Computer-Mediated Communication Magazine / Volume 2, Number 1/ January 1, 1995 / Page 6

Can We Keep Community Networks Running?

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

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:

What are the challenges to community networks?

Community computing networks provide a valuable service, but many problems threaten their lasting success:

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:

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.

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