RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK — For those of you old enough to remember when the Internet craze began, one phrase quickly took hold:

“The Internet would be the great equalizer.”

The small businesses (like Amazon and eBay) would be able to compete via the Web because on the Web everyone could be equal in presentation, polish, offerings and such.

And the world of education would be changed forever as the less affluent gained access to tools and information from the world’s libraries and other institutions that had early only been available to the privileged. (Thank goodness thousands of schools across all demographics have computer labs — and more are being built).

With that said, take a look at the latest Internet growth statistics from Nielsen/NetRatings:

The slowest percentage of Internet adoption by far is among the least affluent Americans. Those making under $25,000 a year make up a mere 5.9 percent of the Internet audience, and the annual growth rate is just 2 percent.

Who needs Net most for the future?

Forty-six million Americans alone dial in or log in to the Internet from work. And the growth rate of female users (23 percent a year) has women on track to catch men (12 percent growth) in work usage, Nielsen/NetRatings says. The gap is down to 25.3 million male users vs. 20.4 million female users.

That’s progress.

But on the economic side, it’s clear that the poorest Americans aren’t making much headway. And aren’t they the ones who would stand to benefit most from a better education, more economic opportunities, and a chance to improve their overall lot in life?

Unfortunately, the steam of annual growth is least the lower most groups are on the economic scale. Here are the numbers:

Income range/ Annual rate of growth:

$100,000-149,000: 20 percent

$150-999,999: 14 percent

$75,000-99,999: 12 percent

$50,000-$74,999: 11 percent

$25,000-49,999: 5 percent

$0-24,999: 2 percent

Of the entire Internet population, the $25k-$75k group makes up by far the largest percentage of users with a combined $57.3 percent. That’s good.

But let’s hope the least well-off among us are encouraged and taught to get on line, use the Net, and start climbing the ladder.

Financial obstacles

Many groups, companies and individuals — from churches to charities, government agencies to private/public partnerships like the Rural Internet Task Force — are working hard.

Yet there are obstacles, several of which deal with economics:

  • How many free Internet services have disappeared?
  • Have you checked your phone bill to see how much you pay on taxes and fees for a second phone line in the home?
  • Can you imagine what people on fixed or low incomes must think when they ask about the price of broadband access — even if they have a respectably fast computer?
  • In this economy, how many people have the money to spend on what shouldn’t be considered a luxury but is because of the costs?

I was part of a task-force as a consultant a couple years back and heard Jim Goodmon, the owner of Capitol Broadcasting, suggest developing a plan for driving increased Internet and computer literacy across the state. He wanted to provide a computer to every family.

Unfortunately, the idea was disregarded before serious thought was given to it.

What a dream —

Imagine a state and federal initiative designed to put a PC in every living room and an Internet connection for it to be plugged in to — the 21st century version of a chicken in every pot. The Rural Internet Teask Force in North Carolina is one of the best “equalizing” ideas to come around in a long time, as we have said before. But more needs to be done.

The “digital divide” is a term that’s often used by politicians and private industry. But too little is being done.

Imagine how much better spent all that state tobacco settlement money could be spent in North Carolina and elsewhere had PCs and Internet connectivity been funneled to the people who need technology most.

How many computers, with bulk buying power of a state behind it, would $1 million buy, let alone $10 million?

How many ISPs would jump at the chance to contract for unlimited access dialup accounts — or even DSL/broadband — for a long-term contract?

How many training companies and educational institutions jump at the chance to increase the rolls for PC, Internet and Web instruction?

Maybe Elizabeth Dole and/or Erskine Bowles could talk about a tech agenda instead of bashing each other and scaring people about Social Security.

Maybe someday Goodmon will get someone to listen to his idea.

Maybe someday the Internet truly will be the great equalizer we all hoped it would be.

Or, maybe, I’m just dreaming.

Rick Smith is managing editor of Local Tech Wire.