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Internet Doors Opening for Rural Computer Users

February 27, 1995

WAPAKONETA, Ohio (AP) _ Stockbroker Bob Althoff wants to cruise the information superhighway in the worst way. Problem is, he has no on-ramp.

Althoff is one of many computer enthusiasts in small cities and rural communities who have been financially blocked from the Internet, a complex international web of computer networks now used by an estimated 13.5 million people.

For most Americans, the Internet is a local phone call away. College students can log on through their university computers. Many businesses now provide access for their employees.

But finding information in the vast, uncharted territory of cyberspace takes time _ and that makes it economically unfeasible when a long-distance call is needed to connect with a hub computer that provides Internet access.

``It’s like having an information highway that goes all across America, but the only off-ramps are in the major cities,″ says Althoff, who lives in Chillicothe, a town of 22,000 about 40 miles south of Columbus.

Starting next week, Althoff and other Ohioans who are off the beaten path should be able to dial up locally, through Com Net Inc., an consortium of 19 independent telephone companies.

The project was to have kicked off today, but was delayed a week when workers discovered the long-distance circuitry ordered to start service was the wrong type, spokesman Bill McKell said.

The group is launching the service in Chillicothe, and eventually plans to install Internet dial-up sites in Akron, Canton and a half-dozen small Ohio towns.

Users will be able to reach the Internet, dialing locally, for a fee of $9.95 to $19.95 for up to 20 hours, said John Wilson, Com Net’s chief operating officer.

Larger telephone companies are blocked from providing such services. The consent decree that broke up AT&T in 1984 barred the Baby Bells from providing computer connections across local phone boundaries.

Meanwhile, Com Net and an increasing number of other local projects are filling the gaps.

Last year, more than 1,100 private groups, local governments, school districts and others applied for $24.5 million in funding from the Commerce Department’s National Telecommunication and Information Division. This year, $65 million is available.

Also, the Rural Datafication Project in Ann Arbor, Mich., is bringing the Internet to difficult-to-serve areas of West Virginia, New York, Pennsylvania, Indiana, Michigan, Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa.

At least two states, Maryland and Vermont, offer residents free access through the state library system. And in Telluride, Colo., an old mining town with a year-round population of 1,500, a 1994 state grant funded the ``InfoZone,″ a local-call hookup to the Internet.

Jim Lemon of Ohio State University’s College of Agriculture said access will make a difference for rural customers.

``If you’re making decisions about what to do with your corn crop, you’re dependent on a number of information sources,″ Lemon said. ``Sometimes, operating in isolation, we make bad decisions.″

Jack Harrison also knows about isolation.

The 74-year-old part-time pastor at a Presbyterian church in Calvert, Texas, sees tapping into the Internet as a way of keeping the information have-nots from leaving his small east Texas town.

The 1,300-person village could use the Internet to spread the word to tourists about its April barbecue, he said. And a local potter, bonsai-tree grower and miniature-soldier maker could use it to expand their businesses.

``If we can make the Internet work for us,″ Harrison said, ``then we can provide an economic base for the young people and especially the minorities in town.″

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