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Access to Data Highway

AS the ``information superhighway'' rapidly evolves from concept to fiber-optic cables, ``access'' is one of many issues that deserve immediate attention.

One early warning came recently through a study by groups including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Consumer Federation of America. The report looked at companies' plans to install combined data, voice, and video networks. The study concludes that low-income and minority areas are ``systematically underrepresented'' in those plans.

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The groups' key concern is that as the networks are installed, the first to see them will be more-affluent areas, a development that the study's sponsors say could widen the technological gap - and hence the education and income gap - within the United States.

On one level, the findings could be expected; nor do they necessarily signal malicious intent. A recent survey by the Times-Mirror Center for the People and the Press found that nearly one-third of all US households have computers, but that the more affluent and better educated were more likely to own and use information technologies of all types, including computers, than were the less affluent and educated. It comes as little surprise that companies paying millions of dollars to install networks will do so first where they are most likely to find subscribers. Tossing around terms like ``redlining,'' as the study does, is unnecessary - at least at this point.

Yet the report's deeper message should be heard. Information is rapidly becoming career currency, so the tools for acquiring that information take on added importance. The Times-Mirror survey points out that the most avid technology users also are likely to read and view TV widely; these lower-tech means of obtaining information will remain. But the speed and volume of access will be greater on the data highway. Unless an extra effort is made early to include minority and low-income communities, the ``gap'' the report cites could indeed widen.

Congress is considering several bills dealing with access. But it is in the communications companies' interest to take the initiative. Even if outreach efforts were limited to schools and libraries, giving equipment and training, they could help. This investment may not have a quick payoff. But bringing low-income residents onto the network early - however modest the entry points - provides a vital community service and cultivates another, broader generation of travelers on the information superhighway.

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