How Wired Is Your Town?
They are young, well-educated, and consumers of foreign cars and bottled water. They travel and ski a lot. And, according to one survey, they rate Microsoft's Bill Gates as just as important to America's future as President Bill Clinton.
Above all, they are "connected," spending at least three hours a week online or on the Internet.
Now, America's growing class of digital citizens is helping propel a drive to "wire" the nation's cities for the 21st century. From education to taxes to electronic democracy, this so-called digital revolution promises to make cities more efficient and resident-friendly, whether by allowing quick online permitting or instant dialogue with city hall.
Not surprisingly, the most plugged-in cities include high-tech meccas San Francisco, Boston, and Seattle, where widespread Internet use creates high expectations for government. Several smaller cities and university towns, such as Madison, Wis. and Austin, Texas are also ahead of the pack.
Yet the gap between cities that are technologically savvy and those that are not remains wide - just as it does between the computer "haves" and "have-nots" in the US population.
"Some cities have online services established, others are coming in almost like third world countries," says Alexia Parks, president of Digital Government Inc. in Boulder, Colo.
Among Americans aged 16 and over, roughly 20 percent - or some 52 million people - use the Internet, according to a fall 1997 survey by the New York-based Nielsen Interactive Services. Still, that percentage drops to less than 2 percent for the low-income population, experts say. Moreover, 48 million Americans don't own computers and 12 million have never heard of the Internet, the survey shows.
"It is vital to close the gap," says Costis Toregas, president of Public Technologies Inc., a nonprofit Washington think tank for local governments.
As a result, local and federal initiatives are now striving to spread advances in communications technology beyond the Lexus-driving, computer-literate crowd. Across the country, projects are under way to extend the information superhighway to the doorstep of the neediest - from children in inner-city Boston to public- housing residents in San Francisco.
The following survey of "wired" cities identifies cutting-edge trends that promise to broaden vastly the spectrum of Americans online and, in some cases, revolutionize the way they do things.
Boston - K-12 Education
At Trotter Elementary in Boston's inner-city neighborhood of Dorchester, more than half of the 630 students qualify for reduced-price lunches. Many lack a computer at home. But now, thanks to a public-private partnership to "wire" all of Boston's 125 public schools by this fall, students at Trotter can click onto the Internet in every classroom.
"When they do science experiments, they go online to the 'ask scientists' page to e-mail questions and get answers back," says Barbara Cottone, who runs Trotter's computer learning center. Students also like to visit an Internet "chat" room for conversations with leading authors of children's books.
It figures that Boston, one of the nation's major on-ramps to the Internet with a high concentration of people online, is a national leader in wiring its schools. Indeed, the city is already planning upgrades to higher speed connections.
Mayor Thomas Menino has placed top priority on the initiative. Many parents employed in Boston's technology industries have volunteered for the effort. Moreover, high-tech firms such as Intel, 3Com, Microsoft, and Sun Microsystems, which has a local branch, have donated large amounts of equipment.
Boston is also benefiting generously from some of the $2.25 billion in federal subsidies for Internet access available starting this year under the 1996 Telecommunications Act. The act offers K-12 public schools and libraries telecommunication discounts ranging from 20 percent to 90 percent, depending on the ratio of low-income students.
Such advantages are helping Boston overcome obstacles many inner-city schools face in linking up to the Internet. Seventy-eight percent of all US public schools are wired. But that figure drops to 63 percent in schools where more than two-thirds of students are either minorities or eligible for reduced-price lunches.
"Very poor schools are behind the curve, and most of those very poor schools are in our inner cities," says Linda Roberts, director of educational technology at the US Department of Education.
Nevertheless, experts believe that if current trends continue all schools will have some Internet connection soon after 2000.
"Within five to 10 years, just about everyone coming out of high school will be as familiar with using the Internet as with driving a car," predicts Larry Landweber, professor of computer science at the University of Wisconsin in Madison.
Seattle - Higher Education
In Seattle, the birthplace of Microsoft Corp. and dozens of related spin-off companies, home-grown Internet technology defines the landscape almost as much as salmon and the evergreen.
Seattle's latest major innovation in Internet access is as the hub of a statewide project in education technology. The project, launched in January, creates a single digital network linking all the state's colleges and universities.
One of the largest investments of its kind in Washington history, the $54.5 million K-20 Educational Telecommunications Network will extend from higher- learning institutions to every public school in the state by 2000. Through this web of fiber-optic lines, routers, and computer centers, schools will be able to gain Internet access, share curricula, and teach classes remotely by computer or interactive video.
The systematic approach to wiring schools has several advantages. It allows the state to save money on communications lines from providers such as AT&T, US West, and Sprint. It opens more resources to students without requiring new buildings. And it eliminates long-distance travel for students from remote community colleges.
Having all schools on a standardized system is "an enormous incentive" for building teaching communities across the spectrum of schools, says Ed Lazowska, chairman of the computer science department at the University of Washington in Seattle and a member of the governor's board on information technology. "This puts all of us on a level playing field."
Moreover, the education project has a highly valuable offshoot: It is increasing Internet access geographically by extending digital services beyond the highly connected Seattle region to homes and businesses in less advanced rural areas such as eastern Washington.
Denver - Neighborhoods
Rocky Mountain vistas give Denver not only stark beauty, but also a distinct edge in the Internet industry.
Thanks in part to its geography, Denver is now the most convenient US location from which cable companies can beam information via satellite to every place on earth. As a result, the city hosts major cable and telecommunications firms and has attracted a good chunk of Internet business.
Today, Denver is busy bringing its high-altitude Internet technology down to the urban grass roots. The city this year launched one of the most extensive efforts in the country to wire its neighborhoods in a network that links residents, communities, and city hall.
"This program will literally wire the city," says Dick Bjurstrom, of the Inter-Neighborhood Cooperation, an umbrella group for Denver's 160 registered neighborhood associations.
Already, more than 100 of the city's neighborhoods have been given free Web sites, designed and serviced by a Denver-based Internet company, E.Central. "A lot of cities are wired in their populations, but what will make this really get up and running is the neighborhood part," says Ted Pinkowitz, president of E.Central.
"It's giving us a focus for communicating with the community online," says Denver spokesman Andrew Hudson.
The neighborhood Web sites, though many are still fledgling, will soon offer residents a wide range of information on community meetings and events, as well as crime and policing. For example, the Barnum Improvement Council Web site recently advised residents on the new police beat officers, the availability of local community garden space, and how to report the illegal dumping of trash in alleys.
Public-school children are being trained to manage the Web sites, with one of their first projects being to interview residents for online histories.
The Web sites also offer a wide range of city data and instant access by e-mail to council members and the mayor's office.
"It's a great opportunity to interact with the neighborhood groups," says city councilwoman Deborah Ortega, who oversees a district of 45,000 people.
In another area, Denver's public library is leading a national trend in wiring its collection to offer broader access to rare historical materials. With funding from the Library of Congress, the library is digitizing some 50,000 photographs from its extensive Western history collection.
Once the $524,000 project is complete, researchers around the state will have online access to the delicate photographs, which include shots of Buffalo Bill, the Tenth Mountain Division of World War II skiing troops, and small Western towns.
Madison, Wis. - Local Government
Overrun with students and youngish yuppies, college towns such as Austin, Texas; Raleigh-Durham, N.C.; and Columbia-Jefferson City, Mo. are hotbeds of online activity. Indeed, topping the nation's list of wired cities is Madison, Wis. Its 300,000 residents aged 18 and up are 50 percent more likely than the average urban American to be Internet users.
"College towns and areas with large universities tend to have higher usage because every college student gets free Internet access, and when they graduate they expect that in their workplace," says Andrew Sernovitz of the Washington-based Association for Interactive Media.
With small, highly connected populations, university towns also offer promising proving grounds for interactive government, experts say.
Madison, for example, has linked all its 50 municipal facilities and distributed laptops or desktop computers to each of the 20 city councilors. "E-mail is a highly used method of communicating among elders and the city staff," says Don Ramig, the city's information services director.
Madison's Web site currently offers a wide array of content for the public, including ordinances, property data, information on services, and the e-mail addresses of half of the city's employees.
But Mayor Susan Bauman is working to make online city-government more of a two-way street, both by making possible money-saving online transactions, and by holding virtual town hall meetings in an experiment with "electronic democracy."
"If we can help citizens do business with city hall without having to come downtown, it's a move in the right direction," Mr. Ramig says. By the end of this year, residents should be able to pay parking tickets, water and other utility bills, and taxes online, he says. Soon, electronic applications for city government jobs and permits will also be possible.
Meanwhile, the city is setting up online discussion groups on topics ranging from gun control and halfway houses to parking and traffic. Says Ramig: "It's another forum for the mayor to get feedback."
San Francisco - Public Housing
For 15 years, Cecilia Shepard lived in San Francisco's Hayes Valley public-housing project, raising her five children in a world of isolation imposed by gangs, drugs, and shootings.
This year, 30 months after wrecking balls demolished the old project, Ms. Shepard will move into new Hayes Valley housing units linked to the globe with state-of-the-art technology.
"We hope to have computers in each of the units - it's kind of mandatory for residents to move toward self-sufficiency," says Shepard, now president of the Hayes Valley Resident Management Corp.
San Francisco, the biggest of the top 10 US cyber cities, is a good place for one of the most dramatic experiments in wiring America: transforming dilapidated public- housing complexes into fully connected "campuses" of learning.
The goal is to equip inner-city residents with the high-tech tools, including Internet access, needed to acquire new skills and compete for jobs.
Under a public-private initiative launched by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, all the 195 new apartments at Hayes Valley will be wired to high-speed phone lines, and the neighborhood will have a large on-site computer laboratory.
In turn, each new resident will be required to enroll in an educational or job- training program, including computer classes. Even toddlers will be introduced to computers.
Once shunned as a place to live, Hayes Valley is now attracting many new prospective residents, Shepard says. "There's been a total face lift of the community," she says. "People are coming back with hope."