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Editor's Column
Bridging the Digital Divide
Glynn Wilson caricature

NEW ORLEANS — After suffering through 13 days without telephone service or Internet access in two months, it finally hit me. I've camped on the wrong side of the "tracks," the digital red line running parallel to the Information Superhighway. On one side are the digital "haves;" on the other the "have-nots."

    Every time it rains, whenever the wind blows, or a squirrel or a rat shimmies along the lead-encased copper telephone line above Perrier Street, my phone goes dead. Wind, rain and critters sometimes knock out my broadband DSL Internet access through BellSouth.

    The high speed service is great while it's working. As one of the first generation Net fans, I was ecstatic when the BellSouth worker ran the fat phone line into my home office in the backroom of an Uptown shotgun house, a few blocks from the fabled Garden District.

    Sometimes a few blocks make all the difference.

    After the last repair call, I watched the BellSouth worker climb into his battery-powered bucket, secure his goggles, and raise himself to search for the short. It took half a day. At this pay rate, his time cost more than what I pay for monthly service. Apparently, however, the politics and economics make it an attractive alternative to forking out the upfront cash to replace the lead/copper line with fiber optics.

    Why does the phone service goes out so often? It's simple. The old lead-encased lines are subject to shorts, most often caused by the claws of critters. A sizable rat ambled across the line on a recent fall like night as I headed out to catch the streetcar to the Quarter. When the wind blows, the cracks in the lines rub together, shorting out the connection. Rain gets into the cracks and causes shorts.

    Any chance of getting the lead lines replaced? Not much, he says. "There are not enough complaints here."

    What he means is that the people on this street do not have enough political clout to pressure the phone company. While the neighborhood is going upscale, with a successful sushi restaurant that's been featured on MTV's Real World, and a new hair-and-body salon, the phone company apparently still views this as a minority, economically depressed area — the wrong side of the digital red line.

    The lead/copper lines will have to be replaced eventually, because the new phone line workers at BellSouth are not even being trained to repair the old lines. They are still being fixed day and night by an aging BellSouth crew, many approaching retirement age, often forced to work overtime. Why won't they just replace the old lines? Other phone companies get to share them, so "why should BellSouth have to pay?" he asks, somewhat defensively.

    Well, because of the Universal Access Fee for one thing, and the Clinton administration's attempt to close the digital divide. Every phone customer pays what amounts to a tax, ostensibly to ensure phone service in rural areas and minority communities, the Universal Access Fee. In recognition of this problem, the U.S. Commerce Department and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration produced a report, Falling Through the Net: Defining the Digital Divide

    According to research, "demographic characteristics not only determine whether and where one uses the Internet, but how . . . Income, education, race and gender, (all) strongly influence what a person does online."

    Most importantly, however, "people are using the Internet to improve and advance their current status." The unemployed are using it to find jobs, and those with lower incomes and many minorities to take courses or do school research. The Net is becoming "not only a source of information, communication, and entertainment, but also a tool that can help users help themselves."

    That's true. But not if the lines are too old to retain a phone connection, or a solid hold on the Internet.

    If increased productivity due to technological innovation is responsible for much of our current economic boom, the lack of access to this technology is sure to keep minorities down more. Much progress has been made in bridging the tracks for a more diverse participation in politics and the economy. But some of that effort might be for naught if we don't move quickly to bridge the digital divide.

Fall Issue

There's something about this fall that isn't quite right. SEC football is a mess and air pollution has reached record levels in the mountains. Two Southern white guys are fighting for the Presidency of the United States and there is a warmth that lingers, making us wonder if winter will ever come.

    But we offer relief. The Southerner is here just in time for the 2000 election, so you can take a break from political ads and commentary. This time around, we decided to bring you something a little different. The poets have spoken, so we went out and tried to find the best poetry with an autumn flair from around the region.

    In this issue, we also take you on a journey from New Orleans to the Arkansas Valley and back again, with a little stop in Birmingham. New fiction from Kathryn Gurkin and Mary Neal offer a taste of the Southern voice, still alive and well in the new millennium, thank you very much.

    Mary Carmichael takes us on a trip down I-75, in her search for that something Southern. In Southern Culture, we explore the bread and wine of the South, along with fried chicken and sweet tea. And Editor Glynn Wilson explains the sinking feeling that comes with living in New Orleans, a city built in a swamp.

    Then there are a few new Southern CDs to ponder, maybe over a Schomburger at the beach, or while reading about Dubya in a review of Mollie Ivins' book, SHRUB.

    So pull up a chair by the computer and spend a little time thinking about home on the Internet. And don't forget to watch for our New Orleans special issue in February. We have something in store to announce in collaboration with AnythingSouthern.com!


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