The Oberhambach Pilot Project is meant to test whether a virtual network can help isolated older people reconnect to community life, said Dirk Schmitt, director of the non-profit consortium BIR Inform eV, which is organising the project. The tiny village, in the western German state of Rhineland-Palatinate, is representative of a large percentage of the German population, which has yet to take advantage of the growing number of online services, he said.
"This is a project for older people who don't have daily access to the Internet, at work, at university, or at school. Often they are very skeptical and afraid of new technology," said Schmitt.
By the second quarter of next year, Oberhambach residents will have access to a range of online services, including banking, shopping, and government services. They are also slated to receive electronic identity cards that will allow them to conduct legally-binding transactions online, in line with new legislation on digital signatures.
But first there's the matter of teaching old dogs new tricks, said Schmitt. "It's quite an experience for some older people just operating a mouse, and seeing that when you move it 2 centimetres, the cursor moves 20 centimetres on the screen."
In the past few days the project finished distributing PCs, provided free of charge to each household for one year by Compaq Computer. Young "IT Scouts" from area schools have begun training residents how to use the machines to surf the Web.
Other corporate sponsors and government agencies are providing the rest of the funds and services for the project. Among others, Deutsche Telekom is subsidising ISDN (Integrated Services Digital Network) connections; its Internet subsidiary T-Online International is providing 20 free hours of online time a month; and Deutsche Post is contributing the digital signature system.
Asked whether he'd met local resistance to the new technology, Schmitt said, "We were very surprised (at the response). I had to keep talking to Compaq to get more computers. There are even some people over 80 who are very excited."
He brushed aside critics who suggest that encouraging an "online community" will only further isolate local residents in their homes. "They don't come out of their houses anyway, that's the problem. They have no food shop, no butcher, no bakery. Many older people have no chance to get out. Bus connections are very bad. We want to see if the Internet can offer an alternative."