Wired city

B Y - R I C H A R D - H Y A T T
I L L U S T R A T I O N - B Y - J A S O N - C R O S B Y

When the World Teleport Association went looking for a Web-savvy metropolis to honor, it considered New York, London, and Toronto, but chose LaGrange, Ga.—which, due to the ingenuity of two UGA alumni, offers free Internet service

The walls of her top-floor apartment are dotted with photos of children and grandchildren. Stacked on a cluttered cabinet are her art supplies. Books are everywhere. Attached to a bulletin board near the front door are the phone numbers of her doctors and her daughter, just in case she needs them quickly.

Cancer forced Jo Fenn Byce to give up her career and move into this four-story apartment building for seniors in LaGrange, Ga. Expenses forced her to sell her car and depend on taxis and friends for trips to the bank or market.

But the 63-year-old retired school teacher isn't a prisoner of this room or this town. Sitting in her favorite chair in front of a 27-inch TV screen, Byce catches up on last Sunday's sermon at First Presbyterian, talks to her sisters in South Carolina and Massachusetts, and keeps tabs on her granddaughter, who is touring Europe. Obviously, we're not talking regular TV here; we're talking the Internet.

"We didn't want economics to keep people from having access. The digital divide is real. We didn't want to make it any wider."—City Manager Tom Hall (MPA '85)

Byce used the Internet to talk to other thyroid cancer survivors.

Many of Byce's friends are intimidated by this thing called the World Wide Web. It's not surprising; Byce's mother used to be frightened by those new-fangled microwave ovens. Not Byce. She beat thyroid cancer, and she's not about to be intimidated by something that brings the world not only to her doorstep but to her TV screen.

Armed with her TV remote and a wireless keyboard she rests on one knee, Byce moves seamlessly from talk shows to e-mail to the Internet. Except that right now, her Web travels have been interrupted by a storm warning. "This is simple," she tells a visitor. "Everybody doesn't see it as simple—but it is."

Jo Fenn Byce isn't your typical Web browser, but then neither is hers your typical Internet service. Like 4,200 other households in this West Georgia community, her service doesn't cost a penny. In a town two generations removed from its mill-town heritage, LaGrange now provides free, high-speed Internet access to anyone who wants it.

And it all happened because two UGA alums engineered a creative deal with the local cable company.

"It's become our electronic front porch," says mayor Jeff Lukken (JD '80), who got the ball rolling by wondering out loud if the city could provide free Internet service. City Manager Tom Hall (MPA '85) wasn't sure, so he went looking for answers to the mayor's question.

Byce isn't interested in the politics. Nor is she concerned about the grandiose label that LaGrange earned when it beat out New York, London, and Toronto for the designation of "Intelligent City" by the World Teleport Association. Yes, it's the only city in the world to offer its citizens free computer service. But to someone sitting alone in a tiny apartment, what's important are the doors it opens.

Recovering from thyroid cancer, Byce was filled with life-and-death questions—and she felt isolated. That's where the Web came in, linking her to people who had already found answers to her questions.

"I hooked up with people all over the country," she says. "They told me things the doctors didn't tell me."

Byce can also check the local arts calendar for the next symphony concert, see what's on sale at Mansour's up on the square, or review the church bulletin. She can even lodge an electronic complaint about her rising power bill.

What Byce can't complain about is her Internet bill because of the public-private partnership Lukken and Hall brokered between LaGrange and Charter Communications. Charter, the nation's fourth-largest provider of cable TV service, was new to LaGrange and interested in city hall's idea. But the company learned quickly how antiquated the system's infrastructure was.

"If it was going to be robust enough to provide all the new features," says Hall, "something had to be done."

Hall had a plan—one unlike any other the cable company had heard—whereby the city would buy back the inadequate cable transmission lines, upgrade them, then lease back to Charter the capacity the company needed for basic cable service, premium channels, and pay-per-view.

"It's become our electronic front porch."—Mayor Jeff Lukken (JD '80)

Left: Lukken wanted to provide Web access to people without computers at home.

Right: Hall's idea was unique: the city would buy back inadequate cable lines, upgrade them, then lease the capacity back to the service provider.

Funded by a $9.6 million bond issue in 1998, the initiative worked like a charm. The bonds are being paid back by the cable franchise fees, citizens have free Internet service—and LaGrange has modern broadband service it can offer to local industry.

"And nobody had to go out and buy a computer," says Hall, whose public administration degree from UGA—with a focus on finance and organizational development—enabled him to land a job as assistant to the LaGrange city manager right out of college. "We provided the box and sent out police and fire fighters to install them. Down the road, when upgrades are made, they'll be done at the company, not at your house."

The service operates at 156K, a speed that dial-up services can't match, and all a LaGrange citizen has to do to get on line is become a cable subscriber. The city does the rest.

There are certain limitations. What LaGrange provides its citizens with is a browser, not a real computer. You can't run Microsoft Word or Excel. You can't perform sophisticated electronic chores.

But the city wasn't targeting those kind of users. Lukken and Hall wanted to provide access to people who often don't have access to the Internet—young people, blue-collar workers, low-income residents, and seniors like Byce.

"The Net is becoming our greatest depository of information," says Hall. "We didn't want economics to keep people from having access. The Digital Divide is real. We didn't want to make it any wider."

Nobody had to go out and buy a computer. The city provided the cable box, and police and fire fighters installed them.

LaGrange doesn't look like a wired city. A statue of Revolutionary War hero Marquis de LaFayette anchors the city square. Remnants of Callaway Mills villages can still be found, not far from rows of antebellum homes shaded by stately trees. The city's population—25,000—is unchanged since 1950 when the economy was dominated by the cotton mills. Residents pay no property taxes; city-owned utility companies pay those bills. The city opened its first industrial park in the 1990s. Now it is home to more Fortune 500 companies than any city its size in the country—from Duracell to Kimberly-Clark to Mobil Chemical to Georgia-Pacific.

But with high-tech industry came high-tech demands—demands locals did not anticipate. Hall tells of workers applying for jobs as fork lift operators when the Wal-Mart Distribution Center opened. They were in for high-tech surprises.

"It was a typical old-world-economy job," says Hall, "but Wal-Mart needed people with keyboarding skills—and we didn't have them." The world was changing, but LaGrange wasn't. That became the city's challenge.

"We needed a boost," says Lukken, who is also a local automobile dealer. The city needed new jobs, he says, but not at the expense of stability. "It's one thing to have industries come for cheap labor. But they're the first to go to Mexico looking for even lower wages."

Lukken believes the deal with Charter—a 15-year arrangement wherein LaGrange replaced the old fiber optic system with copper wire coaxial and leased the hardware to Charter—was just the right boost, showing innovation without expense to the community.

"In fact, it created cash flow for both parties and provided high-speed, broadband, two-way access into every home starting in the year 2000," says Lukken, who notes that his UGA law degree has served him well and supplied him with the important contractual insights "to cut deals with corporations."

Free computer service is a source of local pride, but it is also part of the pitch LaGrange makes to industrial prospects looking for a new home. "We hope this opens up some eyes," says Hall, who has told the LaGrange story at meetings all over the country. A steady stream of community representatives have visited the Troup County community, hoping to emulate their computer program. Decorating the walls at city hall are awards the city has collected. But Hall is busily upgrading the program.

The city council has extended the free computer service for another year (the city cannot legally obligate the community to more than one year at a time) and a new feature has recently been added to the city's Web site. "Community Links" provides free space to churches, schools, and civic groups—even teens looking to earn extra money.

"Neighbors can check this site," says Lukken, "and see which baby-sitter is available Friday night."

A section for e-commerce also has been added. In this virtual mall, local retailers are given a free listing, but they can use that space to link to other sites. "Instead of being a threat," says Hall, "they're finding they can not only market to their old customers but reach a new base."

Users can also check local calendars, and get e-mail addresses at a convenient on-line directory. They can see who's speaking at Rotary or when the Boy Scouts are meeting. They can also get involved in surveys to assess how they feel their government is performing. It's a way to talk back to officials without driving down to city hall.

"Say your garbage wasn't picked up," says Hall. "You won't have time to call that day, so while you're watching the morning news on TV you send us an e-mail. That allows you to deal with your problem on your time."

Users can not only talk back to the mayor, they can interact with many of their favorite TV channels. "If a talking head tells you to go to cnn.com," says Hall, "with a hit of one button, you're there, sharing your opinions with CNN."

Free internet service is a source of local pride, but it's also part of the pitch lagrange makes to industrial prospects looking for a new home in a progressive community

LaGrange (pop. 25,000) is home to more Fortune 500 companies (i.e. Kimberly-Clark, Mobil Oil, Georgia-Pacific) than any other town its size in America.

Dealing with fears of X-rated material, the city included extensive parental controls that keep young people from wandering into hardcore adult areas.

"We heard the wild stories of pornography," says Byce. "You just don't go looking for it. Sure, it's there, but your TV can be just as evil."

By expanding local content, the city hopes to be even more relevant to its customers. "Community Links" was an answer to a question people often asked in the beginning: "I've been living all this time without the Internet. Why should I start now?"

Trying to reach such people, the city offered classes in how to use the service. Byce went on the local cable-access channel to help people learn about the equipment. The system is less imposing than a traditional home computer, but it still can be frustrating to a person not versed in the trials and tribulations of a PC.

Feedback thus far has been positive. According to city surveys, three out of four people say the service has exceeded their expectations. Users average 7.6 hours online a week. With support from Mercer University and the Callaway Foundation, educational programs are being added, enabling users to get their GEDs at home.

Such decisions are made at home, not by some faraway entity.

"On our provider, it's not what Yahoo thinks that's important," says Hall. "It's what your pastor or the Rotary resident thinks is important."

Other ideas are being considered as LaGrange struggles to maintain its own identity, even with the sprawl of Atlanta creeping closer every day. As it has so often over the years, the city must continue to reinvent itself.

Jo Fenn Byce isn't concerned about such matters. She's concerned about the speed of her Internet service, which helps her stay in touch with a rapidly changing world that many seniors simply can't keep up with.

"This service has become part of my life," she says. "I learn something new every day."

Richard Hyatt is a staff writer for the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer.

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