The University of Washington U.S. IMPACT Study team is investigating the use and users of public access computing centers through a series of studies designed to gather and disseminate information on the impacts these centers have on the individuals, families and communities taking advantage of their services.

Beginning with an examination of community technology centers in Washington State (the Communities Connect Network study), the research team has developed a policy model and indicators that can be used to help demonstrate the value of public access computing and the infrastructure that supports it in our society. This model has been extended and used in two subsequent studies, the Community Technology Opportunity Program in Washington State and most recently, a national study examining the impact of free computers and Internet connections in public libraries (the U.S. IMPACT Public Library Study).

These studies are meant to explore the impacts of public access computing in public and private institutions dedicated to bridging the digital divide between those who have ready access to the Internet and those who don’t. The idea of a digital divide separating information “haves and have-nots” was introduced by the U.S. Department of Commerce’s (USDC) National Telecommunications and Infrastructure Administration (NTIA) in a series of reports entitled Falling Through the Net. These reports, released from 1995-2000, extend the concept of universal service from telephone service to computer and Internet access.

In the decade since the NTIA reports were released, the extent of day-to-day activities occurring online has grown in every sector, with many activities, such as submitting job applications and resumes, having moved almost entirely to the Internet, making efforts to ameliorate the digital divide even more urgent for people without access to computers and Internet access. The NTIA reports, along with other studies, demonstrated that the most persistent digital divides separate Americans of differing income and education levels, race, and language.

Whatever the reason, exclusion from access to computers and the Internet can have profound repercussions for those on the wrong side of the digital divide. The NTIA Falling Through the Net reports emphasize the importance of public access points such as public libraries and community centers in providing Internet access, particularly to disadvantaged groups. The 1998 report, for example, concludes, “Because it may take time before these groups become connected at home, it is still essential that schools, libraries, and other community access centers…provide computer access in order to connect significant portions of our population” (USDC, 1998, § 4 ["Policy Implications"]).