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Can We Keep Community Networks Running

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Can We Keep Community Networks Running?

Abstract:

Although civic computer networks provide valuable services to
local communities, these grassroots efforts are facing a myriad
of threats to their existence, such as unstable funding,
increased competition, and limited technical resources. Steve
Cisler looks at the challenges that community networks are
facing, and he offers suggestions for keeping them running in
the face of these obstacles.


Computer-Mediated Communication Magazine / Volume 2, Number 1/ January 1, 1995 / Page 6
ARL REsearch Note #47



By Steve Cisler

Over the past few years I have had a growing interest in community
computing networks. They started in the 1980s with systems such as
Community Memory in Berkeley, California, Cleveland (Ohio) Free-Net,
and the Santa Monica Public Electronic Network. As the Internet has
grown, so has the interest in local access to local information and
local design of points of access to distant information and computing
resources. The community networks being set up in the 1990s are based
on electronic BBS software such as
* SoftArc's FirstClass, eBoard's TBBS, or Galacticom's Major BBS
package;
* Freeport software from Case Western Reserve University for large
Free-Net systems;
* University of Minnesota's Gopher;
* World Wide Web for many of the latest city and regional offerings;
* combinations of freely available software running on Unix and
Linux platforms; and
* some combinations of proprietary conferencing and database
software.

Although there is no national or international organization to act as
an umbrella for all of these systems, community network participants
are using Internet mailing lists such as COMMUNET and FREENET-ADMIN to
discuss policy issues, growing pains, and the rapid changes in
hardware and software offerings.

Many of the present community networks are labors of love; they draw
on the volunteer spirit of both technical and non-technical citizens
in a town or region. Having participated in many of the initial town
meetings where the energy level runs high and the desire to work
together is strong, I know the long-term value of these electronic
barn raisings. For the first time, many groups are talking to each
other in order to bring about a common goal--establishing a community
network. By working together, groups often times establish links
between people, links that are independent of their original
electronic networking goals. These are magic moments, but the
day-to-day activities and the financial burden of growing a system to
meet the demands of an ever-expanding base of new users can try the
unity of even the most energetic and cooperative organizing groups.



Who provides support now?

Besides the individuals involved in setting up and running these
community networks, there are various other entities that support
these systems:
* individual users through their donations and subscription fees;
* local businesses through cash donations, sponsorship of phone
lines, items to raffle or auction off;
* international companies that wish to promote their own products by
donating computers, modems, routers, software, and services;
* Internet service providers that see these systems as partners
(though some see them as competitors);
* foundations that understand the need for a communications
component for many of their grant programs, especially those
dealing with community health, education, and development;
* local, state, provincial, and national grants to meet particular
political or strategic goals at the local level;
* school districts, colleges, and universities that work with their
local communities.



What are the challenges to community networks?

Community computing networks provide a valuable service, but many
problems threaten their lasting success:
* the lack of stable funding sources;
* competition from other businesses and organizations with more
resources than the start-up networks;
* the increasing expectation of better (or at least not degraded)
services and connectivity on the part of the usersr;
* the goal of serving all users including those with orphaned or
underpowered computers, or those without any equipment or
training.

THE SEARCH FOR STABLE FUNDING

The National Public Telecomputing Network has been successful in
landing a number of grants to help various systems get underway; other
NPTN affiliates and other community systems have also received
government and foundation funding. NPTN is promoting the idea of a
taxpayer-funded organization akin to the Corporation for Public
Broadcasting where centrally archived data is fed to the outlying
member networks. Some states may support this idea, but given the
strength of the Bell telephone companies in Congress, it is unlikely
that such a proposal would survive a Congressional committee markup
session.

However, the telcos do not act in concert; some, such as NYNEX, have
opposed the use of any government funds for community systems, at the
same time that the US West Foundation supports systems such as Big Sky
Telegraph in Dillon, Montana, and Bell Atlantic has provided generous
support for Blacksburg Electronic Village in Virginia.

In addition to resistance from some of the telcos, support for funding
community networks is likely to face public resistance from taxpayers.
The taxpayer revolt that started with Proposition 13 in California in
the late 1970s continues to spread. Older, more conservative voters
are shooting down measures for new public education and library
projects if it means increased government debt or new taxes. It is
unlikely that the electorate in many towns would support a new tax
structure or special district for the establishment and maintenance of
a community network. Municipal support has come in some towns such as
Santa Monica, California, and Taos, New Mexico, but these are the
exceptions. Organizers will have to make a compelling case for the
dollar and civic value of these networks, and few studies or surveys
have been completed over the past eight years. Fortunately, Richard
Civille of the Center for Civic Networking is making pragmatic
arguments for community networks as a basic part of the infrastructure
needed for economic development. In addition, the Blacksburg
Electronic Village recently completed a survey that shows how
important free public access points are for users below a certain
income level.



COMPETITION FROM NEWSPAPERS AND CONSUMER ON-LINE SERVICES

The average household in 1996 will have information flowing in through
traditional channels and newer ones such as wireless, hybrid cable,
enhanced copper-based services, and direct satellite. Many businesses
and organizations will influence how consumers spend their time in
front of a video screen. Community network offerings will be just one
among many choices.

Another force making itself felt in the on-line world is newspapers.
Fearful of the telcos and cable companies, they are concerned with
declining readership rates and consequently diminished revenue from
classified and other advertisements. Some are looking to partnerships
with consumer information services to provide local information.
Prodigy, for example, is now working with Times Mirror and even has
a staff member devoted to community network issues; the San Jose
Mercury News has a less than satisfactory relationship with America
Online, but they do serve their local readership is some unique ways.
In addition, although some believe that the newspapers are so powerful
that they will smother the ad hoc, grass-roots community networks, and
Free-Nets, in Peoria, Illinois, and Charlotte, North Carolina,
newspapers are supporting the systems, and we should not forget the
past videotext debacles of the New York Times and Times Mirror in the
1980s. Just because a company has the money doesn't mean it can
succeed in the on-line business.

Many of the services provided on community systems are valuable to the
community as a whole, but they may not make much money. Commercial
services seeking a healthy return on their investment may avoid
marginally profitable services.

The premise of most community systems is that the participants want to
get local information--job listings, sports scores, community
calendars, etc.--and to exchange mail and participate in discussions
with fellow citizens. To support access to local information,
community network organizers have persuaded government offices,
hospitals, and local organizations to input their data and maintain
it. But many users are primarily interested in getting out of town,
that is, using resources located around the world via the Internet. If
the statistics show little local use because the subscribers are
spending time elsewhere and not in the local files and discussion
areas, the local agencies and businesses may cease to maintain the
data files, and the community system will be like a dying mid-town
shopping center where the tenants drift away to the suburbs.

HOW DO YOU KEEP 'EM DOWN ON VT100 AFTER THEY'VE SEEN MOSAIC?

The challenge of serving all users, whether they have a Commodore 64
or a PowerMac--or no computer at all--is complex and expensive. This
is a time when institutions that try to serve everyone are in trouble:
public schools, television networks, phone companies, newspapers,
government, general merchandise stores, large religious groups. The
successful ones are aiming at niches, sometimes very large and
sometimes very small. For a confederation of under-funded community
systems to try to offer low- or no-cost access to everyone is a goal
that is admirable but not attainable (for some of the reasons listed
above).

Many systems are settling on a text-based system for VT-100 terminal
access as a low common denominator. In addressing the low-end user,
some of the high-end users may be rapidly bored and move on to systems
(free or for profit) that offer a richer set of options and
interfaces. For this reason, some community systems are using the
World Wide Web or graphic BBSes such as NovaLink, FirstClass, or DOS
systems that support RIP Script. All of these offer a text interface,
but the graphic interface brings in more new users. To see what I
mean, people reading this with Mosaic, NetCruiser, MacWeb, or Netscape
should switch over to Lynx and see how different the experience is. On
some graphics-heavy systems, it is similar to just listening to the
sound track of an action movie.

Besides a choice of interfaces, systems have to be reliable even if
they are free. One community system had a major crash, was off-line
for over a month, and because there was no backup system, more than a
years worth of electronic archives of files and messages were lost!
This sort of casual attitude makes community systems look amateurish
and flakey.

How Do We Keep Them Running?

To keep the grass roots community systems running, I recommend a
difficult course. Some of the following suggestions contradict others:


* ensure that your membership is representative of the communities
you serve. Though broad representation can inhibit rapid decision
making, community consensus is a great strength.
* be inclusive rather than exclusive in the information and services
that you provide (you may be challenged by those who want to
censor or filter the offerings under the guise of "community
standards")
* make alliances and partnerships with governments, schools,
non-profits, and businesses to set up and maintain the system.
(The idea of an information commons or electronic greenbelt that
can be used by all parties should be at the core of your
presentation.)
* offer commercial services in order to sustain and subsidize
listings on a system will generate income to pay for installation
and upkeep of the Web browsers in the library and senior center.
* focus on content and services that can reside on another, larger
system at a commercial online service or regional network
provider. Not maintaining your own host computer can be
liberating!
* Even if you have no fees, place user support as a top priority.
Use the support you give to build loyalty and support for the
system.

This strategy is a far cry from the modest resources needed to run a
four- line BBS with a discussion area, the city council minutes and
school lunch menus, but if we are to keep our community-based computer
networks and information servers from becoming the equivalent of an
underfunded county or city hospital--an information source of last
resort--then we must face these challenges now. $

Steve Cisler is a Senior Scientist in the library at Apple Computer,
Inc. in Cupertino, California. His background is in public libraries
where he worked for 14 years before coming to Apple in 1988. Since
1987 he has run a conference on libraries and information on The
WELL, a Unix-based computer conferencing system in Sausalito,
California. He writes for Library Journal, Wired, and Whole Earth
Review.

Copyright )1995 by Steve Cisler. All Rights Reserved.

See Also