Arch rivals America Online Inc. and Microsoft Corp., sports-snack maker PowerBar Inc. and Gen. Colin Powell may seem like unlikely allies. But yesterday they and others joined together to announce a multimillion-dollar initiative to combat a problem they say concerns everyone: the growing gap between the digital "haves" and "have-nots."
The private-public partnership aims to bring computer access to every child in the nation by creating thousands of technology centers in poor communities over the next few years. It is the largest such program to date.
"There's no single solution to bridging the digital divide," said Steve Case, AOL's chief executive. "It's going to take all of us working together to make a difference."
So far, more than a dozen corporations, nonprofits and government agencies have pledged their money, high-tech gadgets and manpower.
The Case Foundation, led by Case's wife and former AOL executive Jean Case, is providing an initial $10 million grant; half will go to staff salaries, and the remainder will be earmarked for community programs. Gateway Inc. is committing 50,000 computers. AOL is giving away 100,000 accounts. Other computer giants such as Microsoft and Sun Microsystems Inc. are sponsoring sites in their hometowns. Nonprofits such as the YMCA and the National Urban League are lending classrooms and outreach. And the federal government will loan AmeriCorps-VISTA volunteers to serve as trainers and mentors.
Case promised yesterday that children using the new computer centers would not be bombarded with advertisements, but the initiative is unarguably a marketing boon for major sponsors: Kids will have to navigate through AOL to access the Internet, use Gateway-branded computers and--in the words of a news release--be offered "well-balanced nutrition" during those after-school sessions in the form of PowerBar energy bars.
The partnership, dubbed PowerUp, is working closely with America's Promise: Alliance for Youth, Powell's much-publicized program to try to improve the lives of children.
PowerUp, established as a nonprofit based in Silicon Valley and led by former America's Promise administrator Rae Grad, plans to erect at least 250 new tech centers by this time next year.
Four pilot sites opened earlier this month. Two are local--one in a subsidized housing complex in Anacostia and the other in the Gum Springs Commmunity Center in Alexandria. A third is in Seattle and the fourth in San Jose. Other sites will be housed at community centers, schools or churches across the country.
The announcement of the partnership's formation comes four months after the U.S. Commerce Department warned that despite falling computer prices and billions of dollars spent wiring schools, the poor--especially blacks and Latinos--are dramatically less likely than the rich to be online.
Case dubbed the new millennium the "Internet Century," with the bulk of job growth expected to come in information technology. He said the country is clearly in a "crisis" because so many young people don't have access to computers.
"Nothing," he said, "is more important than making sure every child has a part in this exciting new world."
Powell added that PowerUp is not just about computers but rather about providing a "safe place" for children to go after school. Those who participate are no longer "on a street corner," he said. "They are no longer sitting in front of a television set in the afternoon watching the wrong kinds of things."
CAPTION: The Case Foundation, led by Jean Case, is providing $10 million.
CAPTION: Retired Gen. Colin Powell sees PowerUp as a healthy influence.