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Houston offers free e-mail to all


August 21, 2001

In a fresh attempt to bridge the gap between the haves and have-nots of the Internet revolution, the city of Houston launched an innovative program Monday providing each of its 1.8 million residents with free e-mail accounts and access to word processing software.

The multimillion-dollar effort is the first attempt by a major U.S. city to create a public utility for computing. Dubbed SimHouston, the program recognizes that the Internet is as important in the 21st century as roads and bridges were in centuries past.

"We think this is just another service the city government should provide, like water and public works," said Denny Piper, chief information officer for Houston's city government.

With SimHouston, city residents can create personal accounts that can be accessed via any computer connected to the Internet. In addition to e-mail and word processing, the accounts will enable city residents to create spreadsheets, keep track of their calendars, create electronic presentations and even conduct videoconferences when those additional features are brought online in the coming weeks. Some of those programs can cost hundreds of dollars apiece.

What SimHouston doesn't provide -- at least not yet -- is any additional computers from which residents can access the Net and the documents they store in their accounts.

But simply deploying PCs in schools, libraries and other public places isn't enough to bridge the so-called "digital divide," said Robert Knowling, chief executive of Houston-based Internet Access Technologies, the company that built the SimHouston software.

"The digital divide is not about access," Knowling said. "It's about information and contact and being able to use the Internet so it enhances your life and improves the educational process."

Houston's public libraries have installed 470 computers with Internet access in their 37 branches around the city, and many of them end up idle. Rather than invest additional money in computer hardware -- especially in a city where 60 percent of households boast their own Internet connections -- the city decided to spend money on software that would make the existing PCs more useful, Piper said.

If SimHouston succeeds in boosting demand for public access Internet terminals, the city will find a way to put more computers in city libraries, he said.

By converting the city's 14,000 PCs to the new system, Piper estimates Houston will save as much as $10 million a year on information technology costs. Some of that savings will be used to fund SimHouston, which will cost several million dollars for the first three years.

Since the Internet became a public phenomenon in the mid-1990s, policy makers and public interest groups have lamented the gap between people who have access to technology and those who do not. Since Houston has provided more Internet terminals than residents can use, "it makes perfect sense to increase the capabilities of the machines that they've got," said Mark Lloyd, executive director of the Civil Rights Forum on Communications Policy in Washington, D.C.

But most cities are still trying to cope with the demand for Internet access in their libraries, said John W. Berry, president of the American Library Association in Chicago.

Other cities are thinking about joining Houston by offering their own versions of SimHouston , including Chicago and Indianapolis. Knowling said he expects to sign up a second city within 45 days.

BY KAREN KAPLAN Los Angeles Times. Copyright © 2001 PioneerPlanet / St. Paul (Minnesota) Pioneer Press / TwinCities.com


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