Bonner County, all 1,900 square miles of it, is about to become one electronically linked community.
After a year of dabbling, the Panhandle Free-Net will be up and running Sunday. It’s a computer network billed as one-stop access to county budget information, city council minutes, job listings, school and health information and more.
“Generally, it’s an electronic public forum,” said David Sawyer. He’s a Sandpoint city councilman and president of the Solutions Group, which helped launch the network.
“What this means is everyone can have access to volumes of information. Someone in the southern part of the county won’t have to drive 40 miles to look at the county budget,” Sawyer said.
Anyone with a computer and modem can call up the service and access information free of charge. This month a public computer terminal will be installed at West One Bank in Sandpoint. Other terminals will be placed at the East Bonner County library and the Careywood post office.
“We see this as an essential part of our community infrastructure,” Sawyer said. “It’s just as important as our highways and telephone lines as a way to exchange information with each other.”
The Bonner County School District is also working on the project. The network will tie together its 16 schools, some of which are 80 miles apart.
“We think it’s going to be very valuable,” said district librarian Charlotte Hoyer. “It’s not Internet (the world’s largest computer network), but it’s a start and it won’t cost us a thing.”
Most schools already have the equipment needed to hook into the system next week. Students and teachers will be able to share information on projects and lessons, Hoyer said.
Bonner County businesses and residents have donated about $10,000 to Panhandle Free-Net.
“I think people are excited about it because it benefits the entire public, especially those who live in rural areas,” Sawyer said.
He envisions the county’s 30,000 residents tapping into the system to discuss issues and get information on taxes, city government, the environment and even arts organizations and events in town.
Eventually, the system will include specialized information such as subscriptions to national and international newspapers.
“The No. 1 motivator for this is distance learning: people having access to information regardless of where they are,” Sawyer said. “It will assist people who were previously unable to be involved in public issues.”
xxxx DIAL UP To access Panhandle Free-Net on a computer, dial 263-6336. For more information call 263-3543.
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