Only 18 percent of U.S. households had Internet access in 1997; today, 85 percent do. We go online to apply for jobs, take college classes, hunt for bargain cars and new homes, research medical conditions and pay bills.

For the great majority of Americans, the digital revolution has brought profound benefits and opened up a world of information. But tens of millions of people — about 15 percent of the U.S. population — remain offline. Many of them are older people who, even if they have access to a computer, don’t know how to click on a mouse.

Some consciously choose to stay unconnected, telling Pew researchers, “I am just not interested.” Those offline tend to be the poorest and least educated.

Most public schools do not have the high-speed broadband access needed to take advantage of cutting-edge education tools, or even to have a room full of students watching streaming video at the same time. About 70 percent to 80 percent of K-12 schools do have adequate Internet service, according to nonprofit groups and government officials who study the digital divide. Schools may have Internet access in the principal’s office, for example, but no capacity for a couple of hundred students to go online at the same time to listen to a Harvard lecturer, as students at private schools can.

The Federal Communications Commission, the agency that helped bring landline phone service to the poorest Americans, is looking at how to fund President Obama’s ConnectED initiative, which aims to bring a high-speed broadband connection to 99 percent of American students within the next five years.

At The Washington Post’s “Bridging the Digital Divide” forum on Nov. 5, Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings Blake (D) described expanding broadband access as a matter of fairness. “The divide between the haves and the have-nots in public education can be closed using technology,” she said. “For me, it’s a justice issue.”

“Shame on us,” Gene B. Sperling, the director the National Economic Council, told the forum. “Really, shame on us, if we let the wonders of educational technology and broadband lead to more inequality as opposed to less.” We can let technology feed disparity, he said, or use it to address the problem. Sperling and the other conference speakers are excerpted in this special report, which also is online at

Those of us who are hyper-connected fret about the need to unplug every so often. But imagine not being connected at all. It’s time that the country that brought the world the Internet extend its access so that everyone, including the poorest, can enter the digital age.