No more free rides on the community network

Has your jurisdiction been asked to participate in a community network? Is it helping to support one now? If so, you may be asking whether (continued) participation makes sense. That is, are community networks good investments of public money?

The classic community network- often based on the "Free-Net" model- typically provides free dial-up service to a bulletin board system with menu choices for community, services, business, senior, teen and government "centers." Most offer limited Internet access in the form of e-mail, selected newsgroups and text-based access to remote sites. Support comes from grants, donations, fees for some services and subsidized operations (for example, space in a university computer room).

Many community networks have now grown beyond that model and focus more on providing community information than on providing dial-up services. They are also more Internet-focused, often operating as community World Wide Web sites. Funding models are more diverse, including government-operated sites (often in libraries), sites operated by public broadcasting stations, fee-for-service sites operated by nonprofits and commercial services -Internet service providers (ISPs)- operated with a local slant.

Public Access

Classic community networks use considerable resources providing dial-up access. But running a 24-hour modem pool with enough phone lines to provide reasonable quality of service is expensive. When ISPs were few and far between and Internet service fairly expensive, it made sense for community networks to provide dial-up service. But in today's world of $20/month unlimited Internet service, it is a questionable use of scarce dollars.

Also, most PC owners are more than capable of paying for access. Rather than managing a modem farm, subsidizing ISP accounts for special cases may be far more cost-effective. In some cases, it may be appropriate for government agencies to provide free dial-up access to specific government services (for example, library catalogs, on-line permitting), but that is a far cry from providing general-purpose free Internet service.

In the past, community networks were often the only ones providing public network access. But today, libraries, community schools and even teen centers are providing Internet access. From a public policy standpoint, libraries are the traditional means of providing access to information and are thus the best place to provide public Internet services. They also have buildings, staff and relatively stable budgets, so the incremental cost of providing Internet access is fairly low. Consequently, governments that wish to support public Internet access are better advised to put their scarce dollars into their library budgets than into a community network.

Training

Community networks also traditionally provide training and technical assistance. Almost all provide at least some form of introductory classes, and many provide more advanced courses, such as Web authoring. Again, this role made considerable sense in the past. These days, computer and Internet courses are available in adult education centers, community colleges, computer stores and from numerous other sources. In short, there are now enough avenues for computer training that this role of community networks is no longer needed.

For those needing in-depth training (as part of a welfare-to-work program, for example), community technology centers have begun to spring up. Where governments wish to support skills and jobs training, CTCs are a more focused and effective investment than expecting community networks to provide such training.

Public Spaces

Community networks have always focused on providing an electronic home for community information, provided by a mix of individuals, organizations and government. While the Web has led to a proliferation of community-oriented information sites, there is considerable value to having an electronic "public square" to act as a focal point for community information, even if that public square serves as little more than a set of links to Web sites spread throughout the community.

Conveniently, this role of a community network is the least expensive to approve. Web space can be purchased very inexpensively from commercial providers, universities often donate space on existing machines, and even operating one's own computer is relatively inexpensive if its sole function is to host information. In fact, some of the most successful of the newer community networks -- such as the Boulder Community Network (bcn.boulder.co.us/) and Philadelphia's LibertyNet (www.libertynet.org) -- are primarily community Web sites (see www.civic.net/telecom/ for directories of other community networks).

The role of government in managing such sites is less clear. Clearly government is a key provider of information. But whether such information should be hosted on a government-owned machine depends on local conditions and information services budgets. In some cases, smaller communities can benefit from sharing a Web server with a community network, while larger jurisdictions are likely to run their own servers.

Government can also help legitimize a community site, either by using it to host government information or by linking to it from a town hall Web site. However, doing more than renting space on a community network (for example, becoming an official sponsor) can easily become problematic; the conflict between free speech and government support of unpopular speech is almost certain to become a political issue at some point.

In short, local governments should be very cautious about getting involved in a community network. Many of the functions of the traditional Free-Net are now better performed by commercial ISPs, libraries, community centers and community technology centers. Scarce public funds are more appropriately channeled into more targeted activities. Put money into your library and community center budgets for public-access sites. Put job training money into a community technology center. Put government information on-line, and link your town hall site to a community Web site.

Miles Fidelman is president of the nonprofit Center for Civic Networking, which helps local governments develop and apply local information infrastructure. He can be reached via e-mail at mfidelman@civicnet.org or by phone at (617) 241-9205. The center maintains a Web site focusing on municipal telecommunications and civic networking at (www.civic.net/telecom/).

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