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‘Mercedes Divide’ Comment from New FCC Chair Causes More than a Ripple

‘Mercedes Divide’ Comment from New FCC Chair Causes More than a Ripple

Most news organizations barely raised their antennas when new Federal Communications Commission Chairman Michael K. Powell made his “Mercedes divide” statement to a group of reporters last month when asked about the existence of a “digital divide.”
“I think there is a Mercedes divide,” Powell said. “I would like to have one, but I can’t afford one.”
His comments have since caused quite a ripple among groups that are working to level the technological playing field.
All you have to do is say the words “Mercedes divide” and the reaction is polite, but visceral.
“It was very unfortunate,” says Chic Smith, a policy associate on information technology (IT) issues for the Washington-based Benton Foundation. “It really belittled the efforts of so many people in the trenches at libraries and community technology centers and even churches that do this as part of their ministry. They are the real unsung heroes of this effort — and nobody says thank you.”
Keith Abouchar, managing editor of the Benton Foundation’s Digital Divide Network, a Web-based clearinghouse, says, “If you’re going to use a metaphor, then at least use a metaphor that’s accurate and meaningful. Access to technology and access to a Mercedes Benz are two very different things.”
And the failure to see that, or to fully account for it, points toward one of the most common misconceptions about the digital divide, says Ramon Harris, director of the Technology Transfer Project at the Executive Leadership Foundation.
“Most of us are still thinking that the digital divide is about computers, but it’s not just about computers,” Harris says. “It’s about information technology — who has access to it, who owns it, who can exploit its full potential, who profits from it, whether educationally or economically. Money is an issue — it’s not the issue.”
Abouchar strongly agrees. “This isn’t about having a Mercedes, it’s about having a regular Toyota Celica and being able to drive it.”
If Powell’s words do nothing else, perhaps they signal a change in the wind blowing from Washington. During the Clinton administration, particularly under former FCC Chairman William Kennard, the digital divide was a front-burner issue, and corporate and government support was unstinting.
Not only is the new FCC chair making light of the divide issue, the Bush administration has taken aim at some of the technology community’s favorite programs. According to published reports, the Commerce Department’s Technology Opportunities Program will be cut by 65 percent in the new fiscal year that begins in October. There is even talk of making the “E-rate”— another important mechanism for funding “wiring” initiatives at under-served libraries and schools under the previous administration — into a block grant subject to the annual budget authorization process.
“This will politicize a program that’s not been political…that’s been run by professionals and that works,” Abouchar says.
But the technology and educational communities are not demonizing the new administration, but say they need to spend their time focusing in, asking the hard questions and taking the initiative to spread the word.
“Particularly if this is the attitude of the new administration, it will be incumbent on the African American community to take stock and really nurture where we want to go,” Harris says. 
— Kendra Hamilton

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