Officials in LaGrange, Ga., want to bridge the "digital divide" and are
betting that the television--not the personal computer--is a good place to start.
The mayor of LaGrange, a small town located about 60 miles outside of Atlanta,
said that starting this spring, residents who have cable-TV
service will be able to get free, high-speed Internet access via an
advanced cable set-top box. Officials say the decision means the city will
be better equipped to bridge the digital divide facing
rural residents across the United States.
"We realized that if we want to be able to attract technology companies to
our area, we needed to make sure we increased the skills of our labor pool
and our students," Mayor Jeff Lukken said of the town's decision
to offer the service to its 27,000 residents.
The town already has several Fortune 500 employers, including Wal-Mart.
When the company was considering opening a distribution center in LaGrange, even job openings for forklift operators required computer experience, Lukken
said, highlighting the need for universal access to the Internet.
A recent study by the National
Telecommunications and Information Administration confirms those
observations, noting that use of the Internet is increasingly related to a
person's income. The study found that only 12 percent of people earning less
than $10,000 a year use the Internet, compared with an estimated 59 percent of
those who earn $75,000 or more.
Worried by surveys such as these, government officials have stepped up
efforts to bring lower-income communities online, and legislation is being
proposed to offer tax
breaks to companies that wire rural areas for high-speed Internet access.
Most of those efforts, though, are premised on PC use. LaGrange, which already spent $100 million about 10 years ago to install a fiber-optics communications network, decided to capitalize on that asset and started working with Charter Communications and WorldGate Communications about three months ago on a plan to hook up citizens via TV set-top boxes.
"We wanted to make sure there was access for everyone," said Lukken. Access via television seemed to be a more cost-effective way to connect citizens, he added--no small issue as the
town undertakes the effort without federal or state funding.
Devices such as game consoles, cable set-tops and even DVD players are
increasingly being wired for Internet access and could one day prove to be
a more popular way to access the Internet than PCs. The town's effort, which will
be re-evaluated in a year, could prove to be valuable research for the
growing spate of companies such as WorldGate, OpenTV, Liberate Technologies,
Wink Communications and Microsoft's WebTV that are providing technology for
Despite the huge investments being made by these companies and cable
operators such as Charter and AT&T, consumer demand for
services such as email and Internet via the television is still questionable,
Many point to WebTV, which has only about 1 million
subscribers for the Internet set-top products it launched 1996.
But consumer acceptance of the service may be somewhat limited by factors
such as reluctance to purchase a new set-top device and place it
on top of the cable box, as well as limitations on the type of content
that can be browsed.
Integrated cable set-tops with Internet functions may still prove to be
popular with consumers, although availability of such services has been
limited by a variety of technical issues, including the presence of a
sufficiently advanced infrastructure, such as LaGrange's fiber-optics
Deborah Jackson, who teaches first through fourth grade at Dawson Street
Christian Academy in LaGrange, has used a computer before but never signed
up for Internet access because she had concerns about her students getting
access to content "that was detrimental to them," she said. The
WorldGate-enabled set-top offers parental control software that limits
access to sites with objectionable content, something she found attractive.
Jackson has been testing the service in her classroom for about three weeks
and said students are already accessing the Internet through the
device to do research.
"It's like having a national library in the classroom," Jackson said. After
having used the set-top, she said she thinks she'd use the service more
than a computer.
Apart from providing Net access, LaGrange has ambitious plans to get the
community more involved in town life through the Web. From bringing civic organizations
online to linking teachers and parents to share information, LaGrange wants
people to use the technology to communicate better.
Local store owners aren't going to be left out either, according to Lukken,
himself the owner of the local Chevrolet/Oldsmobile dealership: There
are plans to create a virtual town mall so residents can shop online.
"We have to do more than just provide the Internet. The city can't just
spend this much money and say 'Have at it,'" Lukken said.