Free-Nets: Emerging Trends

Free-Nets: Emerging Trends

Talk at the ILSDO Consulting Workshop, "Connecting with Technology" September 14, 1995

Gregory B. Newby, University of Illinois

I have good news and bad news.

The good news is that there's something incredibly exciting happening in communities around the world. Community-based organizations are developing Free-Nets, public access computer systems with all sorts of local information, basic access to the Internet, and a strong outreach mission.

The bad news is that it's getting harder and harder for these organizations to get started. Impediments to starting community systems include:

- A lack of funding opportunities at the federal and state level - Confusion over the role of a community system relative to various commercial Internet providers - A thrust on commercial and business uses of the Internet, rather than on civic or social uses.

I'm going to talk about both the good news and the bad news to help you to understand what all the excitement is about, but also to provide a good idea as to what some of the challenges are. I'll also tell you about what some of the most successful approaches have been, and give you my ideas about how to be successful in the mid- and late-1990s.

Let's start with the good news. There are more than 50 active community computing systems around the world, called Free-Nets, affiliated with the National Public Telecomputing Network. The National Public Telecomputing Network, or NPTN, is something like the Public Broadcasting System is to public TV stations. There are other systems that are not NPTN affiliates, too. Aside from the functioning systems, there are another 130 or so organizing committees working on starting systems in their areas.

The 50 active NPTN affiliated systems collectively represent the closest example to what many of us envision when we think about the benefits of the Internet:

- They are community based, not something created by big business or other organizations not of the community - They have strong ties to organizations including libraries, schools, Chamber of Commerce, and the local business community - Use of the systems is free, with an emphasis on outreach to populations that might not otherwise have access to high-tech tools of the Information Age - Funding comes from the community, through a variety of methods all based on value added to various community information by making it available electronically.

Here in Illinois, there are some great projects for community computing that I'd like to mention, with apologies in advance for those exciting projects that I don't have time to mention.

The Heartland Regional Network is based in Peoria. They were one of the first community computing systems in the country, after the notable Cleveland Free-Net. The HRN, which used to be called the Heartland Free-Net, has about 100 information providers online.

"Information providers" is what Free-Nets are all about. These are community clubs, businesses, government, or other types of groups that contribute information to the Free-Net for community members to access.

The HRN received its initial funding through a 3-year grant from the Illinois State Library which provided for equipment, personnel, and infrastructure. During the grant, there were over 20 libraries with free public-access sites in the Peoria area where people could walk up to a computer and access the HRN.

The HRN also includes email, network newsgroups, and access to some other Internet tools.

In Rockford, a new Free-Net started this year. It's called SinnFree, which is short for the Sinnissippi Valley Free-Net. SinnFree is off to a good start with getting information providers online and reaching out into the Rockford area and surrounding communities. SinnFree has received major support from Rockford Public Library, the Illinois State Library, and NILS. I'm very happy to tell you that the idea for SinnFree started as a class project of Carol Fox and others in my networking class at the U. of Illinois.

Prairienet is the system that I started in the Champaign-Urbana area with Ann Bishop, another professor in the Graduate School of Library and Information Science. We've just had our ten-thousandth person get registered on Prairienet, and our WWW server delivers more than 1/2 million documents per week to over seventeen-thousand unique sites around the Internet.

Prairienet has more than 300 information providers, 72 modems, and two Sun computer systems that together will handle about 200 simultaneous users. I'm going to tell you more about Prairienet a little later.

There are some other exciting projects around the state as well. These include Free-Net organizing committees, with a notably active committee in Carbondale, and efforts by library systems to help foster community development on the Internet. The effort I am most familiar with is the North Suburban Library System's NorthStar Net, a project to help organizations of all types in their area to place information on the WWW with help from libraries in their area.

What sorts of activities are occurring at all of these places? As I mentioned earlier, the good news is that this is exactly the sort of stuff that got librarians, among many other people, really excited about the Internet in the first place. Highlights of what's going on include:

- People from all walks of life are learning to use electronic mail, network news, and all other types of Internet tools - Organizations in communities are learning what sorts of benefits they can get from putting information about the things they do on a community computing system. They find that: . There is little or no direct cost involved . It's a great PR mechanism, and provides a high-tech image . It benefits the community . They can put high-risk or peripheral materials online, for example they can have the equivalent of a five-thousand word brochure - Democracy is starting to happen on these systems. County commissioners, city government, school districts, and others are getting email addresses and starting to use email, network news, and the WorldWideWeb to communicate with the citizenry. - Libraries in these communities are benefitting from getting a head start with using and accessing the new array of information resources on the Internet.

To sum up, the good news about Free-Nets today is that there are a number of vibrant and active community efforts to move towards one possible ideal of what it can be like to live in the Information Age.

I'll interject that all of what's going on with community computing in Illinois also makes our libraries look really good!

Now, let's start talking about some of the bad news. The short story on the bad news is that it's getting very difficult to start community computing systems. I'll talk about three different aspects of the bad news: funding, federal policy, and local competition.

First, let's talk about funding. It's no secret that computer technology, systems staff, modems, telephone lines, and Internet connectivity are expensive commodities. In the case of Prairienet, our annual budget for 1995-96 exceeds $150,000, and we get Internet access and other infrastructure from UIUC which would otherwise cost at least another $50,000. We needed about $50,000. to get started, in 1993. Since then we've increased our staff, purchased more equipment, and, among other things, pay $17,000 in telephone charges yearly for our 72 modems.

Here's a question for you: What federal grant programs have you heard about lately that could be used to help get a community computing system started?

The answer is pretty close to zero. What was starting to look like a great increase in funding opportunities from the various federal sources like the Department of Commerce, the White House, and the USDA has turned into a virtual desert, devoid of general funds to start community computing systems.

That doesn't mean that there are no opportunities. Foundations are one source that has paid off recently, with a new system in South Bend, Indiana, receiving $53,000. from MCI. There are also possibilities for pursuing educational grants or grants with non-Free-Net focuses by coming up with a project that makes use of the Free-Net style system to accomplish the grant's goals. For example, getting a grant for improving education, but developing community-wide services as a part of that grant.

And don't forget about state sources. The Illinois State Library has been especially generous to some of the projects I've mentioned, and many libraries and library systems have benefitted from Internet connectivity grants in the past.

The overall picture for getting funding to start a community computing system is far from rosy. Many systems that are getting started don't have too much more than a great idea which, great as it is, is already being done somewhere else. So, it's not a new idea, costs lots of money, and sounds to many potential funders a whole lot like what various commercial Internet services like America On-Line are already doing. We know it's different, and how wonderful community computing can be, but it's hard to get across to potential funders who are just starting to understand the World Wide Web.

When we look at current federal communications policy, it becomes evident that there probably won't be a thrust on new funding for community computing system development in the near future. So, let's talk about federal policy.

Think back with me for a minute to 1992. You might not have been fully aware of the Internet back then, and tools like the World Wide Web, Gopher, and friends were just getting started. But there was a lot of hope for the future of the Internet.

Al Gore had been elected, and he was a friend to high-technology. Through legislation introduced by Gore, NSFNET had receiving increased funding, and virtually every aspect of federal government and education was gearing up for a networked future. There was talk of making the Internet more accessible for easing unemployment, granting access to the disabled, and creating freer and more open ways of communicating with government. Do you remember that?

In 1993 I sent my first email message to the White House, `,' and received a very nice form letter auto-reply. This was only a few years ago, but things were different then than they are now. Big business had not yet discovered the Internet.

In 1993, enter Mosaic. All of a sudden, the Internet was much more interesting. At the same time, the NSF was specifically trying to get out of being the main source for the United States Internet backbone, and was encouraging commercial services to take over where the NSF used to have sole dominion and an Acceptable Use Policy strictly limiting commercial traffic.

What's happened since then makes the efforts of 1992 seem like a hopeful legend, from some alternate reality. If you can imagine a path that splits, the choice of which split to take a few years ago could be defined simply. On one side was a new form of teledemocracy where the government encouraged educational and civic uses of the Internet, and helped to foster community-based networking efforts of all types. Along this path would be use of the Internet for public debate, government information, and using the unique high-quality narrowcasting capabilities of the Internet to reach out to previously under-empowered groups. This was not the stuff of fantasy, this was the content of things like the High Performance Computing Act of 1992.

The first path is similar to that of the depository library system, the telephone system, and other information tools for which the law dictates and provides for equitable access and regulates the types of content, competition, and services which become available.

The second path was towards a free-market model where a hands-off approach to regulating the Internet resulted in a competitive free-for-all to develop fee-based Internet services. In this model, businesses would determine the shape of things to come, and it would be the ability to profit, not the value to the public, which would shape services and content.

Can you tell which path we are now on?

Within the past two years, the two biggest policy decisions I know about that have shaped the future of the Internet sound like they have nothing to do with the Internet. The first is Judge Green's decision to allow AT&T and the other telephone companies to provide content, in addition to providing connectivity services. This opens the door for telephone companies, of which there are 1400 in the U.S., to get into various forms of value-added data services.

The second policy decision was the removal of the requirement for cable companies to provide for community access to their facilities for local home-grown programming

Let me share with you a fact: More than 80% of all media in the U.S., including television, radio, film, magazines, and newspapers, are controlled by fewer than 20 companies.

Here's another fact: These same 20 companies, plus a few others like AT&T and MCI, are the biggest players in the Internet business. The Internet is already a multi-billion dollar business, on a growth path to becoming the infrastructure of the biggest part of the U.S. economy within 10 years.

Between the NSF backing out of the Internet backbone service and giving, literally, the Internet to MCI, Sprint, IBM, and other big business; the lack of regulation for Internet providers to require fair competition, equitable access, community services, or valuable content; and the focus and growth on business uses of the Internet, not social, educational, or civic uses; there can be no doubt about the path we are on.

Here in Illinois, Internet circuits include a mile fee for routing your circuit to Chicago or another metropolitan area, effectively doubling the cost of connecting a library in, say, Paris Illinois, to the Internet.

Here in Illinois, where cable television is not available in many rural locations because cable television was not forced to become available everywhere, as the telephone and power services were, there are many more places that do not have a local telephone number for dial-in access to an Internet service provider of some sort than do.

And here in Illinois, efforts at starting community computing systems are faced with the challenge of going against the current focus of Internet development by appearing to compete with commercial efforts.

To say that the picture of national policy for the Internet is bleak for community computing systems is a vast understatement. A more accurate understatement is to say that there is almost nothing going on at a federal level to encourage the types of free and equitable access and community-based developments we talked about earlier, and plenty to discourage these efforts.

The last piece of bad news, I want to mention has to do with local impediments to starting community computing systems. Here, there is some good news that I should mention first, lest you start feeling that all is lost. The good news is that there's a tremendous interest in the types of things that community computing has been about. The local content, free access, and various educational and civic purposes all sound great and will get a good response.

The problem is that every community has businesses that are starting to think about how they can benefit from the Internet, and might see you as a challenge. Local Internet service providers are springing up everywhere. Here in Champaign-Urbana, there are 5 or 6 local companies selling dial-in modem service, 56K or T1 connections, ISDN, and commercial Web space, plus local numbers for Prodigy, AOL, CompuServe, and others. No matter how you present yourself as a community computing initiative, you will have trouble setting yourself as anything other than competition for these local and national Internet services.

What I've just been telling you about is the bad news: The impediments to creating a community computing system, or Free-Net, in the mid- to late-1990s. There's bad news with regards to funding, federal policy, and local competition.

For the next few minutes, I would like to share with you some of the work we've done with Prairienet to combat or avoid these challenges. The first thing I'd like to point out is our Commercial Use Policy. Because Prairienet is based at UIUC, we decided early on to stay within the original NSF and UIUC guidelines for commercial use, which resulted in a commercial use policy with only two rules about what individuals or information providers can do on Prairienet:

1. No prices. Information about products and services is OK, especially if it has some value to the community, but no prices for products or services may appear in our menus, Web pages, or elsewhere; and 2. No transactions. Prairienet does not permit money transactions to happen on the system, including invoicing, credit cards, etc.

The result of this policy for our many business information providers is that they can get started on Prairienet with very little overhead, and eventually decide that their needs and benefits are such that it's time to move on to a service that permits prices and provides for transactions. Where do they go? To the local Internet service providers! In our area, the ISPs know that we're creating business for them, not taking it away. This works for Prairienet because there were not local ISPs when we started, so your actual mileage may vary.

The other aspect of Prairienet's coping strategies is to de-emphasize free Internet access as a selling point. The idea is to make community information and basic education about network resources your main selling point, without seeming to your public like another ISP. This is something that projects like NSLS' NorthStar Net are also trying.

For Prairienet, we have two major goals for the next year. The first is to go from ten-thousand people online to sixty-thousand. The goal here is not to make Prairienet the base for central Illinois' community information and network use, but to funnel people through Prairienet. To be their first experience with the Internet, with community information, and with some of the ideal scenarios for community computing I've mentioned earlier.

The second major goal is to go from somewhat more than 300 IPs to more than 1000. We know that the real benefit of Prairienet is not email or WWW, which are available, or soon will be available, everywhere. Instead, we need to worry about having locally-pertinent information that people see as valuable.

Not all of the community information we have will be received by people with their own Prairienet usernames. Instead, people will use the World Wide Web and other tools that get developed in the future. We're also working on some yellow pages-style directories for businesses, clubs, organizations, and other groups that might not actually be located on Prairienet, but would be valuable to have in a centralized listing.

In closing, I would like to invite and encourage you to consider working on developing some sort of community computing system. It might be like a Free-Net, with modem access, email, training, and so forth. Or, it might be a community-wide and library-sponsored effort to create a community presence on the Internet. Another approach is to work with local commercial efforts to foster civic interest and responsibility.

Whatever your approach, it's clear that libraries can play a crucial role in starting and maintaining these systems. It's also clear that librarians are expected to take a leadership role in the future with making Internet-based information accessible and providing basic help in using it.

The National Public Telecomputing Network states in their literature that they "cannot imagine a 21st century without public-access community computing systems." Today, I have tried to share with you a realistic assessment of the challenges, impediments, and opportunities that exist now, in the 20th century, to making that reality happen.

It might be that the assessment seems overly negative, but that's not the impression I want to make. It's true that Prairienet, and the other community systems I know about, are projects of almost mythical scale and scope. The success of these systems are a result of lots of hard work and excellent support of all types, but they are also products of good timing.

The times have changed, and continue to change, yet there is still a role for community computing, and opportunities to make some of our dreams for the future come to pass. I would like to challenge you, and invite you, to help shape that future.