Hometown Networks

Community networks can provide valuable information and services for citizens, but also pose several difficulties. Before you plan yours, hear what other communities have learned along the way.

by / July 31, 1995
August 95

Level of Govt: Local

Function: Telecommunications

Problem/situation: Running a successful community network is a complicated and often confusing process.

Solution: Careful planning and learning from other successful networks can help make the process easier.

Jurisdictions/Agencies: Cleveland, Ohio; Case Western Reserve University; Western Montana College; University of Montana; Dillon, Mont.; Santa Monica, Calif.; Washington, D.C.; Tallahassee, Fla.; Youngstown, Ohio; Columbia, Mo.; Denver, Colo.; Buffalo, N.Y.; Detroit, Mich.; Peoria, Ill.; Charlestown, Mass.; Cupertino, Calif.; Merced, Calif.; University of Minnesota;

Vendors: Compuserve, GEnie, Prodigy, America Online, US West, Hewlett-Packard, Apple Computer Corp., Soft Arc, Galacticom, eBoard, Sun Microsystems; Caucus; Meta Systems Design Group; Freeport;

By Blake Harris

Contributing Writer

The Clinton administration's National Information Infrastructure: Agenda For Action discussed community access networks as the "electronic commons" of the future, providing citizens with "a wide range of information services" and expanding "a citizen's capacity for action in local institutions."

Although much of the global information infrastructure is to be built by private, commercial interests, there is clearly still an important role to be played by local, county and state governments.

Mario Morino, president of the Morino Institute, a non-profit organization in Great Falls, Va, established to help communities harness the potential of electronic communications, argues that community networks can:

+ Bring people together within communities and focus their attention on key local issues.

+ Organize communication and information relevant to the communities' needs and problems.

+ Include people in low-income neighborhoods and those with disabilities or limited mobility

+ And most importantly, do what commercial network providers find difficult to do well - represent local culture, local relevance, local pride and a strong sense of community ownership.

Increasingly, virtual communities are based less on geographical location and more on shared interests and viewpoints. The Internet, for instance, allows computer-mediated social interaction between people scattered across the continent or around the world almost as easily as it does across neighborhoods.

Yet this, say community network advocates, is a key reason why community networks are so vitally important. Community oriented systems of some kind are needed to balance the emerging global net's increasing focus away from the local community.

"We believe that the local community is where our toughest social problems - crime, inadequate education, underemployment - will be solved, by the grass-roots efforts of the people who have the most personal stake in their solution," explained Morino. "It is here that community networking can take on relevance, helping people to solve problems by addressing the needs of their day-to-day lives."


While the Internet and commercial consumer services such as Compuserve, GEnie, Prodigy and America Online have received the bulk of attention, thousands of BBSs are operated by individual hobbyists, small businesses, non-profit corporations and even government and educational institutions. But generally these have existed in relative isolation from each other. What separates a community access network from other commercial networks or BBSs is that it will usually seek to bring the local community online in an integrated, all-encompassing fashion.

On some of the more established community networks, dozens of local civic and charitable organizations make information available to the general public. And some community networks also invite the participation of businesses in sections set aside to help foster increased employment and prosperity. Beginning in 1986 with The Cleveland Free-Net, each system has had its own unique story of evolution and support.


The Cleveland Free-Net began as an Apple II BBS under the wing of Case Western Reserve University Medical School. Through publicity and effective fund-raising efforts by Tom Grundner and others in the community, it has grown to a large distributed UNIX system with dozens of dial-up lines and Internet connections for those users outside the Cleveland area.


The Big Sky Telegraph in Dillon, Mont., was launched in 1988 by Frank and Regina Odasz, under the auspices of Western Montana College and the University of Montana, and with the help of grants from the M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust and US West. It was originally designed to support and interconnect rural educators in western Montana with e-mail, computer conferencing, a software library, and access to a wide variety of online educational and health-care databases and services. However, it soon expanded to involve the community in general and become something of a model for rural systems.


The Public Electronic Network (PEN) in Santa Monica, Calif., established in 1989, was one of the first community systems supported by a local government and for a time attracted international attention because of its early use of online discussion groups and databases of local information. In addition to dial-up connections, there were numerous public access terminals in the libraries to provide access for those without computers. Hewlett-Packard provided corporate donations, there were options for residents to "buy-in" to help with financial costs, and Meta-Systems Design Group in Washington, D.C., developed the Caucus software the system ran on.

The lessons of these early pioneers and dozens of other community networks that have been launched since provide a wealth of technical and operational experience upon which new emerging systems can draw.


Technically, there is now no shortage of relatively inexpensive or even free off-the-shelf software to get a community network up and running. Rural community networks today generally are using electronic BBS software such as SoftArc's FirstClass, Galacticom's Major BBS or eBoard's TBBS and run both on PCs or Macs.

Larger systems frequently use Freeport software from Case Western Reserve University, University of Minnesota's Gopher, combinations of freely available software running on UNIX and Linux platforms, as well as other commercial products. If Internet access in some fashion is provided, small systems can maintain a UUCP or SLIP/PPP connection that generally costs the network around $70 a month. However, many have upgraded to a 56K T1 line that costs around $800 a month to provide users with more Internet connectivity.


The Free-Net model, currently the mostly widely used approach to community networking, is promoted by the National Public Telecomputing Network (NPTN), a non-profit organization founded by Cleveland Free-Net's Tom Grundner to develop public-access community computer systems. Free-Nets in America include systems in Washington, D.C.; Tallahassee, Fla; Columbia, Mo.; Denver; Buffalo, N.Y.; Detroit; Peoria, Ill.; and Youngstown, Ohio.

NPTN helps to bring community computer systems online with organizational and technical support as well as providing software, information and communication services to supplement information systems are able to generate on their own.

NPTN has several information kits to help communities launch a community network efficiently and cheaply. A Rural Information Network kit, for instance, is designed to assist rural communities with a population base of less than 50,000 to organize and develop a Free-Net. And they have developed a "shrink wrapped" 8-12 line system, based on off-the-shelf Macintosh technology that uses either FirstClass or NovaLink software and UUCP out-bound links. In most areas, including all hardware and software, the first year cost is around $15,000.

A Metro Information Network kit assists suburban and urban communities with populations greater than 50,000 to organize and develop a system. The purpose of these kits is to help communities select the right mix of people to get a community network started, pick the right hardware and software platforms to meet community needs, formulate a realistic budget, and effectively raise funds to launch the system, usually around $125,000 to $150,000 for first year costs, including hardware such as Sun Sparc-10's or Sparc-20's.


Today, through experience, even Free-Nets are changing their ideas about themselves. Where once universal free access and non-commerciality were considered sacred, today Free-Nets frequently charge yearly subscription fees and organizers now discuss the possibility of making Free-Nets partly commercial and partly free.

Depending upon a community's needs, a worthwhile alternative to explore is linking up with a commercial provider rather than building and maintaining one's own system. "My advice, unless you're already running a 24-hour computer center, is don't do it yourself," said Miles Fidelman, director of the Center for Civic Networking in Charlestown, Mass. "My belief is that if you're not equipped to provide `industrial strength' service, contract with an outside provider who can. I define this as 24-hour staffing (the big expense), redundant network connections, backup hardware, and so on. We're talking about $300,000 a year minimum for adequate service, most of this in staff cost."

"Many of the present community networks are labors of love and they draw on the volunteer spirit of both technical and non-technical citizens in a town or region," explained Steve Cisler, senior scientist at the Apple Computers Library in Cupertino, Calif., and author of numerous articles and papers on information policy and community networks. "Nevertheless, 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 kind of thing makes community systems look amateurish and flaky."

The city of Merced in California is one example that has gone the route of working with a commercial provider, linking up with Prodigy.


Any grass-roots action group is likely to be in opposition to other groups and when presented the opportunity, these groups inevitably take their battles into cyberspace. If conflicts are not well handled, an entire system can become embroiled in the fallout.

Public discussion conferences in Santa Monica's PEN "came to be dominated by long-winded, abrasive participants who spent hours online flaming city officials and each other," said Cisler, because city officials were reluctant - for First Amendment reasons - to provide controlling moderators for the discussion groups.

Ken Phillips, PEN's first system administrator, told Cisler on his last day on the job there that he would do things much differently in organizing any future community networks. He would, for example, appoint moderators for all conferences and would also initiate modest fees for system use.

Why users access the system is particularly important. "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 about local concerns with fellow citizens," said Cisler. "To support access to local information, community network organizers have to persuade government offices, hospitals and local organizations to input their data and maintain it. But many users are primarily interested in using these systems to get out of town to access resources around the world via the Internet."

"If subscribers are spending time elsewhere on Internet 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."


Today, there is a growing interest in electronic communications from all levels of government, and more grant money is becoming available for community networks. There are now half a dozen conferences a year that focus on community networks, including ones organized for government leaders by The Innovation Groups (IG) and the Center for Civic Networking. IG also started a newsletter in January, the Local Government Newsnet, to focus on local government and electronic communication services to the public. IG also runs LGNet on Prodigy, a bulletin board service for local governments where community networks are discussed.

But while community networks are entering a second generation, even the most long-lived and stable networks are facing new problems, many of which boil down to one word
Blake Harris Editor
Platforms & Programs