"Let the future begin" is how President Clinton surmised a one-day statewide effort to hook up nearly 20 percent of California classrooms to the Internet.
Clinton and Vice President Al Gore kicked off NetDay96 at Ygnacio Valley High School in Concord, California, by leading 20,000 volunteers in installing 6 million feet of computer cable in about 3,000 schools.
The Clinton administration wants NetDay96 to encourage a long-term campaign to install computers and Internet connections in classrooms across the country.
"President Clinton and I want to see every classroom connected to the Internet by the year 2000," Gore said at a recent NetDay96 demonstration. "We will connect 20 percent of the classrooms in California by the end of the year."
Supporters seem well on their way to that goal. NetDay96 organizers said they've already had 30 states and 10 nations contact them for help in starting their own Internet barn-raising.
Although the Clinton administration's cheerleading was critical to making it a reality, the project was begun in 1992 by Michael Kaufman, a former teacher and now an executive with KQED public television in San Francisco, and John Gage, chief scientist at Sun Microsystems.
"From the beginning I knew this project would have to be volunteer-based because, in the current economy and political environment, it would be difficult to fund without volunteers and help from the community," Kaufman said.
Kaufman and Gage believe that schools need access to the Internet to keep up with rapidly changing technological and economic realities.
"This process of linking schools to the Internet brings vast resources to kids," said Gage. "At first there was a reluctance to take this seriously. Now, everybody is realizing that the [technology] resources in California don't compare to any other place in the world."
NetDay96 is also an example of the Internet bringing communities together, according to Kaufman. "It's been interesting for us to watch because there's been so much written about how the electronic age is breaking up society, but this project is doing just the opposite," he said.
Inspired by a presidential visit to high-tech CEOs in San Francisco last September, technology vendors have stumbled over themselves to donate software, hardware, and services to the NetDay schools. Whether they were buoyed by altruism or good publicity, the schools have come up winners.
Pacific Bell is donating $500,000 in cash; MCI will give participating schools 60 free hours of dial-up access to the Net, plus free email and a help desk; AOL will provide 20,000 free accounts; Netcom and Netscape are collaborating to donate free Net access; and Microsoft will provide its Internet Explorer browser and free access to the Net. All the companies will extend these services until the end of 1996.
"We've received a number of outstanding contributions," Kaufman said. "The companies are trying to distinguish themselves from other offers."
Macromedia, for example, donated its multimedia authoring software to Woodside Elementary School to help students create their own Web page complete with a message for Clinton.
Still, many schools can't get wired for free. Many that have no technology installed have had to purchase a NetDay Kit with enough wiring to serve up to five classrooms and a library. NetDay96 organizers have been working with such companies as MCI to reduce the price of the kit, which now costs about $400.