Internet for Everyone: Georgia City Finds a Way
- By Daniel Keegan
- May 01, 2000
When LaGrange, Ga.'s Information Technology Committee considered wiring
every household, school and business in the community with a high-speed
Internet connection, they worried about creating an unsocial community
dependent on the Internet for communication.
Then they looked around and saw how helpful the Internet was for those
in town who had it.
"A lot of us moaned that these front-porch conversations where there
is personal contact and conversations would be lost," LaGrange's mayor Jeff
Lukken said. "But we're finding that grandparents are e-mailing grandchildren
that they haven't seen in years, or checking on their retirement portfolios
online. Kids are e-mailing back and forth across the town — playing games."
So the committee had an easy decision after all. "We realized that the benefits
are immediate to the entire community if everyone is online," Lukken said.
LaGrange made headlines and history this spring by announcing that the
city would provide high-speed Internet access to every cable TV subscriber
in the city of 27,000. Other cities, including Florence, Ala., and Harlan,
Iowa, have entered the Internet service business, but they charge residents.
No one is offering it for free like LaGrange.
Sixty miles southwest of Atlanta, LaGrange is home to several Fortune
500 companies, including Duracell Inc., Caterpillar Inc. and Wal-Mart Distribution.
In the last four years, the city, in conjunction with the local cable provider,
Charter Communications, has spent $9.5 million to create a hybrid fiber-optic
and cable network that will distribute the Internet to every home. And that
doesn't include $1 million to create a fiber-optic network for businesses.
In June, the city will provide everyone with a wireless keyboard and
Internet service, using WorldGate Communications Inc.'s Internet on Every
TV service. WorldGate, based near Philadelphia, specializes in interactive
television, allowing users to access the Internet and e-mail without using
their computers or phone lines. Everyone will receive one year of free Internet
service, five free e-mail accounts and Surf Watch so that parents can block
The city, which doesn't collect property taxes, is funding the $300,000
first-year costs plus $120,000 in capital costs over 15 years with profits
from the sale of telecommunications services to businesses, said Tom Hall,
the city manager. The initiative is funded entirely by the city, without
state or federal support.
The city cannot provide each home with a computer because the costs
are too high, Lukken said. That's a drawback because people without computers
won't be able to download and print information from the Internet.
However, Lukken said, if any of the roughly 1,400 families in town without
cable cannot afford basic service, they will be provided with it. He said
many households without cable service have satellite dishes or another television
"We have determined that no one gets left behind here," Lukken said,
referring to the digital divide — the gap between those who have access to
technology and those who do not.
With governments becoming increasingly electronic, LaGrange's initiative
is encouraging, said Dale Bowen of Public Technology Inc., the National
League of Cities' technology organization.
"Not everyone has access to e-government, so we're constantly telling
people to bridge that divide," he said. "As more and more services move
online, there's a lot of people who want to pay tickets or get licenses
online. But if you build it, will they come? If you build it but people
don't use it, is it worth it? This is another way of addressing that access
LaGrange is also focused on keeping people interested in the Internet.
Mass e-mail messages will be sent to all citizens with links to interesting
sites, fun facts or community information. Schools will start teaching Internet
and computer skills in second grade. And technicians will train families
unfamiliar with the Internet.
Also, a community intranet is planned that would encompass civic programs
and groups — ranging from neighborhood watch programs and church groups
to schools — so that parents can interact with teachers and students can
receive homework via e-mail.
"The real challenge now is making sure everyone takes advantage of the
opportunity," Lukken said.