Behind the Net curtain

For the first time a whole street has been wired. Gossip is traded, not over the fence but down fibre-optics
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The Independent Online
First there was Coronation Street, then Albert Square, then Brookside Close; but now Britain has a real street for the 21st century - Internet Street.

The cast of characters sounds colourful enough: families; flatmates; employed and unemployed; taxi drivers; musicians; executives; young and old. But it isn't fictional.

For six months, 78 people in 26 houses on a north London street will take part in an experiment in which fibre-optic wire will replace the garden fence as the medium for exchanging gossip; browsing the World Wide Web replaces twitching a net curtain as a way to see what's going on outside the house; and computer bulletin boards replace the news- agent's noticeboard.

The residents of the Islington street (whose location is being kept secret) are experimenting to see what communities of the next millennium might be like.

Each house has a Gateway 2000 multimedia computer and modem provided by Gateway; software is provided by Microsoft, including free connection to the Internet, using a separate, dedicated telephone line; residents also receive pounds 20 a quarter towards the cost of Internet telephone bills and individual e-mail addresses.

They can access Microsoft Network, with its six channels of information, including election news; the global Internet, with its 15,000 "newsgroups" and millions of pages of data on the World Wide Web, where they can make airline and hotel reservations and order goods.

Participants are required to keep a diary, recording their experiences, including what sites they visit and whether they found using the Internet difficult or easy. A Microsoft "buddy" will be on hand to help with technical problems.

After just a fortnight, some of the residents in the street have already noticed the difference. Maya, a 35-year-old advertising executive who lives at number 36, said: "Now, the first thing I do when I get home is turn on the computer to see if I have been sent any e-mail. I'm almost despondent if there isn't anything there. I've given friends my home e- mail address, because although I've got Internet access on my computer at work, I don't have time there to surf the Net or anything like that."

Maya reckons that at home she now spends up to an hour a day at the weekends, and 10 minutes during the weekdays using the Net.

The Internet offers access to text, pictures, computer games, sound and music clips, radio stations, video clips, TV "broadcasts" and video- conferencing on millions of computers worldwide. Its growth is still outstripping expectations, having grown from fewer than one million computers in 1991 to more than 16 million today, with no sign of slowing.

At present, it is doubling in size roughly every 18 months. The number of users able to access it is probably hundreds of millions - although there is no way to make a definite estimate.

Maya admits to being a relative novice. "I'm still stumbling around, really. I wanted to find out about meditation but you type in the search and it comes up with 10,000 responses. There's so much out there, but so much isn't of any interest."

By contrast, Duncan, a 23-year-old unemployed musician who lives with his parents at number 26, is already skilled in tapping the network for useful information. "I've e-mailed friends in America. I'm using it mainly to try to find degree courses for what I want to do at university next year. And also to download music-oriented programs, and audio clips.

"And," he added, "to download games. But I've also been looking up stuff about the comet, Hale-Bopp, because we can see it from our house. Yeah, the computer's in my bedroom. It's a fantastic opportunity for me."

Duncan's father, Fred, is also interested, though his work as a taxi driver - and the location of the computer - makes it harder to spend as much time on it as his son.

Judy Gibbons, UK director of Microsoft Network, said: "The project may tell us how people and communities will interact in the 21st century.

"The notion of online communities, and how the Internet can uniquely alter the way we live now, has been discussed for a long time - with little practical research. MSN is now creating the reality.

"Although people have created artificial Internet groups in the past, they have never seen how it would develop in an existing neighbourhood before."

As part of the experiment, the participants are being asked to keep a diary to record their experiences - good or bad - and to say what sites they have visited on the Web. So far, most of them seem pleased with the results; the only bad moments have been computer crashes.

Microsoft expects that in time the Internet will bring local communities closer, as well as connecting people to wider experiences. But the early signs are that the people on the Internet street have not suddenly been inspired to talk to each other in the real world just because they are now able to in the virtual one.

Although Duncan was born just down the road, and has been living in his parents' house since he was three, he admits that he doesn't know many of his neighbours.

To test how the Internet might change that, Microsoft has set up a "notice board" in which project participants can leave text messages for anyone who reads them. "Yeah, you get those conversations," said Duncan. "It's peculiar seeing people on the street and wondering if you 'spoke' to them online.

"I know one family who are part of the project, but not many others. But it has given me motivation to find out about things I didn't know before. I'd rather have this than have to go down to the library."