Digital divide has five complex causes

Otto Doll

Electronic government is all the rage these days. State portals are popping up for citizens, businesses and state employees. Many states are committed to providing transactions online. So as Internet-enabled government arrives, what about that portion of the public on the wrong side of the digital divide?

The situation is analogous to the introduction of the automobile a century ago. Decades passed before the paved highway infrastructure caught up and the mobility wave encompassed nearly everyone. Years will pass before the digital divide disappears because complex factors are at work.

I see five interrelated systems causing the divide: geography, economics, education, accessibility and culture. They require simultaneous resolution to ensure universal and equal access to the information highway. The extensive interaction among these issues adds to the difficulty.

By geography I mean challenges posed by population density disparities of rural and inner city areas. Electronic business requires sufficient buyers. If you live in a state such as South Dakota, you understand there is a difference between being merely rural and being on the frontier, just as my colleagues from more heavily populated states explain that extremely dense inner cities command a different business sense than metropolitan or suburban areas.

My experience has been that residents of rural areas and inner cities also have needs in common. State government must leverage its buying power to convince industry to build out to distant populations.

The telecommunications industry often cherry-picks its markets, leaving many areas with high-priced service'or no service at all. But government cannot choose its customers or discriminate among them. So when a government is unable to persuade private industry to establish a statewide communications infrastructure accessible by all business and citizens, it'll have to build its own.

Unless people and businesses and communities can afford the technology required to access the Internet, state portals will go unvisited. We are competing with cable TV, satellite, premium channels and other forms of entertainment and news for citizens' discretionary dollars. So in some cases state governments must use their own Internet access resources, such as PCs in public schools and libraries, for the have-nots.

The computing literacy of some segments of the population must rise if we expect state portals to be widely used. Unless people are comfortable with information technology, state officials cannot expect the public to incorporate government portals into their lifestyles.

Sometimes challenges to Internet use stem from factors such as age, race or religion. Government officials must take into account people's attitudes toward and adaptability to technology stemming from their cultural heritage. State government must respect people's cultural makeup and position in life when figuring out how best to adapt information technology to its constituents.

Solve these complex systems and your state will see its citizens use the Internet to their fullest potential. You can't declare success until citizens have incorporated state government information systems into their daily business practices and lifestyles.

Otto Doll, South Dakota's chief information officer, is past president of the National Association of State Information Resource Executives.

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