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Community Access Helping Bridge the Digital Divide

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ROCKY MOUNT — President Clinton is calling for a $4 billion federal effort to provide Internet access to millions of Americans not connected to the information age.

Some call it the digital divide, or the haves versus the have-nots. RecentCensussurveys show North Carolina ranks near the bottom of states when it comes tocomputer use and Internet accessat home.

Is the digital divide closing? And how important is Internet access?

Eric Shields goes out of his way to surf the Internet by visiting Rocky Mount'sBraswell Libraryas often as he can.

"I don't have a computer at home, but the Internet provides vital information," he says.

Information vital to the future of the state.

For more than a half-century North Carolina has prided itself as the "good roads" state. Now the focus is shifting to a digital highway.

The new commerce of an information-based society travels through routers and switches, and along telephone lines. In order to ride this new highway, you first have to get on.

Erroll Reese's company provides Internet access in Durham's low-income housing areas. He says success requires training and a sense of need.

"Learning how to click and go to the Internet does not mean anything to them," says Reese, who is president of EasyWeb. "But if you provide in terms of how you can improve their lives by learning a skill, then it makes a lot of sense."

It is a sentiment echoed by Judy Hallman who, throughRTPnet, has also set up community access centers in the Triangle.

"A lot of people don't use computers because they don't know what they want to use them for," says Hallman.

Most of the high-tech Triangle is well-wired, and its residents are trained for the Internet age. Neighborhoods in Rocky Mount have also bridged the so-called digital divide, but that is not the case everywhere.

Many people living in rural North Carolina do not have computers or Internet access. But the divide is more than digital. Many people still do not have telephones or indoor plumbing.

President Clinton wants the federal government to extend Internet access to rural and inner city areas. Some people believe the have-nots are quickly becoming haves and do not need help from the government.

Bill Johnson uses public Internet access.

"People who live in the community take responsibility for their community and provide that. I don't think it's a government responsibility," he says.

Youngsters lucky enough to have a computer at home have an advantage over those who do not.

"Because they have to do everything the hard way. Computers make everything easier," says student Joseph Kitchen.

A committee studying eastern North Carolina's economic future suggests more high-speed Internet service as a major initiative.

"One out of every five jobs in the year 2005 will be technology related and that skill set is required. So again, the challenge of the Internet is having access to it [be] affordable, but training the skill sets of kids," says Ronnie Harrell of Cisco Systems.

The digital divide may not be a chasm, but it may keep our neighbors on the back roads of the information economy.

A lot is being done to close the digital divide in North Carolina. Community access may be the key until people who do not have access understand the importance of the Internet.

Job opportunities for middle and high school students will soar if they jump on the digital highways at school.

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Tom Lawrence, Reporter
Gil Hollingsworth, Photographer
Michelle Singer, Web Editor

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