WASHINGTON, Jan. 26 (UPI) -- Outgoing U.S. Federal Communications Commission Chairman Michael Powell's leadership of the FCC leaves questions about how much the nation's "digital divide" has widened or narrowed during his time there.
While advocacy groups and some municipalities contend that the commission's regulatory decisions under Powell have limited affordable Internet access for communities, particularly for low-income families, others say that market competition will eventually drive prices down and that a range of government strategies are addressing the universal access issue effectively.
Some researchers look at the last four years as a period where information about and interest in the divide's societal impact has declined, especially among legislators.
"They seem to not care about (it) anymore," says Robert Fairlie, associate professor and director of the masters program in Applied Economics and Finance at the University of California, Santa Cruz. "It's almost become a dead issue."
Powell, who resigned as chairman of the FCC last week, hasn't lived down a statement he made on the subject at the beginning of his term four years ago. When reporters asked what he thought about improving technological access for low-income individuals, he said, "I think there is a Mercedes-Benz divide. I'd like one. I can't afford it."
Many organizations, including the Consumers Union, publisher of Consumer Reports, and the Consumer Federation of America, have bristled throughout Powell's tenure at what they consider to be the commission's indifferent response to the issue. In a joint report released last October, they denounced Bush Administration policies that have "(eliminated) all public interest obligations for the advanced telecommunications networks used to provide high-speed and voice-over-Internet service."
These organizations also say that the commission has refused to reclassify "advanced telecommunications services" in a way that allows for more competition and permits more opportunities for affordable in-home broadband access. They argue that significant opportunities for economic, educational, social and political benefits, particularly for disadvantaged populations, increase with high-speed, reasonably priced access -- something that Chairman Powell's father, former Secretary of State Colin Powell, even addressed in a statement a few years ago.
Fairlie, a progressive economist who has studied racial disparities and the digital divide, labor economics, and other public-policy issues, says he is now directing his attention toward the potential for Web access via home computers to improve high-school graduation rates. Although he's in the early stages of completing the results, he says the data show some interesting trends, namely that home access does augment graduation capability.
"It looks like there are big educational effects," he said, including the possible reduction of young people's involvement in crime.
A report by the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation last October said that federal support since the mid-'90s has greatly improved basic Internet access in communities, particularly through the heavily disputed E-rate program, which subsidizes Internet and other telecommunications costs for libraries and schools, and is funded primarily by fees that service providers attach to residential phone bills.
While the overall number of young people online has increased, the report pointed to U.S. Commerce and Education Department data from 2000 and 2001 that said four in 10 children have never used the Internet and that "significant disparities (exist) in home Internet access based on income and race" among 3- to 17-year-olds.
The report also said other ventures such as community technology training programs administered by the Education Department continue to be slated for budget cuts or attempts to roll them into other programs. And while the results are popular with the public, the E-rate program has been besieged in recent years by allegations of fraud and investigations into its accounting practices.
The foundation, which funds research about children and families and health-care issues, highlighted the need to bridge "significant gaps in the quantity and quality of access," including finding ways to increase home access. It cited the country's economic slump and the technology sector's downturn as reasons for the decline in corporate philanthropy, foundation support, and state and local resources devoted to addressing the issue.
While acknowledging persistent, troubling gaps in Internet usage across demographic lines, newer survey data from the Pew Research Center seem to show a "mainstreaming" of online activity.
"There is pretty interesting fluidity among Internet users," says Lee Rainie, a project director at the center. Rainie says that the gaps have shrunk over the last four to five years.
"The reality is lots more people with modest incomes use the Internet," he said. Still, the survey showed that people with incomes over $75,000 a year had the highest amount of usage at 89 percent, while people with incomes below $30,000 had 44 percent usage.
Although Rainie says, "Internet use is not a monolithic story," he would not take a position on the degree that government policies have helped or hindered closing the divide. For now, it seems that the policymakers are at a loss for creative strategies to close the remaining gaps to universal access and balance the need to reduce financial burdens elsewhere.