WASHINGTON – The Bush administration should protect federal programs that promote Internet access and do more to close the gap between technology haves and have-nots, consumer groups said Thursday.
The groups contend the administration is misinterpreting a government study on the topic by looking at Internet access at work and in schools, rather than concentrating on homes where most families use the Internet and the gap is greatest.
"The administration's claim that we no longer need policies to close the gap is simply wrong," said Chris Murray of the Consumers Union, which released an analysis with the Consumer Federation of America and Civil Rights Forum.
"Rather than misdefine the problem of the digital divide, the Bush administration would like to misinterpret it out of existence," Murray said.
Michael D. Gallagher, deputy director of the Commerce Department's National Telecommunications and Information Administration, said the administration agrees the digital divide is a serious issue.
But he said the government now is taking a different approach from the Clinton administration's, which included a program begun in 1994 that brought computers with Internet access to inner cities.
"This administration focuses much more on digital opportunities as opposed to divides," Gallagher said. "We believe in expanded opportunities, which happen in schools, in libraries, in workplaces and at home."
Gallagher pointed to the adoption of cable television and wireless phones, which are now popular across the economic spectrum.
"That occurred without a government subsidy, a government program or a government handout," Gallagher said.
In an annual digital divide report released by the Commerce Department in February, the administration pointed to a trend that showed Internet use growing at a faster rate among the poor and minorities and in rural areas.
Emboldened by the survey, officials then declared that the digital divide was closing and expensive government programs such as Commerce's Technology Opportunities Program are no longer needed. That program, which costs $15 million per year, creates self-sustaining technology projects, such as the inner city computers.
Bush cut funds for the program last year and marked it for elimination in the 2003 budget.
Gallagher said the administration is encouraged by $20-per-month Internet access and $500 computers, common prices for low-end access, "which are much more robust than what was available in 1994 when this program was initiated."
Bush's 2003 education budget terminates several other technology projects, including community technology centers and programs to help teachers learn how to use computers in the classroom.
Administration officials said those projects duplicated others and they cited the need to put more money into anti-terrorism projects.
The consumer groups' report says 45 percent of Americans still do not have Internet access. It also laments the second-tier digital divide brought by broadband, in which richer Americans are getting high-speed Internet access, while many poor families have none at all.
Critics also cite the Federal Communications Commission for policies that loosen requirements on the local telephone giants. Consumer Federation of America research director Mark Cooper said the policies will result in higher prices for Internet access.
The administration's policies "will only worsen the problem -- ensuring that the Internet will not be a mechanism for increasing equality and spreading opportunity, but will be a case of the rich getting richer," Cooper said.