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Access to the Internet isn’t just a luxury

Jim Gerland saw the digital divide coming two decades ago.

Back then, Buffalo was on the forefront of providing free Internet access to thousands of Western New Yorkers, and Gerland, then an administrator at the University at Buffalo, was part of a small team of volunteers running the dial-up service known as Buffalo Freenet.

It appealed mostly to techies. But it was free and open to anyone with a computer and a modem at a time when Internet access for many people meant 20 bucks a month and the ubiquitous exclamation, “You’ve got mail.”

“We knew that there were a lot of people in Western New York that just couldn’t afford that,” Gerland recalled.

Freenet had its heyday in the mid-’90s, when being left out of the Internet mostly felt like you were missing out on some newfangled way to revive the chain letter and advise your friends that Bill Gates was giving out free cash. In 1995, according to the Pew Research Center, just 14 percent of Americans were online.

Consider this prediction from a 1994 user’s guide “to travel on the information superhighway” in The News’ Sunday magazine: “The future may hold 500 channels and something worth watching on every one, an Internet in every living room and a computer interface that’s as smart as Bill Gates …”

We got our 500 channels, though not much worth watching. Computer interfaces turned out to be as smart as Steve Jobs. But “Internet in every living room” remains stubbornly elusive. A surprising number of people remains out of the loop; 15 percent of Americans don’t use the Internet or email, according to a Pew Research Center survey released last week, and nearly one in four do not have Internet access at home.

They’re missing out on job and educational opportunities. Colleges and businesses are offering more resources online than ever before. Need to study for the GED? It’s free. Want to learn to write code with MIT professors? It’s free. Have to submit a job application at Walmart? You can start online.

The Internet’s have-nots are the very same people who have increasingly been made economically immobile by rapidly changing technology – the poor and those who never finished high school or college. Older Americans who may never find their way to the Internet have also been left out.

Buffalo’s Freenet was one of the first networks in the country to provide free access to the Web. It eventually morphed into a free website host for local nonprofit groups before petering out last year.

Gerland and fellow Freenet founders Neil Yerkey and Jim Finamore helped thousands take their first curious steps onto the Internet. These days, Gerland, now retired, sees the public libraries as the key to providing access to those who can’t afford the expense.

Freenet, which chugged along for nearly two decades with the help of volunteers, has run its course. But the need for easily accessible, cheap or free Internet has not.