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By Todd Cohen

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — Twenty-five miles of fiber-optic cable looping through Winston-Salem and Forsyth County link schools, colleges, universities, libraries, nonprofits and local government.

Forty community computer labs with more than 350 computers serve mainly low-income people in the city and county who lack access to technology or the Internet.

And during idle hours, 4,700 computers of the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools help perform complex computations for Targacept, a biopharmaceutical firm in the city that needs large amounts of processing power and plugs into those computers through the fiber-optic loop.

Spearheading all those efforts is WinstonNet, a nonprofit formed in 2001 to spur the growth of community technology in the city and county.

Now, the group aims to expand its efforts, which two years ago helped Winston-Salem earn the ranking of second-most “digitally connected” city in the U.S., trailing only Fort Wayne, Ind.

WinstonNet, a collaboration of 10 organizations, this year landed a grant of more than $490,000 in software and cash from Microsoft to expand its community computer labs, and plans to increase the number of labs to 50 by the end of the year, says Lynda Goff, executive director.

Goff, who is developing a long-term strategy for WinstonNet, says it has built its network of computer labs through partnerships with the city, the county library system and Winston-Salem State University.

That network includes labs at 18 community recreation centers operated by the city, at the central library and nine library branches, and at 12 community knowledge centers administered by WSSU, mainly in African-American or Latino churches downtown.

Altogether, WinstonNet has put 375 donated computers into labs, and delivers Microsoft’s donated software applications to those labs using its own servers.

The group also wants to launch a pilot program to spur greater use of wireless communication in the community.

And in partnership with One Economy Corp., a nonprofit in Washington, D.C., WinstonNet will serve as a demonstration site for the national group’s “digital bridge” initiative to plug people living in low-cost housing into technology and the economy.

That initiative, based on a pilot project spearheaded by Habitat for Humanity of Forsyth County, aims to put computers in the residences of low-income people not living in Habitat homes.

WinstonNet already is working with 22 families that have qualified for the project and received financial-literacy training to develop individual plans for saving money, to be matched with funds from the city, to buy computers built by HATCH, a Winston-Salem firm that also built computers for Habitat’s digital-bridge project.

The goal of the new demonstration project is to place 1,000 computers in the homes of low-income people, says Goff, who also is director of technology initiatives for Wake Forest University, which laid the groundwork for WinstonNet 10 years ago by linking its Hawthorne and Reynolda campuses through a high-speed network.

As part of the demonstration project, WinstonNet also plans to create a local version of thebeehive.org, a website created by One Economy that provides low-income people with help and information about money, jobs, school, family and health.

WinstonNet also aims to expand the grid-computing project beyond the public schools and Targacept, which pays a membership fee to the nonprofit, with the goal of making 12,500 computers available by 2006 to other groups that need more processing power during idle hours.

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