Seventy percent of all U.S. households with incomes of more than $75,000 a year have Internet access, but less than 20 percent of those with incomes below $15,000 do. The city of Houston, Texas is attempting to bridge that economic digital divide by offering offer free e-mail and personal computer service to all of its residents.
Houston Mayor Lee Brown vows that every one of Houston's residents will soon have 25 megabites of storage space and his or her own web account, accessible from any computer in town. "My plan is to have this available in every library. I want to put computers into fire stations for public use or police stations or multi-service centers, or in all of our public facilities," the mayor says. "I want to make computers available so that all of our public, everyone, would have access to the computer."
And he is doing just that, with the help of Internet Access Technologies, a Houston-based communications firm. Company founder Ray Davis says Internet Access Technologies has developed software capable of connecting 20 million word processors to one computer network. "In our system, everybody will be connected, whether you work as a citizen in your office and want to finish a contract at home on your television, or you are someone at the police station who wants to send a document over to the hospital," he says. "Everybody is connected now."
Mayor Brown says the goal is to give all economic groups equal access to the opportunities of the digital era. In today's information age, he says, computer access is essential just to get a job. "When we kicked off our program, the first person who came in, wanting to use our computer, she had been asked to e-mail her resume to a perspective employer," he says. "She didn't have a computer, but now she has an account and she can have an electronic resume. And that can be available to everyone."
Ray Davis says word of the Houston project has spread, and towns and cities in many other regions have begun contacting Internet Access Technologies about setting up similar programs. "We are talking to two dozen cities," he says. "We have a meeting with Singapore next Wednesday. We have spoken with Australia, with different organizations within England. It is a worldwide thing. There are no boundaries to the Internet."
Houston is the first city to offer its citizens free internet access, but may soon be the first of many.