The Business Journal

Focus - Office Technologies

Week of September 11, 1995

Proposed regional 'mini-Internet' seeks $1 million federal grant

By Amy Yannello

A regional computer network - a sort of mini-Internet - may be unveiled as soon as the spring of 1996, thanks, in part, to an infusion of $1.6 million worth of services from supporters, said officials close to the project. Since its introduction Jan. 18, the idea of developing an electronic network has garnered widespread support from business, government, nonprofit organizations, schools and libraries - all hoping that going online with their services and products will bolster bottom lines. Organizers hope the pledges received will help convince the U.S. Department of Commerce to award a $1 million grant to the Net at Two Rivers project through its 1995 Telecommunications Information Infrastructure Assistance Program. Proponents are looking to business for continued support and guidance on the program, which is expected to cost about $350,000 in the first year. "Funding options are still very fluid at this point," said Cynthia Mulit, who co-founded Sound View Productions, the organization behind the proposed network. Those placing their messages in the mini-Internet could pay a fee, or those using the service might be charged. "We're looking to the business community to help develop a business plan for the future," Mulit said. "They have to tell us how exactly to meet their needs and what they're willing to spend to do that." Mulit and Rusty Hammer, head of the Sacramento Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, said that funding options might include a business "sponsoring" a page on the World Wide Web - already a part of the Internet - which would be accessible through Sacramento's network. It would be up to business to set the amount a sponsorship would cost. "It will be a real time-saver for business because you'll be able to access city and county information - on permitting, for example - without taking up valuable staff time," said Mike Keating, spokesman for Citizens Utilities Co. "It will also enable you to greatly expand your customer base, which will affect the bottom line." "Anything that promotes Sacramento, promotes business in general," Hammer added.

Among the specific advantages, organizers say, is that businesses could easily target their products to, say, parents of schoolchildren. Online networking with suppliers would give businesses the opportunity to market their products at a quicker rate, and has the potential to increase export sales. "This network is one of the first in the nation to focus on business's needs - most focus solely on education," Mulit said. Mulit and Sound View co-founder Barb Englund said Net at Two Rivers "is hopeful, but not dependent on federal funding," which totals $45 million in such grants for 1995. The cash would help in the beginning but ultimately success would depend on the services provided by the network. "The federal government has an interest in helping develop the information superhighway because information is the new raw material of the future. If we don't maintain (our) dominance (over) information, we will cease to be a world power," Mulit said, adding that she expects to receive word about the application by November. The Department of Commerce's National Telecommunications and Information Administration pegs telecommunications as "the world's largest economic sector with strategic importance that supasses that of oil or steel. It generates more than $590 billion in revenues." Mulit and Englund, who would assume annual salaries of more than $50,000 apiece if the network takes flight, envision a local setup that would allow anyone with a computer and a modem to tap into virtually any city resource, whether it be getting planning maps, tapping into medical clinics or finding out how many local homeless shelters offer free meals. "For this to work, everyone must have access. To do that, we expect to put computers and modems in a variety of public places, such as fire departments, schools and libraries, so people without computers can use the system too," Englund said. "We see the Net at Two Rivers as an integral part of making more information available to the community in more diverse ways," Hammer said.

Here's an example of how it might work:
A resident logs on and is given a variety of choices with regard to the sector he or she wishes to reach. A choice of, say, "government" would lead to a choice of such directories as "elected officials," "job openings" and "licensing permits." If "elected officials" then is chosen, the individual would receive several prompts, such as "board minutes," "meetings" or "agendas." The citizen would then be able to read and print out copies of each, without ever going to county or city offices. Organizers aim to get representatives from the 50 largest area firms away from their computers and into a session they hope will nail down the issue of funding. Originally, Net at Two Rivers was envisioned as covering Greater Sacramento. Since talks began, however, the project's scope has grown to encompass a 15-county area edging into Nevada. The $1.6 million garnered was chiefly in the form of donated staffing and use of buildings and equipment.