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Town crosses 'digital divide' with TV-based service

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.

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 interactive television.

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, say analysts.

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 network.

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.