Free WorldGate Is a Hit

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The city of LaGrange, Ga., didn' t have to twist many arms to get cable subscribers to sign up for its offer of free Internet access through the television.

The city, which is located 60 miles from Atlanta, owns its 8,800-subscriber cable system. It recently announced that it would offer WorldGate Communications Inc.' s "Internet

on Every TV" service free-of-charge, beginning in June.

By last Wednesday-one week after the deal was announced-LaGrange had received requests for the service from more than 500 residents, a city spokeswoman said.

Charter Communications Inc. runs the cable system and controls the bandwidth through a lease with the city, which expires in 2014.

The city will pay Charter $298,000 for one year of the service, and Charter will share that revenue with WorldGate, city manager Tom Hall said. The city will also spend $120,000 to upgrade headend equipment for the service, which will run on Motorola Broadband Communications Sector "DCT-2000" digital set-tops, he added.

WorldGate' s product normally retails for $9.95 per month.

The free offering has some cable competitors up in arms. Last week, the Satellite Broadcasting & Communications Association wrote LaGrange Mayor Jeff Lukken, protesting the decision to rely solely on cable to connect its 27,000 residents.

"I am troubled at the use of taxpayer money to subsidize a singular means of Internet delivery. If the city of LaGrange has elected to subsidize service, then it should be done in a fair and balanced manner," SBCA communications director James Ashurst wrote.

Lukken responded in a letter to Ashurst by noting that the city owns the cable plant, it doesn' t subsidize cable service, and that the funds being used to pay for the service come from earnings the city has generated with its "telecommunications enterprise."

"If the SBCA would like to become involved in a public-private partnership with our city, as has Charter Communications, to bring beneficial projects to our community at extraordinarily affordable rates, we would welcome the opportunity to engage in that discussion with you," Lukken wrote.

Charter and WorldGate executives said they will evaluate the free-service model after one year. Hall said the city could begin to charge cable subscribers for WorldGate at that time, but he expects the service to continue to be free.

"We want to make sure every citizen has access to the Internet, and that economics is not a barrier to that. We' re not going to do anything to sacrifice that principle," he added.

WorldGate CEO Hal Krisbergh said the company is offering the service at a discount. "We all bent a little bit here to make it happen," he added.

WorldGate is talking with other cable operators about pursuing a model similar to the LaGrange launch, but the company expects many operators to maintain the current subscription model, Krisbergh said. "[Offering the service free-of-charge] is not something I expect the whole world to jump on tomorrow," he added.

Ted Hearn contributed to this report.

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