Administration launches drive to narrow computer gap

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The Clinton administration is searching for ways to narrow a growing ''digital divide'' in which minorities are falling behind in their access to computers and the Internet.

President Clinton will devote his next ''New Markets'' poverty tour in the spring to highlighting the problem and plans to issue a number of directives aimed at increasing government efforts in this area, Commerce Secretary William Daley said Wednesday.

To bolster the effort, Daley said he planned his own schedule of 12 regional trips next year to highlight the need for action in different parts of the country.

The whole effort was being launched Thursday with an all-day conference sponsored by the Commerce Department.

''If we don't address this issue, it will have a serious impact on the society in the next century,'' Daley said in an interview Wednesday with The Associated Press.

''Closing the digital divide is an essential part of President Clinton's initiative ... to bring America's prosperity to economically underserved areas,'' he said.

Daley said the conference will have more than 600 participants and feature some of America's biggest high-tech companies as well as state and local governments, education groups and civil rights organizations.

Corporations participating include AT&T, BellSouth and American Online. Daley said he expected some of the business groups will make major announcements of new programs aimed at narrowing the technology gap.

In addition, the Benton Foundation of Washington was set to announce Thursday it is creating a clearing house for governments, foundations, nonprofit organizations and private companies to get information on work being done in this effort.

''This will be a clearing house where people will share things that have worked and take advantage of information on what is going on,'' Daley said. ''It will provide the resources for a coordinated attack aimed at bridging the digital divide.''

A Commerce Department report this year showed dramatic gains in the number of Americans who own computers and use the Internet. But it found that money, education and whether a person lives in an urban or rural area were all major factors affecting whether they use the technology.

The government report found that about 47 percent of all whites own computers, but fewer than half as many blacks do. The report said that a child in a low-income white family is three times more likely to have Internet access as a child in a comparable black family and four times more likely than a Hispanic child.

Ameritech Corp. and the National Urban League announced this summer that they will spend $350,000 to build five new Internet community centers in Aurora, Ill., Cleveland, Detroit, Indianapolis and Milwaukee. Also, 3Com Corp. said it will spend $1 million in donated equipment and training in 10 cities to help teach students to be computer network engineers.

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