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CYBERCULTURE

Where PCs Meet PV

Palos Verdes Launches Low-Cost Community Internet Center

December 09, 1996|KAREN KAPLAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

A city-owned recreation center with 1970s carpeting and fading tan wallpaper is not the kind of place you'd expect to find 14 gleaming state-of-the-art personal computers.

Nor would you expect to find high school students and retirees surfing the Internet together.

But Palos Verdes on the Net, which opened for business Saturday amid much civic fanfare, is anything but typical. In fact, the nonprofit computer center has more in common with a health club than a PC lab.

PV on the Net is signing up members, who pay a $50 fee ($40 for children and seniors) in return for unlimited use of the computer facilities for six months. That setup is potentially a much cheaper way to buy access to computers and the Internet than the pay-by-the-minute plans offered at cybercafes and stores such as Kinko's.

The combination of equipment and price drew a modest crowd of about two dozen to PV on the Net's grand opening next to Rancho Palos Verdes' City Hall, on the bluffs of the Palos Verdes peninsula. More than half signed up to become members.

Among them was Helen Gardner, a retired speech therapist who can only play solitaire, design cross-stitch patterns and send electronic mail to her grown children with the PC she bought last summer. She signed up for membership because she wants to learn how to do more with her computer.

"I've just scraped the surface of the things that can be done," said Gardner, a Rancho Palos Verdes resident for nearly 40 years.

Palos Verdes on the Net is the brainchild of Ted Vegvari, owner of a computer consulting company. He began by developing a Web site (http://www.PalosVerdes.com) for the communities of the Palos Verdes peninsula, complete with agendas from City Council meetings and a directory of local businesses. Soon it became clear that residents wanted more.

"What really kicked me into high gear is that I knew if I didn't do this, another company that had absolutely no interest in the community would come in and try to make a commercial project out of this," he said.

The City of Rancho Palos Verdes provided a rent-free home for the facility in a onetime recreation and community center. Microsoft and Corel donated software, Fluor Corp. contributed a network hub and Epson threw in 22 color printers. GTE, provider of the center's T-1 connections, donated $4,000.

Some of the computers are on loan from Vegvari's company, PC Labs of Torrance, and Vegvari paid for the rest of the equipment himself. He hopes to be reimbursed by membership fees by the end of the first year. After that, membership revenue will be spent to increase the center's professional staff and hours of operation. For now, the center will be open Tuesdays through Saturdays and will be staffed mostly by volunteers.

"Some years back we were interested in doing a telecommunications center, but it seemed very expensive," said Marilyn Lyon, a Rancho Palos Verdes council member. "This sort of dropped out of the sky like a gift. It's just wonderful."

If residents of Palos Verdes and the surrounding area agree, membership-supported computer centers could spread to other communities.

Although computers outnumbered visitors for much of the day on Saturday, Vegvari and others are optimistic about the prospects for PV on the Net.

"This is a fantastic deal," said Sam Djujic, who bought memberships for himself and his wife, Donna Kaye. "If the word gets out, I think they will really have too many people."

*

Times correspondent Karen Kaplan covers technology and telecommunications. She can be reached via e-mail at Karen.Kaplan@latimes.com

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