"Opportunity for all requires ... having access to a computer and knowing how to use it. That means we must close the 'digital divide' between those who've got the tools and those who don't."
Thus spoke President Clinton in his final State of the Union address, reiterating his views on information technology.
"The 'digital divide'," according to the U.S. Department of Commerce's most recent report on it, "is now one of America's leading economic and civil rights issues." Many people lack access to the Internet, particularly minorities, the poor, the less educated, and those living in rural and inner city areas. What's more, the gap separating the information "haves" and "have nots" is widening, the report shows.
There are broad economic benefits from widespread Internet access. "When more people are connected, new markets are created," says Bunnie Riedel, executive director of the Alliance for Community Media.
Some people choose not to be online. Yet many would like to get connected but can't because they feel Internet access requires a computer they can't afford or knowledge they don't possess.
Today one can get Internet access for little or no charge and without having to know the difference between a POP and SMTP server. Anyone looking to save a few bucks can benefit, too.
If you have a computer, you don't necessarily have to pay the $15-22 monthly fee to surf the Web and exchange email. A growing number of U.S. and Canadian services now provide free Internet access, including brand-name Internet companies such as AltaVista, at www.zdnet.com/downloads/altavista, and Excite@Home, at freeworld.excite.com. Other options are affinity services marketed to groups such as blacks or the elderly.
The free services are catching on. The oldest and largest free Internet service provider (ISP), NetZero, at www.netzero.com, claims to be the second-largest ISP in the world, behind only America Online. Free services' negatives: ads that continuously appear on screen or pop into your email in-box. According to some users, these services are slow, prone to busy signals and frequently lose connections.
If you don't have a computer, you can still get online for free or inexpensively. Local public libraries and technology centers increasingly provide free Internet access, though you may have to wait to use a computer, and your online time may be limited.
Computers themselves are becoming more affordable, despite a small spike in prices recently. Still, the least expensive new computers, with monitors, are priced around $500, and brand-name machines start at around $700.
Offers for "free" PCs can be enticing, but typically lock you into using a particular ISP for three years, and a lot can change in that time, including the quality of the ISP's service.
Buying a used or surplus computer from a company such as Egghead.com, at www.egghead.com (800-344-4323), is another option. It's best if the unit comes with a warranty.
Finally, you may not need to use a computer at all to connect to the Net. Internet appliances such as the I-opener, at www.netpliance.com and 888-iopener, are inexpensive computer-like devices that connect you - no technical skills required. The units cost $300 plus $22/month for Internet access.
For more information about the digital divide, including local initiatives, check out the Digital Divide Network at www.digitaldividenetwork.org.
Reid Goldsborough is a syndicated columnist and author of the book Straight Talk About the Information Superhighway. He can be reached at reid firstname.lastname@example.org or members.home.net/reidgold.