In recent years, computer and telecommunications industry giants like Hewlett Packard, Cisco Systems and AT&T have invested millions of dollars in technology grants and free Internet accounts to help bridge the Digital Divide. While cynics might note there's a huge profit to be made from more people getting interested in getting online, many business people believe that a nation lagging behind in computer savvy could lead to economic stagnation. That's one of the reasons behind a new effort to widen public access to the Internet. Coming soon to an airport, truck stop or shopping mall near you - computer kiosks, where anyone can log onto the World Wide Web. 90.3's Karen Schaefer has this report.
Karen Schaefer- When most of us head to the mall, we're not really thinking about checking our e-mail or searching the web for deals on airline tickets. But these days, in malls, airports, and other public places around the country, that's exactly what these people are doing.
"I'm just checking my e-mail - it's a lot easier when you're out shopping, especially now during the holidays." "If I would have known this was here, you could have e-mailed me and told you and Casey were here and when you were getting home." "Yeah, yeah."
At Midway Mall in Elyria, hundreds of shoppers stop daily at a bank of twelve computer screens to log into the World Wide Web for free.
Man- Oh, we were using it just to check our e-mail to see how are friends are telling us what's going on, so that's a nice convenience, being able to do it here, instead of having to go back and forth from home and libraries and that and just be able to do it when you're out, hanging with your friends. It just, it plays such a big role in our lives. It seems like anymore, we just need it wherever we go.
KS (to Man)- Kind of like a telephone.
KS- Obviously, mall-goers love it. Lorrie Churchill is a technician with CyberXpo.com, the Texas-based company that placed these high-speed Internet computer kiosks at several malls in Northeast Ohio. She says people are really taking to the new service.
Lorrie Churchill- There's still a small number of people out there that are older or that just don't have the computer access. And they're kind of bashful. They may go by here three weeks in a row and then they'll stop and talk to me. There's a lot of foreigners, which is lovely to see. They can pull up Sweden or South America. There's people that use it for airlines or reservation information - and there's also another plus. We have our own website for this mall. So like say you want athletic shoes, you know, there's three places here, you can just pull it up and find out who has the best price today.
KS- Computer kiosks are nothing new. We're already using them every time we withdraw money from an ATM or have our groceries scanned at the check-out line. But the idea of free Internet access in public places is new to many people. Cybertech Manager Chris Clements of CyberXpo.com says the company does it.
Chris Clements- Just because we can, to be honest with you. We started out in Plano, Texas, two and a half years ago and it's just going and going and going. We have about almost 80 malls now that we have our cyber systems in. We'd like to have access in every mall in the U.S. and Europe.
KS- Clements says his company can offer free access because malls pay a fee for the service and because, when the computers aren't being used, they sell advertising to local and national subscribers. But CyberXpo is just one of many businesses both here and abroad involved in creating the new technology - and not all of it is free. This spring, Dayton-based National Cash Register Corporation made a deal with Internet access provider NetNearU to manufacture 1,500 Internet kiosks that will accept credit cards or cash for computer terminal use. Joanne Walter is Vice President of Future Retailing for NCR. She says in the U.S. both types of kiosks are becoming much more common.
Joanne Walter- If you're in an airport and in a hurry and you don't want to hook up your PC, but you would like to do your corporate e-mail, probably the easiest thing to do is you will go to a paid-for device - you know, go up to a phone that has this capability, such as we're testing right now with AT&T - and you slide your credit card in and start to work.
KS- Walter believes computer kiosks will one day be as ubiquitous as telephones - and that day isn't far off.
JW- They are going literally everywhere across the country - but they have found places like truck stops are very popular, because people stop there, they don't have their PC's with them, but they'd love to send an e-mail home and say where they're at right now. So places like truck stops have become a very big market for them.
KS- But profit motive aside, does placing computers in truck stops and shopping malls really widen public access to the Internet, especially for those on the wrong side of the Digital Divide? David Miller, associate professor with the Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences at Case Western Reserve University, believes it does.
David Miller- The more access we have, the more useful it becomes. I think that business and the community should come together to make, one, access for everyone, and two, give everyone the knowledge on using what they are now accessing. If we expand people's opportunity to access computers, who knows what we will find out?
KS- What indeed. But even if some people might find the idea of logging on to a computer in the mall just a little bit too commercial, it's clearly an idea that's here to stay. From somewhere in cyberspace, I'm Karen Schaefer, 90.3 WCPN, 90.3 FM.