Charlotte, N.C. -- Conventional wisdom says the cost of
computers, telephone and cable connections will bar low-income people from the Information Highway for years to come.
But check again. Technological whizzes working with the ''Charlotte's Web,'' a community-based computer service online since October, have found a way -- at phenomenally low cost -- to wire an after-school tutoring center located in a 50-year-old public housing project.
First, the Charlotte's Web crew lined up a bunch of donated 286 PC's -- a model once the industry standard, now considered so outmoded that many corporations have roomfuls they're anxious give away.
Next, the Web's ''techies'' hit on the idea of using inexpensive switching software that had originally been developed to route ham radio signals. Each of the four installed Windows PCs were hooked together by $30 Ethernet cards, connected to the
so-called packet router and a single 28,000 bps-high-speed modem.
The result: At a minimum cost per unit, each of the four installed 286's can function independently, each enjoying its own full graphical access to Charlotte's Web (and through it, the Internet) -- all over a single telephone line.
Expand that kind of inventive technology to low-income areas across America and you can start sighting an affordable way for poor neighborhoods to get connected, less isolated, locally and globally.
''There are so many things you can do with this technology,'' says Steve Snow, the ex-journalist now running Charlotte's Web with help of a special federal grant. ''This should be a real energizing force for neighborhood, economic, civic development. It's a powerful new medium just in its infancy.''
Across America are over 300 community networks, all providing varieties of highly relevant, local information rarely found on nationwide services like America Online or CompuServe. Some are slender shoestring operations, others sophisticated systems that may supplement or, with Internet access, actually substitute for a national information carrier.
Blacksburg, Va., claims to be the best example, calling itself ''the most computer-connected place, per capita, on the planet.'' Its system lets citizens do anything from consulting their doctors, to searching out job listings, to searching databases, to applying for a building permit.
Among the larger community networks now up and running are Philadelphia's LibertyNet, the North Texas Free-Net, and the Cleveland Free-Net, which boasts 120,000 log-ons a week. (Cleveland school children are even able to work on their homework online with children from France and Belgium.)
The process of wiring a community does encounter barriers. Even with prices tumbling, how to find quality equipment? Which databases really match needs? How to navigate around the complex world of the Internet?
The money part is being met short-term by governments, foundations, libraries, universities and communications companies -- though with no long-term assurance of support.
As for expertise, there's increasing talk of recruiting computer techies and enthusiasts to become computer information brokers -- Internet ''supernavigators'' -- to help users in their cities and neighborhoods.
Charlotte's Web is already starting to organize some of the TTC unanointed enthusiasts of cyberspace, giving them detailed training on every aspect from creating Internet ''home'' pages to downloading information from the system.
Beyond that, there's the question: How to manage the information that literally gushes off the Internet and other systems?
A group of North Carolina statewide non-profits are now setting up a Community Information Broker Project. The carefully trained brokers are to be coaches, translators, guides, targeted into the state's ''low-wealth'' areas.
Their mission: to help small businesses, local governments and non-profits figure out where to tap the online information they need, and how to use it effectively.
Once they're exposed, community-based organizations quickly develop a real appetite for electronic access information, reports Jenifer Horvath, an AmeriCorps member who's acted as an informal broker in the early stages of the North Carolina effort.
Helping organizations onto the information highway, she asserts, can help community problem-solving and lead toward ''a collective community shared vision.''
Maybe it's time, suggests Austin Fitts of Hamilton Securities, in Washington, to challenge whole neighborhoods to use computers to devise master plans for their own economic development.
She suggests a neighborhood version of the popular ''SimCity'' software, so that young people would expand their thinking to incorporate new micro-enterprises, neighborhood watch and bartering and day care, bulletin boards and groupware.
''Every neighborhood plan could and should be different. The goal should be to have every neighborhood do for itself,'' says Fitts.
But to get there, communities will need the reduced cost of equipment Charlotte's Web is achieving. And they'll need that growing coterie of guides, folks equipped to lead them into cyberspace so they can learn to harvest it for tangible, direct benefit.
Neal R. Peirce writes a column on state and urban affairs.