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A SAFETY NET FOR NET SURFERS

Nonprofits are offering low-cost access and information

The Internet is humming nicely this afternoon on East Harlem's 112th Street. Saul Bonilla's triplet sons are here, surfing again, their third visit in a week. Their school has no personal computers, and the machine at home is broken. So this little storefront, run by a nonprofit community group called Playing to Win, is where the Bonilla kids go online: Today, Anthony experiments with ``Goosebumps,'' an edutainment site, while Ariel and Saul Jr. play games.

Playing to Win serves 308 mostly low-income families, each of which pays $35 for six months of computer access. It is one of perhaps 1,000 rapidly growing community-based organizations that provide entry to the Information Superhighway at little or no cost. ``We're an economic safety net for those who can't afford more,'' says Steve Snow, project director of Charlotte's Web, a group in Charlotte, N.C.

The Internet is a remarkably democratic bit of technology, allowing relatively low-cost passage to a global array of information and services. But you have to have a computer, a modem, and some command of the technology to play. Nonprofit Internet service providers (ISPs), operating with a hodgepodge of public and private funds, give people access to computer hardware and phone lines, some training, and typically, a range of online community-oriented programs.

ESSENTIAL SKILLS. Such groups now serve perhaps 600,000 Americans, estimates Douglas Schuler, author of the book New Community Networks: Wired for Change. The idea is that by promoting electronic literacy, they can help everyone--but especially the poor--get the skills they need to compete for jobs and fully participate in society. That's why the Clinton Administration has sunk $60 million into community initiatives over two years through the Commerce Dept.'s National Telecommunications & Information Administration (NTIA).

The funding allows Doreatha Daniels, a 22-year-old secretary, to alert neighbors of nearby crimes in progress via a computer in her Newark (N.J.) housing project. Making Healthy Music, a local nonprofit, has given 20 PCs to Newark residents who agree to share the machines with neighbors. Charlotte's Web has its own World Wide Web index, as well as local job listings that helped Mark Richardson, 27 and unemployed, apply for work as a cook from his home at Charlotte's Uptown Shelter-George Shinn Center.

Indeed, community-based ISPs deliver a broad range of local content that competing commercial providers have avoided as too costly (table). The question: Is this something the government should be paying for? Robert Smith, vice-president of America Online Inc.'s Digital City, thinks ``anything that educates the user base is an advantage,'' and certainly, computer-literate people are more likely to pay for commercial services someday. But some critics of ``corporate welfare'' think companies such as AOL should help pay the freight--one reason the Administration's $100 million funding proposal for NTIA in 1996 got slashed to $21 million.

FREE RIDE? Commercial ISPs, meanwhile, argue that they are being unfairly undercut by government-subsidized community networks. During a recent flood in Salem, Ore., pharmacist Stephen Quisenberry got information on street closings and safe water via a Web site constructed by the Salem Public Library Internet Project, which recently won $284,000 in federal grants. Quisenberry, who is not poor, pays $5 for 30 hours of Net access a month--well below the $20 charged by CyberHighways of Salem, a local commercial rival. The library's service has 1,000 subscribers, double that of CyberHighways. Says Andrew Fields, CyberHighways' president: ``Salem Library is using government money to infect and invade the private sector.''

Counters George Happ, director of the Salem Public Library: ``Businesspeople here pay property taxes. Why shouldn't they benefit from low-cost Internet access?'' If federal funding withers, though, property taxes alone aren't likely to support an Internet access program--and the community-based groups may have to rely on commercial funding. That could threaten the twin goals of the nonprofits: keeping content truly local and keeping everyone plugged in.

By Louise Nameth in New York


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Updated June 14, 1997 by bwwebmaster
Copyright 1996, Bloomberg L.P.
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