WASHINGTON -- The Federal Communications Commission wants to know why blacks and Hispanics are less likely to have telephone service or own a computer than white families.
Chairman Bill Kennard said Monday that the commission will hold hearings on the matter this fall.
Overall, nearly 96 of white households have basic telephone service, while 86 percent of black families and 86.5 percent of Hispanic households do, according to a Commerce Department report released last week.
Meanwhile, nearly 41 percent of white families own a computer, compared with 19.4 percent of Hispanic households and 19.3 percent of black households, the report found, adding that the disparity continues regardless of income levels.
"Does this gap in access to technology matter? You bet it does," Kennard said in a speech to the National Urban League in Philadelphia.
"How can you look for a job without a phone? How can you demonstrate that you have the skills to compete if you don't know which side of a diskette goes in first?" Kennard said.
Bridging this growing digital divide has been a key concern of Vice President Al Gore.
The FCC will collect information from areas of the country where the problems are more prevalent -- including rural Appalachia, inner cities and American Indian communities in the Southwest, Kennard said.
One way to close the digital divide, Kennard said, is through a FCC program that provides schools, libraries and rural health care providers with cheap Internet hookups.
The politically charged program is paid for by government-imposed fees on telecommunications companies, which pass them along to their customers. Critics call the fees the Gore tax, referring the vice president's support of an administration goal of wiring the nation's schools to the Internet by 2000.
"These hearings will give us information with which to better understand access to communications technology in America today," Kennard said.