Internet for Everyone: Georgia City Finds a Way

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

objectionable material.

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

provider.

"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

issue."

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.

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