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Review of Community Networks

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Review of Community Networks, by Ken George ([email protected]), MC503 Communication Research, Emerson College, Dr. H.H. Frederick ([email protected])


This report is a cursory review of community networks. I was introduced to the latter only recently and quite by accident. After hours of 'surfing' the 'net' for inspiration for a topic, I stumbled across the Cleveland Community Free-Net. This not-for-profit computer network provides e-mail, internet access and other similar amenities, to groups that are often underserved by on-line commercial services. For example, the network is home to a mental health conferencing section complete with discussion groups and information about locally available services. As a former mental health worker myself, I've often observed how mentally ill individuals are disempowered by the impersonal institutional nature still common to much of the mental health system. Here on the Cleveland Free-Net, mental health consumers have their own 'space' for discussion, a place free from the institutional constraints they face in the 'real' world. I'm not certain if this constitutes a "virtual community" as defined by Howard Rheingold.1 I am convinced however, that community networks are repositories of empowering social interactions and may rehabilitate the waning civic and social ethos common to many communities across this nation.

I've conceived of this report as a 'guide' for those unfamiliar with community networks. I've endeavored to explain this phenomenon with a minimum of the jargon common to the social sciences. My operative assumption is that the reader knows little about community computing. I hope the reader finds what's on these pages interesting enough to want to learn more. For those so inclined, I've listed some sources that can be mined for further information. In keeping with the true spirit of the "paperless" nature of this assignment, all citations are from materials published on-line. The majority of these are from network postings located under various menu items. A few items cited are actual articles that were published in electronic form.


In order to understand the bulk of the following review of community nets, it is important that the reader have a basic conceptual understanding of the technology involved. I found the following to be the most comprehensible. It is from the National Public Telecomputing Network (NPTN), a national organization that aspires to be the PBS of community networking:

"A multi-user computer is established at a central location in a given area and the machine is connected to the telephone system through a series of devices called modems. Running on the machine is a computer program that provides its users with everything from electronic mail services to information about health care, education technology, government, recreation, or just about anything else the host operators would like to place on the machine."2

All across the country communities are being wired to these "multi-user computers." Networks are sprouting in small hamlets and big cities alike. The National Telecomputing Network has 46 affiliated systems in the U.S. alone, as well as over 100 organizing committees nationwide.3 And this in addition to an incalculable number of unaffiliated community systems! There is a marked qualitative difference among these nets with small systems cobbled together on a shoe string defining one end of the spectrum and the powerful unix systems run by paid professional staff defining the other end. And though a standard network for a medium size city can cost in the six figure range, the smaller systems appropriate to the needs of rural regions, can be had for a mere fraction of that cost. In fact, the NPTN offers instructional designs of "mini Free-Nets" that utilize Macintosh technology.4 And the diffusion of this affordable computer technology is fueling the growth in community nets all over the world.

A good starting point for considering the significance of networks, is to think of the latter as critical components of what Richard Civille, of the Center for Civic Networking, calls the "community information infrastructure."5 This consists of the sources and conduits of information for a community. Civille postulates that this infrastructure, like its brick and mortar counterpart, is vital to socioeconomic development.6 All communities have such infrastructures. In North American communities it tends to be very developed and complex, consisting of a number of different sources. A hallmark characteristic of this infrastructure is private ownership. Its few member components still in public hands (e.g. libraries, community broadcasting stations) are being gradually shifted to the private sector. The structure of ownership is changing as well. Media properties are owned by international conglomerations with economic interests that transcend the specific needs of the community. This internationalizing economy produces disparities in employment, wages, and--perhaps most significantly in an information age--disparities in access and possession of information assets. Large pockets of the information poor inhabit an information driven economy. The former can be measured in the amount of the population without on-line services, cable, libraries and a host of other informational necessities.

Community networks can address some of the more egregious disparities within the information infrastructure. They are in many ways similar to public libraries. The latter provided generations of Americans access to books and knowledge when a private education was beyond their reach. Networks are repositories of knowledge accessible to citizens being by passed by the commercialization of the information superhighway. Like libraries, community nets are controlled by the citizens of the local community and not external economic interests. This empowers the community to shape the application of the medium--not vice versa.7 This 'civic' ethos is common to all forms of community media. All are dedicated to claiming public space in a rapidly privatizing information infrastructure. Even the most primitive community nets are intersecting the social, political and perhaps economic dynamics of communities. The significance of these intersections is the subject of much debate by researchers and theorists. Those instrumental in establishing community systems believe they present an unprecedented means for empowering citizens. They suggest that the infinitesimal amount of information at the users disposal, in addition to the interactive nature of the medium, make it ideally suited to this purpose. An on-line position paper published by the Center for Civic Networking contains some cogent examples of this empowering capacity:

  • Homeless individuals in California connect with and successfully lobby the local government to fund public showers and other basic amenities.8
  • Public libraries in Youngstown, Ohio provide low income individuals access to a local community Free- Net that contains information about area services. No prior computer experience is required to access the system.9
  • The Big Sky Telegraph Company in Montana connects school children in rural localities to educational resources at MIT.10

The following pages contain brief profiles of two community computer systems that are on the cutting edge of community computing. One, is the Cleveland Free-Net, a standard bearer in the community network movement; the realization of a vision of utilizing technology to transcend the social and economic forces that rend communities. The other, the Blacksburg Electronic Village, demonstrates the positive end results of an alliance between business, civic and educational institutions. While both embrace the vision of citizen empowerment, they approach the latter from slightly different perspectives that is evident in the ethos of each respective network. I've dichotomized these differences (perhaps unfairly) as the 'civic' orientation vs. the 'commercial' orientation. Certainly, this is an oversimplification, as both networks contain a range of applications, utilizations and activities that intersect both orientations in one form or another. However, my general impression is that the Blacksburg project speaks of empowerment as the emancipating consequence of technology. The Cleveland Free-Net seems to espouse a philosophy of empowerment far more challenging to powerful economic interests.

The Civic Paradigm: The Cleveland Free-Net

The Cleveland Free-Net(CFN) is in the vanguard of public community computing. What started as an experiment in making medical information publicly accessible over an electronic bulletin board system, evolved into a sophisticated community network serving over 30,000 citizens in the Greater Cleveland area.11 The success of this 'experiment' helped to spawn the community network movement. In fact, I believe the NPTN, which provides a great deal of organizational structure to the later, itself arose out of the CFN. The growth of this network is only partly attributable to the institutional resources of Case Western Reserve, which supplied the information infrastructure to get the network up and running. It is the remarkable leadership of Dr. Tom Grundner that is centrally responsible for the expansion of the CFN. It was Grundner who initiated the original bulletin board experiment out of Case Western's School of Medicine and who continues to guide the direction of community networking in his current capacity as President and Chairman of the NPTN.12

The influence of the NPTN is manifest in everything from language--it popularized the term "Free-Net" (now a legally protected "service mark" of the NPTN)--to the "electric city motifs" universal to community nets.13 The latter is an extremely user friendly system of organizing information on the network. Upon entering the system, the user is shown a main menu display of items analogous to institutions common to a city, i.e., a "post office", a "government center," a "medical arts building" a "public space" etc. If, for instance, the user wanted information about various elected officials, accessing the "government center" would reveal a list of submenus ( city, state. federal) that direct the user along a sequential path towards the information requested. This innovation has allowed greater access to members of the population with minimal computer literacy skills. In fact, it is this commitment to access that represents the paramount influence of the NPTN. This moral vision--actualized as a concerted endeavor to provide access to all citizens--continues to define and influence the community net movement all over the world and is the benchmark by which the success of a given system is measured. The NPTN states that the key to that success is the level of community participation in operating the Free-Net.14 Such participation, often for little or no renumeration, translates into less expensive rates for users. The CFN appears to have achieved an optimal level of support from citizen volunteers and institutional assistance to enable it to keep its rates affordable to a segment of Cleveland's working class, who subscribe in numbers equal to that of middle class users.15

As the CFN represents the 'crown jewel' of community networks, it is unreasonable to expect other networks to duplicate its success. The smaller, rurally based systems lack the institutional and infrastructure resources available to some of their urban

counterparts.  CFN is a model to be emulated, not copied.  Just as

apprentice painters study the great masters, the CFN should be the required course of study for those intending to get involved in the community net business. Whether this civic paradigm is able to survive a Darwinian jungle inhabited by telecommunications conglomerates with their videotex dialing services is problematic. That its survival is crucial to civil society there should be no doubt.

    ***The Cleveland Community Free-Net***
        Visitor Login: Select #2 at the first menu.
        Number of active accounts: Over 35,000
        Area of service: Greater Cleveland

                Main Menu
        1. The Administration Building
        2. The Post Office
        3. The Public Square
        4. The Courthouse & Government Center
        5. The Arts Building
        6. Science & Technology Center
        7. The Medical Arts Building
        8. The Schoolhouse
        9. The Community Center & Recreational Area
        10. The Business and Industrial Park
        11. The Library
        12. University Circle
        13. The Teleport
        14. The Communications Center
        15. NPTN/USA TODAY Headline News

Some Noteworthy Features: Under the Medical Arts Building see "The Byte Animal Clinic" a great way to have your pet's Veterinarian needs attended to on-line. Also, see the Psychology and Mental Health area where mental health professionals provide mental health services on-line. Further worth exploring is the courthouse, which contains a law clinic in which practicing attorneys answer legal questions.

The Consumer Paradigm: Blacksburg Electronic Village

Blacksburg is a tiny village nestled in the shadow of the Appalachian Mountains in Southwestern Virginia. The "electronic village" is the result of a collaboration of a number of parties motivated by self-interest. The "core partners" of this collaboration are Blacksburg, Virginia Tech and Bell Atlantic.16 This public-private initiative, of the kind so effusively praised by Clinton Administration officials, endeavors to eventually wire the entire village to a "21st century" information infrastructure ." The "infrastructure" is provided courtesy of Bell Atlantic. In return, aside from the positive publicity generated as a result of their participation, Bell Atlantic gets a laboratory in which to fine tune information services and delivery systems.17 Many of the postings explaining the mission and objectives of this project read as though they were pulled from the pages of Business Week Magazine. The following is an excerpt of a description of the project:

       "Companies desiring to characterize and penetrate 21st century
       community-wide information service markets need a way to test their
       offerings.  They need to deploy their offerings into an environment in
       which a critical mass of users is actively using network-based
       information services an a routine basis...Blacksburg is that

The "critical mass" of users accrue the typical benefits associated with a network such as e-mail, discussion groups, and other services. Many of the latter are applied to consumer applications--at least that is what I gathered after perusing some of the village's offerings. There is an "on-line" village mall and opportunities for "consumers" to make purchases electronically.19 Of the various local menu items I could access as a visitor, the single largest one consisted of information and advertisements for various businesses! I'm not implying that the users of the electronic village are simply consumers intrigued by the possibilities of one-stop electronic shopping. I'm sure there is a healthy amount of social intercourse and stimulating discussion in the various conferences. Still, the vistor acclimated to Free-Nets may find this village cluttered with an inordinate amount of commercial 'stuff'. Obviously, this is one of the costs of this type of public-private partnership. The other -high costs and lack of community control has yet to be realized. For now, the various partners have maintained an equilibrium that benefits the consumer. Whether this will sustain itself over time--particularly given the disparity in power of the participants--is problematic. As localities rush to hook up to the "21st century," they should pause long and hard before entering into partnerships that may eventually exacerbate the very problems these partnerships were established to alleviate.

                ***The Blacksburg Electronic Village***

Gopher: WWW: http// location: Blacksburg,
Virginia area of service: Blacksburg, Virginia and environs
users: 14,000

        MAIN MENU

1. Village Gopher
2. About the Blacksburg Electronic Village
3. Posting Info on BEV
4. Learn more about BEV on the Internet
5. Local Government
6. Local Business
7. Community Activities and Organizations
8. Event and Entertainment Calendar
9. Village Schoolhouse  
10. News
11. Library
12. Health Care Information
13. Virginia Tech Gophers and VTLS

Noteworthy Features: The medical clinic provides an extensive database of various illnesses. The user enters in a description of symptoms which are then paired with a corresponding diagnosis.

Additional Information

For those interested in learning more, I suggest consulting the following. This list is far from comprehensive, but the various items listed should contain information that will point the way to other sources more specific to the readers' particular interest with community nets.

The National Public Telecommunications Network - A national organization endeavoring to start up "Free-Nets" all over the world. NPTN is a clearinghouse of cutting edge information on networking. They also provide practical advice and assistance to affiliated networks and citizens organizing community nets. For basic information contact: [email protected] or call 216-247-5800.

The Center For Civic Networking - An advocacy group established to advance the cause of a public telecommunications infrastructure. The Center publishes position papers, press releases and participates in the development of civic networking models. This group has been instrumental in establishing an experimental "civic net" in Cambridge, MA! An accessible resource Emerson students are advised to investigate! Contact: [email protected] or 617-241-9205. gopher 2400, WWW: http:/ .

alt.freenet- A USENET discussion group. I haven't noticed much activity here, but this could be subject to change as the community net movement expands in numbers.

Listserve- [email protected] This listserve discussion group approaches community networking from a highly theoretical perspective. To subscribe, e-mail to the address given with the following subscribe command: subscribe commnet_research first name last name.

I also recommend accessing the following networks. All are NPTN affiliates:

Alabama: Mobile Area Free-Net
            Visitor login: "visitor"None
            A rather "folksy" net struggling with scarce resources. Some
            very interesting regionalisms evident in the newsgroup topics.

Colorado:Denver Free-Net
           Visitor login: "guest"
           A rather advanced system offering a host of amenities similar to
           the CFN.     

Montana:Big Sky Telegraph
           Visitor login: "bbs"
           This net services a mostly rural population. It would provide an
           interesting contrast with the more metropolitan nets.
           Unfortunately, it is extremely difficult to telnet to and I have
           yet to get through.


<I had some difficulty with putting these notes in the proper format. First off, I'm not certain if there is such a format. I consulted the Tubarian text; the format most applicable to the nature of this assignment was the one concerning referencing "Material Obtained through an Information Service." I've adapted the latter in referencing the sources I consulted for this assignment. Some of these sources lacked dates, authors etc., consequently, the notes are rather sparse in terms of specifics. Another problem I encountered was locating a specific internet address. Much of the material I found was via one of the numerous gopher services offered by IGC. However, the source itself did not contain a specific "gopher" address. For example, I stumbled a cross BEV via "gophers by region." Once at BEV, I could not anywhere locate a specific gopher or www or other applicable internet address. It was only after e-mailing them for specific information was I able to obtain the address. Rheingold, Howard, A Slice of Life in My Virtual Community, on-line article based in part on article published in Whole Earth Review, June 1992, Whole Earth 'Lectronic Link, San Francisco, Ca, gopher

2Community Computing and the National Public Telecomputing Network, p. 3, published on-line by the NPTN, Cleveland, Oh, 1993, I Accessed this article via the Colorado Free-Net, Telnet:

3National Public Telecomputing Network: Affiliate Systems and Organizing Committees, an on-line publication of the NPTN, April 1995, I accessed this article via the Colorado Free-Net, Telnet:

4Community Computing., p. 8.

5Richard Civille, Building Community Information Infrastructure: Universal Service in the Information Age, p. 3, an on-line publication of the Center for Civic Networking, Washington, D.C., (no date given), gopher 2400.

6Ibid. 7Starting A Free-Net Community Computer System, an on-line publication of the National Telecomputing Network, Cleveland, Oh.,(no date given), p. 2, I accessed this via the Colorado Free-Net, Telnet:

8Richard Civille, Miles Fidelman, John Altobello. A National Strategy for Civic Networks: A Vision of Change, p. 3, an on-line publication of the Center for Civic Networking, Washington, D.C., October 1993, p. 3, gopher 2400.

9Ibid., 5.

10Ibid., 10

11Community Computing., 4.

12Ibid., 1-2.

13Ibid., 4.

14Ibid., 3.

15Ibid., 4.

16Blacksburg Electronic Village, Vision Statement, Chapter 1, Blacksburg, Va.,1995,

17Ibid., Chapter 8.

18Ibid., Chapter 5.

19Blacksburg Electronic Village, "What Can I do?" Blacksburg, Va., 1995,


The Blacksburg Electronic Village. A System of interlinking computer systems based in Blacksburg, Va., 1995.

Civille, Richard. Building Community Information Infrastructure: Universal Service for the Information Age. An on-line paper put out by the Center for Civic Networking, Washington, D.C., (no date available). gopher gopher.civic. net 2400

The Cleveland Community Free-Net. A community computing system based in Cleveland, Oh., 1995. Telnet: freenet-

Civille, Richard, Miles Fidelman, John Altobello. A National Strategy for Civic Networks: A Vision of Change. An on- line policy paper of the Center for Civic networking, Washington, D.C., (no date available). gopher gopher. civic. net 2400.

Community Computing and the National Public Telecomputing Network. Published on-line by the NPTN, Cleveland, Oh., September 1993. Accessed through Denver Free-Net, Telnet:

National Public Telecomputing Network Affiliate Systems and Organizing Committees. A list of affiliated systems of the NPTN, Cleveland, Oh., 1995. I accessed this through the Denver Free-Net, Telnet: freenet.hsc.

Starting A Free-Net Community Computer System. Instructional material put out by the National Public Telecomputing Network, Cleveland, Oh. (no date given), Obtained via the Denver Free-Net, Telnet:

Rheingold, Howard. A Slice of Life in My Virtual Community An on-line article of the Whole Earth 'Lectronic Link, San Francisco, Ca., June 1992. gopher