BOB GARFIELD: This week the president's new trillion dollar budget cut the funds for a federal initiative launched during the Clinton years called The Technology Opportunities Program or TOP. The goal was to experiment with small scale introductions of technology into communities, priming the pump for greater expansion of those opportunities by the private sector. TOP was also the government's prime remedy for the so-called Digital Divide, the stark gap in access to the Internet between low-income Americans and the well-to-do. The Bush administration says it wants to end TOP because its job is done and its 15 million dollar allocation is needed elsewhere. Joining us now is consultant Larry Irving, the former assistant secretary of commerce under President Clinton. Mr. Irving, welcome to the program.
LARRY IRVING: Thank you very much.
BOB GARFIELD: When the Technology Opportunities Program was conceived, what was the idea?
LARRY IRVING: The idea was to try to find out what applications of technology could improve the lives of the American people. We helped to pioneer putting technology in libraries. We helped pioneer the idea of computer technology centers. We're among the first entities to put laptops in police cars. We saved lives in Oklahoma because of a project called O.K. First that helped give early warning to hurricanes to people who lived in communities where they were so geographically isolated, the didn't get information on time. It's really been a phenomenally successful program to demonstrate how information technology can touch and improve the lives of American people. It was intended and has always been a laboratory, and it has helped to spark millions of dollars if not billions of dollars investment by philanthropic organizations, state and local governments and corporations. When we've proven out an idea, others have taken those ideas and improved upon 'em and made them more ubiquitous.
BOB GARFIELD:All right, let's talk about success with respect to the Digital Divide. According to government surveys, as of 1997, only 10 percent of low-income Americans, defines as earning 25,000 dollars a year per household or less, had access to the Internet. But as of 2001, thanks substantially to the Technology Opportunities Program, something like 25 percent of low-income households had access. That pump seems pretty well primed!
LARRY IRVING: Not if you're one of the 75 percent that don't have access when you're looking at 80 percent of people with incomes above 75,000 dollars having access. You're talking about a 3 to 1 gap. In a country this wealthy, that's almost criminal. Because we're not talking about access at home. We're talking about access anywhere. These are people who don't use it at library; say they're not using it at school; they're not using it at work; and they're not using it at home.
BOB GARFIELD:We asked your successor in the Bush administration to talk with us on this subject; first agreed to do it, then reneged. So I'll take the administration's points myself. They say that they are spending one billion dollars in the education technology budget that they say duplicate the role of the Technology Opportunities Program. Is that not true?
LARRY IRVING: That's just totally not true. The Education Department has no role in trying to develop technology for health care. The Education Department has no role in working with law enforcement agents. The Education Department is not working with grassroots community organizations. We have a president who says let's do things at the grassroots level. Let's empower the people that are really doing things. Let's work with community organizations. The TOP program actually spends money, time and energy with those community-based organizations to try to get them on line and to try to use technologies to reach their constituency. That's not the goal or the focus of the Education Department, and it properly is not their role.
BOB GARFIELD:Now you mentioned empowerment. You can't imagine that the Bush administration is somehow trying to intentionally un-empower any segment of the population.
LARRY IRVING: No, I don't believe that, but I think it's a lack of sensitivity over how important this technology is for all of us. We're talking about small investments that are going to have huge dividends. Two years ago, three years ago in this nation we were talking about the fact that we didn't have enough trained workers to do the technology jobs in this country. We had to import hundreds of thousands of workers and change the immigration laws. We have an opportunity now where we have this moment to make sure that we don't have to import workers -- that every child in this country is qualified to do a technology job. Instead we're going to stop before we get to that point, and I really don't understand that.
BOB GARFIELD:We're back to deficit financing of government thanks substantially to the War on Terrorism. Is this just one of those things that America has to sacrifice for the ongoing war?
LARRY IRVING: I don't think there's a more powerful weapon we have than our citizenry, and making sure they're informed is part of a democracy. If you look at a soldier today and look at the technology they have, almost every soldier out in Afghanistan right now is carrying around a Palm Pilot, and he's using that Palm Pilot to do his or her job. Even if we want to have a functioning military in which everybody is capable of serving our country, we've got to train our young boys and girls, men and women.
BOB GARFIELD: Larry Irving, thank you very much.
LARRY IRVING: Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD:Larry Irving was assistant secretary of commerce for communications and information in the Clinton administration where he also served as administrator of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration. [MUSIC]