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Bringing a Community Online

by Carl Hoffman

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Photo of a computer user at Marietta's Family Lear

It was 1994 and national online service providers, which today have millions of subscribers, had just a few hundred thousand "early adopters" signed up. One of those was Eric Case, a 14-year-old in Marietta, Ohio. Like many subscribers, Eric was attracted by a promise of hundreds of initial free hours. The implications of the Internet, he and his father Phil quickly discovered as they explored this new thing called the World Wide Web, were almost unimaginable. With the click of his computer mouse, Eric could connect to sites and people all over the world. "Eric was growing incredibly fast from his experience on the Internet," Phil Case says. "He was testing games from game makers in Finland and writing FAQs, and it was really neat to watch."

There was only one problem. Neither Eric nor his father had paid attention to the telephone number that the software used to access the Web. And one day the telephone bill arrived. The hours of Internet service might have been free, but the phone connection to the Internet service provider (ISP), it turned out, was long distance. Every minute Eric was online the meter was ticking, and Phil Case was suddenly sitting on a $400 telephone bill.

As the Cases soon learned, there was no local Internet service provider in Marietta or in all of rural Washington County. The proprietor of his own oil and gas business and a member of the Marietta City Council at the time, Phil Case was relatively well off—but even he couldn't afford $400 a month. "I was really irritated," he says. "Columbus had a local ISP, and Cleveland had a local ISP, but we didn't, and we were the ones who really needed it."

In a series of community meetings over the next several months the Washington County Information Technology Group (WCITG) was born. At first it was nothing more than a dozen concerned citizens—including Case; Susan Huck, an information technology manager for a local manufacturing company; and Pat Foor, superintendent of the Washington County Educational Service Center/Career Center—and a commitment from Marietta College. The private 1,100-student liberal arts college already possessed the heart of any ISP, a powerful computer known as a server, along with a number of modems and telephone lines. If the WCITG would create and manage an ISP, the college would, in effect, host it. "It was win-win for the college," says Beverly Schwartz, its academic grants officer. "We're one of the largest employers in Marietta, and we have to take care of our own nest."

From Dream to Reality

But actually creating and managing the ISP was a labor-intensive task, and big visions though they had, "Being volunteers with full-time jobs, they weren't making much progress," admits Ed Holzapfel, then vice president for administrative services at Washington State Community College. To push it from dream to reality required a full-time staff person, and that required money. Holzapfel, who knew that the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) had just launched its telecommunications initiative, offered to write a grant proposal, with Washington State serving as fiscal agent for the group. The WCITG offered to give each of the 15 high schools in Washington, Morgan, Meigs, and Monroe Counties funding of up to $4,000 to complete their connections to the Web.

Thanks to a modest three-year grant from ARC in 1996, the WCITG became not just a name, but Marietta's first ISP, offering local dial-up Web access for about $10 a month. It is now self-sufficient. "It's my feeling that without that ARC grant for a full-time staff person to get it up and running, the WCITG wouldn't have been successful," says Holzapfel, now vice president for academics and dean of the Ross School of Management and Leadership at Franklin University in Columbus. "It's an excellent example of what some seed money can do," he says.

These days the Internet has grown so big that some of the early predictions about it can seem like forgotten dreams. Even as it knocked down barriers of time and distance, for instance, the Web was supposed to facilitate a new sense of community in a medium controlled by no one but its users. In Marietta that's exactly what happened: the WCITG has formed the kind of self-governing, not-for-profit Internet that brings the larger world—and the community—closer. Today, although local access is now available in Marietta from commercial companies, 850 WCITG customers roam the world through a series of humming boxes in the basement of a Marietta College building, and the service has long been financially self-sufficient.

Like Web clients everywhere, when WCITG customers have a problem, they call the ISP's help number. But instead of getting some anonymous voice, they talk to project director Kyungmi Oh or help desk staffer Matt Ruble, who will diagnose their Web woes, advise them on what equipment to buy, or even come to their house and install their system for the princely sum of $15. But just as important are the WCITG's free seminars, taught by volunteers (who get paid in free service), open to all (whether they're WCITG customers or not), in everything from Unix to Internet genealogy to online investing. Anyone can propose and teach a seminar, and since the first seminar in 1997, some 3,000 people have participated.

Access to the World

Taken together, the WCITG's services make it that much easier to bring everyone online and to make them technologically literate once they are. "The WCITG offers me an inexpensive route to the Internet," says Darran Huggins, a 67-year-old retiree living on a limited income, who keeps in touch with his children via email. "The WCITG is very important to my life. It has given me access to the world at a very reasonable rate."

"I couldn't even spell computer," confesses Virgil Archer, 69, whose attendance at a WCITG basic computer seminar convinced him that he should—and could—buy a computer himself.

"I think the seminars are really important," says Susan Huck, who is now a WCITG board member. "You see a lot of people who are hesitant and the classes don't require a huge commitment, but they give people a push to go online. We're not exactly a metropolis, and once they do, it opens up the world to them." Because the college is a nonprofit institution, the WCITG has shied away from promoting its services directly to business. Nevertheless, says David Brightbill, executive director of the Community Action Program Corporation of Washington-Morgan Counties, Ohio, and a WCITG board member, it's important to think of even personal Internet service as a tool for economic development. "It's ludicrous to think you can have a thriving economy without easy and inexpensive Internet access," says Brightbill. "We have lots of jobs here that don't pay very much. The difference between what we charge and the commercial companies charge is $10 a month, and that's significant if you work a minimum-wage job."

If a rural and relatively isolated region is going to retain—and attract—workers, he says, every person has to become fluent in the Web and have access to the same information that people in the big cities have. "We have to have kids experienced with computers," agrees Phil Case, "for us to be a force in the emerging economy."

Of course, not all families have computers at home. Marietta's Family Learning Center, administered by Marietta City Schools, offers computer literacy training for all ages, and an open-access community computing center that gives residents hands-on experience with computers. At the core of the center are 12 machines linked to an incongruous and very-low-tech-looking antenna sprouting from the center's chimney, which transmits a high-speed Internet connection to Marietta College. Access through that line to the Marietta servers is free, courtesy of the WCITG and the college. "We could never afford to pay commercial rates for a high-speed connection for 12 computers," says program aide Chris Clark, "and without the Internet the computers would be nothing. We just had kids from Marietta Middle School here working on research projects about different countries, and with a couple of clicks, one boy was in Syria!"

Phil Case is now looking at a new challenge: How to bring high-speed, broadband connections to the furthest reaches of the county. "Broadband is going to be a huge hurdle for rural communities" who don't have the fiber optic connections or the $50 to $90 a month such access typically costs through a telephone company, he says. "And you don't have to be a rocket scientist to see the problems with letting commercial companies take care of it. Nobody wants to compete for places like Marietta, much less sparsely populated parts of Washington County." But Case is imagining, as the WCITG's client base and thus its cash flow grows, of installing a network of point-to-point transmitters like the one at the Family Learning Center at the towers of volunteer fire houses "or the guy who dispatches cement trucks." Listening to Case's vision it's hard not to get excited: A rural county teeming with high-speed Internet access that costs almost nothing. "I know it can be done," he says. "We just have to get creative."

Carl Hoffman is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.