have family earnings in the bottom one- third nationally.

In a 1998 U.S. Commerce Department survey, the latest available, 62 percent of households with income of $75,000 or more had Internet access, while only about 12 percent of households with income between $20,000 and $24,999 had access. About 16 percent of households led by high school graduates had home Internet access, while nearly 50 percent of those led by college graduates had access.

For suburban business leaders, the numbers translate into fewer potential workers with the necessary computer skills and hordes of customers who are missing their Internet pitches.

Isn't that a ripe opportunity for digital businesses?

Not so far, but they have tried, says Shane Greenstein, an associate professor who teaches classes on the business of information technology at Northwestern University's Kellogg Graduate School of Management.

"There has not been a market-based solution to getting that last 20 to 30 percent onto the Internet," Greenstein says.

Even though the ranks of those who are not using the Internet consistently can be pretty well-defined by income and education levels, Greenstein says those factors do not explain the divide.

If price were the problem, the advent of cheap devices such as Web TV, coupled with cheap or free Internet service, should have solved it, Greenstein says.

"How many things on the Internet are essentially free if you know what you're doing - free e-mail, free news," Greenstein says. "It's sort of pretty hard to see why the price is the issue."

Don Samuelson, a housing lawyer who is working on a project to draw more people onto the Internet in the 10th Congressional District, which includes parts of northern Cook County and eastern Lake County, agrees that the problem goes beyond price.

Samuelson, a self-described digital divide crusader, thinks the problem is poorer Americans simply do not know what the Internet can do for them. …