By Ilana DeBare, The Sacramento Bee, Calif. Knight-Ridder/Tribune Business News

BURLINGAME, Calif.--Mar. 31--Minorities need better access to the information superhighway, but the government won't bring it to their door as it did with the interstate highway system, a panel of on-line activists said Thursday.

``The solutions aren't coming from the government - we have to set up our own solutions,'' said Armando Valdez, who recently helped launch LatinoNet, a Latino- focused conference on America Online.

``People in the community aren't sitting around saying, 'When will Al Gore get here to rescue us?''' agreed Art McGee, a San Francisco-based organizer of African American computer networks. ``Instead, they're doing everything from setting up bulletin boards in their basements to setting up their own Internet providers.''

Valdez, McGee and other minority computer experts spoke as part of the Fifth Annual Conference on Computers, Freedom and Privacy in Burlingame, one of the few computer industry gatherings to focus on the social impact of technology.

They noted that 1990 census data showed that less than 14 percent of Latinos and African Americans have personal computers at home, compared with 26.9 percent of white Americans.

Among Native Americans, the technology gap is even bigger, said Randy Ross of American Indian Telecommunications, based in Rapid City, S.D.

``Only 25 percent of Indian homes even have telephones,'' Ross said. ``We're talking about communities that don't even have access to 911 for emergency services.''

The panelists argued that much wider access to computer networks like the Internet is essential if America is to avoid becoming a polarized society of information haves and have-nots.

``I really see us going in a very scary direction, more of a class direction, where if you are part of the elite you can live very comfortably and, with the help of the information highway, shelter yourself from a lot of uncomfortable realities,'' said Barbara Simons, public policy chairwoman for the Association for Computing Machinery.

But panelists warned that ensuring true electronic access for disadvantaged communities requires more than just plopping computers down in schools or libraries: It requires good one-on-one training, easily used software, and affordable pricing of on-line services.

The panelists acknowledged that government grants and technical assistance programs, as well as support from the computer industry, can make a big difference. But they said the overall impetus must come from minority communities themselves. END!H$3?SA-TECH-ACCESS

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