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Houston citizens get free e-mail

August 19, 2001 

In what may be the most ambitious project to narrow the "digital divide," the city of Houston will launch a program today to offer free e-mail and use of personal computer software to its 3 million area residents.

The service will start in three low-income areas, then spread through the city.

How it works: The city is working with Houston-based Internet Access Technologies (IAT), which offers a package of software and e-mail services dubbed SimDesk. People who verify their residence will get a SimDesk account number to access the software, including word processing, and e-mail. They could then access their stored documents and e-mail from any device connected to the Net — from anywhere in the USA.

The city will give residents free use of about 1,000 PCs already in libraries and fire and police stations. Houston residents who own PCs also can access the software if they have an Internet service provider.

"We saw an opportunity in the information age to bridge the digital divide by making computers accessible to every Houstonian," says Mayor Lee Brown, who was New York police commissioner and drug czar in the Clinton administration. "It's crucial to have e-mail and electronic rйsumйs."

The city and IAT have not formalized their contract. But it will be a 3-year, multimillion-dollar deal, officials say. IAT hopes to strike similar deals in up to 12 cities, including Chicago and Indianapolis. In future deals, IAT might team with Internet service providers such as AOL Time Warner or EarthLink.

Last year, 19% of U.S. households with annual income of less than $15,000 had Internet access, vs. 70% of households with annual incomes of more than $75,000. More than 50% of whites go online, as do 49% of Asian-Americans, 29% of African-Americans and 24% of Hispanics, a recent Commerce Department report shows.

Houston's program is the latest to encourage Internet use among minorities, the poor and people in rural areas.

"We expect to have (people) standing in line to use the Internet," says Denny Piper, the city's chief information officer.

Tech companies are also taking steps to close the digital divide. Among them:

Microsoft. The software giant last year announced it will donate $100 million in cash and software over 5 years to the Boys & Girls Clubs of America to build 3,000 centers where kids can use PCs.

Sun Microsystems. It gives $1 million annually in computers and software to low-income schools in California, Colorado and Massachusetts.

Oracle. The database firm has donated Internet appliances, network equipment and printers to 2,500 classrooms the past 3 years.

But the economic slowdown has reduced giving by some companies. Also, government funding could be cut. For the fiscal year starting Oct. 1, the Commerce Department proposes cutting the Technology Opportunities Program to $15 million from $42.5 million. In part, it is aimed at providing more Internet access to minorities.

By Jon Swartz, USA TODAY.

Copyright © 2001 USA TODAY

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