Universal access to electronic mail for every American is “imperative” to the country’s future and should be made a national goal, according to a study by RAND, a nonprofit research organization.
The report, released Tuesday, concludes that giving every citizen a unique electronic mail address, and ensuring everyone has access to the appropriate computers and communications lines, could have enormous benefits.
Universal access to e-mail would produce improved education, greater participation in government, better delivery of government services and more rapid development of the “information highway,” the report predicts.
The gap between information “haves” and “have nots” is now growing rather than narrowing, according to the study, even as the number of electronic mail boxes held by consumers has reached 6.7 million.
Without a concerted national effort, people who are now statistically unlikely to use e-mail will increasingly fall victim to “information apartheid,” the authors said.
E-mail is most likely to be used by wealthy, well-educated whites, while those most at risk include people without college degrees, those with below-average household incomes, and ethnic minorities - especially Hispanics, African-Americans and Native Americans.
“In very important ways they’re being excluded from the fabric of American life,” said Tora K. Bikson, a RAND senior scientist and one of the study’s authors.
But the study’s authors warned that the free market alone is unlikely to provide such universal access. They recommended some government intervention to regulate the development of the information highway and to subsidize e-mail use by poor and rural Americans.
“We argue that this is not only feasible but vital to a healthy society in the information age,” Bikson said.
Under ideal circumstances, it could take 10 years to ensure universal e-mail access, at a public cost of around $1 billion per year, the study’s authors estimated.
The money would cover the cost of a basic e-mail account and computer equipment for people who couldn’t afford it themselves, and might be delivered in the form of government vouchers.
Overall, the study bolsters the position of the Clinton administration, which has consistently pushed for both universal access to the information highway and federal involvement in the process.