I've just had a near-Netless experience. It wasn't anything like a near-death experience, but I've still come out of it somewhat humbled.

On vacation in a farmhouse here in the southwest of France, I've had a lot of trouble connecting to the Internet. I was Netless for -- gasp! -- almost a week.

The phone line at the rented house can make only local calls; needless to say, tiny Lauzerte is not an access point for any Internet service provider. And while I finally was able to connect by desperately beseeching the landlord for access to a fully enabled phone, it cost me a lot of extra money that pained me every minute I was online. I had to pay the long-distance rate to Toulouse as well as the extra charge my ISP adds for not being in my regular calling area.

It's not really so rare an experience for people who travel. But the humbling part of the ordeal was that it put me in the category, however briefly, of the Internet have-nots.

I wasn't even in a truly remote area. As I wondered what was going on in the world, unable to read my favorite news sites on the Internet, I also wondered how people in the hinterlands -- often without reliable phone systems, modem-equipped computers, or money, even -- were going to be able to reap the rewards of the wired world.

As it happens, you don't have to be in a remote area, in rural seclusion, or even abroad to be a have-not. As I was cursing the limits of fixed-line telephony, the U.S. Commerce Department was reporting in great detail on what it calls the "digital divide."

Its report, the third since 1995 to statistically define who in the United States has Internet access, shows the divide for access from home significantly widening between different racial and income groups.

For example, the gaps in Internet access between white and Hispanic households, and between white and black households, are now more than 6 percentage points larger than they were in 1994.

Race isn't the only division. Between 1997 and 1998, the access difference between those at the highest and lowest educational levels increased 25 percent, and the divide between those at the highest and lowest income levels grew 29 percent.

At the lowest income levels, Americans in urban areas are more than twice as likely to have Internet access as those earning the same income in rural areas, the report says.

We should not only care, writes Commerce Secretary William Daley in the report, but "we should be alarmed by this news."

The Commerce Department and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, which prepared the report based on Census Bureau information, make the case that "access to such tools is an important step to ensure that our economy grows strongly and that in the future no one is left behind.

"Ensuring access to the fundamental tools of the digital economy is one of the most significant investments our nation can make."

I'm not so sure that being able to e-mail distant relatives is a "significant investment" in the economy. But access to the cyber world in general -- like access to books in public libraries in another time -- does open doors.

More importantly, I believe it feeds dreams that let us believe all is possible. And dreams and hopes for the future are as nourishing and life-sustaining as our daily bread.

The digital divide is indeed alarming. Whether it takes private industry's largess or public-policy initiative to narrow it is still a matter of debate. But it seems to me that the very wired among us in American -- and global -- society cannot leave it to chance.

"Hold fast to dreams, for if dreams die, life is a broken-winged bird that cannot fly." I learned that once as a child and rediscovered it, along with other poetry by Langston Hughes, on the Internet from rural France.

Victoria Shannon's e-mail address is vshannon@aol.com.