New Community Networks

Wired for Change

Addison-Wesley, 1996

Douglas Schuler



Chapter 10



Are we going to design and build circumstances that enlarge possibilities for growth in human freedom, sociability, intelligence, creativity, and self-government? Or are we headed in an altogether different direction?

  Langdon Winner (1986)

Community networking entrepreneurs face a formidable challenge: Are they part of a social phenomenon that is destined to stall or implode . . . or do they represent a vibrant force, capable of building on the knowledge they have accumulated, adapting to a rapidly changing world and community needs, and ultimately achieving positive, lasting social change in their communities?

  Mario Morino (1994)



The development of a community network corresponds strongly to the development of the community-network organization. Each organization will generally pass through eight fairly distinct stages of development. These stages — establishing an initial group, organizing and planning, inaugurating the network, running the network, implementing projects and programs, building strategic alliances, evaluating the network, and working toward long-term impact and sustainability — are discussed in the sections that follow.



If no group has already started a community network, the commercial firms will be able to write more of the ground rules and create a system designed primarily to achieve their business goals.

  Steve Cisler (1993)

If an individual or a group of people have decided that they're interested in developing and supporting a community network they will be faced with one of three situations. The first is that there is no existing local community network nor is there any type of organized effort to establish one. This is becoming less common as projects are increasingly springing up in rural and suburban areas as well as in the larger cities. The second situation is that there is an organized project to develop a community network, a situation that is becoming more and more prevalent. While an individual may have fewer opportunities to stamp the project with a personal imprimatur in this scenario, there is a greater likelihood that a system will actually be developed when an organized effort gets underway. Finally, also with increasing prevalence, is the third situation, in which a community network or some type of public access computer network already exists. The intensifying activity in public networking, including efforts of nonprofits, for-profits, and government organizations, makes it very difficult to know how best to play a meaningful role in the process.

It is becoming increasingly likely that one or more community-network projects will already be underway in a community. For those actively interested in helping to develop community networks, it is a good idea to begin gathering information about the project. This can be done by attending the meetings, talking to the people, logging on to the system, and getting copies of brochures, policy statements, principles, and whatever else is available. You may decide that the project is worthwhile and that you would like to start volunteering on the project. In the worst case, you may feel that the project is so profoundly misguided that you want to devote your energies to defeating it! I would caution you, however, to give community-network developers some benefit of the doubt as you are assessing their project. Developing a system democratically with limited resources and a largely volunteer base is far from easy. If the system needs repair, maybe you can help fix it! I'd also caution against going into the first meeting and assuming that you know everything and that they know nothing. This most certainly won't be the case and the other people on the project (who have been working for months or years planning it) may not appreciate it. The fact is that you will have good thoughts and advice but that your input may be better informed and better received after you've spent more time with the project.

Here is a sample of possible questions to help you think about the project.

If the project is sponsored by the government, you have more of a "right" to get involved than if it is a profit-making enterprise (although it may be difficult to exercise that right). If the system is designed to make a profit, you may try to work with others to develop a low-cost access method for people with low income or to develop policies that promote free speech as well as privacy.

Whether or not community-network projects are underway in your community and whether or not the community-network (and other public communication and information) projects help support the community and democratic technology, it is important to talk to others in your community who are involved in similar concerns and struggles. You will be better informed and more influential if you can get involved in a group — ad hoc or otherwise — that shares your concerns. This approach is discussed in more detail in the next chapter.

Developing a community network is by definition a community project: A single person may initiate the process, but a single person's vision must not dictate the goals of the project. Nor should the absence or presence of a single person determine its fate. The members of the organizing group should represent a wide range of constituencies, goals, and skills within the community. The members should share a commitment toward developing the community resources, and they must be willing to work with others — who likely come from strongly dissimilar backgrounds — patiently and honestly.

Launching a Community-Network Project

If you'd like to explore the idea of developing a community network in your area, there are several available options. Many individuals and groups start their project by contacting the National Public Telecomputing Network (NPTN) (see Appendix A) who will send two useful books (one on starting community networks or Free-Nets and the other on Academy One, their educational program discussed in Chapter 3) and "If It Plays in Peoria...," a videotape (NPTN, 1992) that describes the basic Free-Net philosophy based on the Heartland Free-Net in Peoria, Illinois. The NPTN "Blue Book" (Grundner, 1993b) suggests that an "organizing committee of approximately 10Ð12 people launch the project and that these people form five subcommittees — namely Hardware-Software, Ways and Means, System Design, Staff and Facilities, and Network Relations (for coordinating with NPTN)."

CapAccess, the civic networking system in Washington, DC, launched their project with a large public meeting at George Washington University. They advertised the meeting electronically and were surprised (and pleased) when over one hundred people showed up. At that meeting they laid out the objectives for the system and the challenges that they faced. They also chose a project chair and established several committees and a chair for each.

In Seattle, the Seattle chapter of Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility (CPSR), viewed the NPTN videotape mentioned above and decided to help launch a Seattle community network as a chapter project. For a year or more prior to that, chapter members had discussed ways in which they could play a part in the community-networking arena.

After deciding on the project, chapter members began making plans to introduce it to the Seattle community. We approached Kay Bullitt, a long-time Seattle activist, about hosting a kick-off meeting at her house. Several notable and influential projects in Seattle had been introduced in this way. Kay, who was familiar with CPSR's "Risk and Reliability" work regarding the dangers of computerized nuclear weapon systems like the "Star Wars" Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), was agreeable, and a spring evening was chosen. Over 40 guests including representatives from the University of Washington, public television station KCTS/9, Seattle Public Library, educational community, business community, environmental community, minority communities, and the social services attended the initial gathering. We stressed that the project was just beginning and that we were seeking ideas and involvement. Some people who attended that meeting are now on our advisory board. We are also working with the public television station, and, most especially, with the Seattle Public Library.

CPSR/Seattle chapter members had familiarity with many issues, strong technical ability, and experience with networks and electronic communications. Since the chapter had never developed large, long-term projects, there were some gaps in organizational, political, and business skills. Meeting discussions would occasionally, and without warning, lurch suddenly from the topic at hand into a philosophical, political, or esoteric technical discussion. Fortunately, it was realized early on that the technology, policy, and processes should be driven by a set of principles rather than the reverse, and developing SCN principles (Fig. 10.1) was one of the first tasks of the project.

During this early phase, some criticism was leveled that there was no "needs assessment" of the project. Although at the time I secretly wished that I could have snapped my fingers and magically had a "needs assessment," I now feel that the project did not suffer unduly by not having it. For one thing, the group that was organizing the project was not experienced in producing this type of document. The job was too large, and the community itself or specific smaller communities within the larger community would have been better equipped to do that work. A set of principles is more likely to retain moral strength over the long run than a set of community needs that will undoubtedly change over time. Also, as noted in Chapter 1, a capacity-based approach, championed by Kretzmann, McKnight and their colleagues at Northwestern University (1993), is a more affirming approach to community problem-solving because those programs are developed by focusing on a community's strengths rather than its deficits.


Seattle Community Network Principles

The Seattle Community Network (SCN) is a free public-access computer network for exchanging and accessing information. Beyond that, however, it is a service conceived for community empowerment. Our principles are a series of commitments to help guide the ongoing development and management of the system for both the organizers and participating individuals and organizations.

Commitment to Access

Access to the SCN will be free to all.

We will provide access to all groups of people, particularly those without ready access to information technology.

We will provide access to people with diverse needs. This may include special-purpose interfaces.

We will make the SCN accessible from public places.

Commitment to Service

The SCN will offer reliable and responsive service.

We will provide information that is timely and useful to the community.

We will provide access to databases and other services.

Commitment to Democracy

The SCN will promote participation in government and public dialogue.

The community will be actively involved in the ongoing development of the SCN.

We will place high value in freedom of speech and expression and in the free exchange of ideas.

We will make every effort to ensure privacy of the system users

We will support democratic use of electronic technology.

Commitment to the World Community

In addition to serving the local community, we will become part of the regional, national, and international community.

We will build a system that can serve as a model for other communities.

Commitment to the Future

We will continue to evolve and improve the SCN.

We will explore the use of innovative applications such as electronic town halls for community governance, or electronic encyclopedias for enhanced access to information.

We will work with information providers and with groups involved in similar projects using other media.

We will solicit feedback on the technology as it is used and make it as accessible and humane as possible.


Figure 10.1



In all things that are purely social we can be as separate as the fingers, yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress.

  Booker T. Washington

After an initial group is established, its major responsibility is devising the largely social mechanisms that will enable people to come together and cooperatively conceive a community network and promote its general development. These mechanisms should describe the general decision-making, responsibility allocating, and communicating methods that will guide the group. The tasks faced at this point are as substantial and complex as those faced by a small company struggling to develop a new product. In community-network development the resources are generally fewer and the challenges are greater, however.

For one thing, a company or a government agency is dealing with paid employees, while the community-network organization is largely dealing (at least initially) with unpaid volunteers. In the company or agency, employees will have at least "minimal competency" as well as accountability in their job, can be relied upon to devote some established amount of time per week to their job, and often work together in central offices to communicate with each other and coordinate their actions. In addition, employees in companies or government agencies can be fired. These characteristics are not shared by community-network organizations that are run by volunteers who may work sporadically on the project.

Developing shared perspectives on both the vision and the process for attaining the vision is indispensable for success. Face-to-face group meetings provide a critical forum for addressing that objective which e-mail alone can not provide.

When the project first begins, it is tempting to jump right in and begin presenting the vision of community networks, deciding what software to buy, designing the user interface, or initiating any number of exciting and necessary activities. Since early decisions have a tendency to become "built-in" to the system, it is important that these decisions are sound.

When any community project is first launched, project participants will be highly enthusiastic and have a strong conception of what the project should be. Unfortunately, this strong conception may not be shared by others. Proceeding from this ambiguous and contradictory beginning may lead — among other problems — to division and hard feelings within the group, mistrust within the funding community, and confusion among potential network users. Developing a shared vision may be the single most important task that the group must accomplish at the onset. Moreover, this vision must be powerful enough to spark enthusiasm on the part of the developers, pragmatic enough to convince possible funders, and simple enough to be understood by the community at large.

To help support this process, Apple Librarian Steve Cisler describes the use of a spoked circle as a graphical decision aid (Fig. 10.2). The circle represents the "space" of decisions that must be made regarding the system, while the endpoints of the spokes represent the two possible ways in which the decision could be made. In his paper on "Community Networks: Past and Present Thoughts" (1994a), Cisler shows an example of the spoked-circle approach that was used by the Silicon Valley Public Access Link (SV-PAL) Project. The upright spoke, for example, might be labeled "architecture" and the location of the small circle on the spoke near the "distributed" endpoint depicts the decision to use a distributed architecture instead of a centralized one. A point on the middle of a spoke would indicate an intermediate position between the views represented by the endpoints.

There are no stringent requirements as to how to use the tool. Simply identifying the spokes can be an important first step, as the spokes clearly show which decisions are to be made. It may not be critical to determine the exact location of the spot indicating a decision. In some cases, a group may decide to postpone a decision, but it is a group decision, nevertheless, that ultimately must be made with others in the group. If it hadn't been resolved, for example, whether the network should be free to use or whether there should be fees, the organizers could say, "We're still trying to resolve this. Which approach do you think is best?" The tool can be used as a way to explain compromises or transitional circumstances by showing the current point in relation to the direction along which the developers plan to proceed. For example, when the system is launched it might be deemed necessary to charge users a small fee, but ultimately the system would be expected to be free to use. It might also be necessary to begin with text-only displays, but with a commitment to move to more advanced graphical displays when certain conditions are met.

The integrative potential and inherent plasticity (as well as the potential for multiple and possibly conflicting perspectives) of community-network services are shown very clearly and effectively in the description of possible community-network services that Frank Hecker, CapAccess (Washington, D.C.) activist, first published on the communet electronic distribution list (1994). In Fig. 10.3 these services along with their respective "real-life" counterparts are described. Without agreement on which services the community network is supposed to provide to the community, there is a high likelihood that the project will suffer from miscommunication and conflict.


Possible Community-Network Services
Network provider Providing a "raw" transmission facility over which people could send or receive any type of information and on which they could build higher-level services
Publisher or broadcaster Collecting, generating, and disseminating information
Distributor or wholesaler Taking information generated by others and redistributing it to others, whether end users or not
Library Permanently storing information for later access
Salon Sponsoring discussion forums on topics of both general and specialized interest
Public phone Providing "gateway" access to remote systems and services
Post office Enabling people to send and receive personal electronic mail
Personal office Providing people with on-line work areas, and document-creation and manipulation tools
Group office Providing groups of people with on-line shared spaces to support collaborative work
School Training people to use on-line services and resources, including those associated with the Internet
Consultant Assisting outside organizations in bringing in house the capabilities to provide on-line services and resources

Figure 10.3


Along with trying to develop a shared image of what the community network will look like, the developers must create an organization and set of processes that can work as a team to realize the dream. It is during this phase that the design and realization of the organizational infrastructure — covered in more detail later in this chapter — must be initiated.




From: Governor Mike Lowry

To: "Seattle Community Network" <>

Subject: Welcome

Congratulations to Seattle Community Network on the creation of this electronic forum for the citizens of Seattle.

The Seattle Community Network will enable the exchange of information and ideas between people regardless of geographic, social or economic boundaries. This technology will support conversations and relationships within the local community and among citizens of our extended global community.

Members of Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility and the staff of Seattle Public Library are to be commended for their dedication to providing public access for all citizens.


From: "James A. Grant" <>


Subject: Congratulations!

The Acadiana Chapter of Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility (CPSR) send you hearty congratulations on the inauguration of your local community network. We acknowledge your leadership role in the provision of networking capabilities to various underserved segments of the community. We look forward one day to following your example and profiting from your experience.



From: (Heikki J Korpinen, Free-Net Finland)

Subject: Welcome Seattle!

As not being able to join your 7th June party in Seattle I'll virtually welcome you all to come along to the endless interaction with rest of us online.

Best wishes for your fine efforts.


From: (Welcome To SCN)

Subject: greetings, Earthling

Thank you for your welcome message!

We think SCN is really cool!

We hope SCN does great.

(Reed age 8)

(Barney age 11)

(Isabel age 9)


Just as the birth is a critical part of the development of a human, so too is the inauguration of the network, when the system is made available for the first time and community members can dial into the system or use it via public access terminals. It is critical to remember that this step is neither the first nor the last step. Essential preparations must be made before the system is established to help ensure that expectations are met, and a redoubled effort must be made after the system is established to help ensure that the system continues to grow in ways that meet the needs of the community. Inaugurating the system — like a birth — marks the turning point between an idea shared by a small group and a reality to be shared by the community.

Getting the network up and running is an important and exciting milestone in the evolution of the project. It is the moment that the community network becomes real — an entity that can be described in an actual, rather than in a virtual or future, sense. Also, as with any birth, the situation is irreversibly changed. Events that arise after the roll-out are more pressing than those that happened before.

SCN's Community Introduction

The announcement that SCN was operational was made in a "community introduction" at the downtown branch of the Seattle Public Library. The SCN group, wary of possible glitches, consciously avoided creating a major event with extravagant promises and the like. Two early SCN supporters, Liz Stroup, the head librarian at the SPL, and Jim Street, the president of the Seattle City Council, both spoke at the introduction. SCN members had also solicited welcome messages from people all over the world and various Washington State politicians. These greetings were placed on-line for inspection while selected ones were printed out and placed on the wall of the auditorium and included in a small press kit. There were two or three short speeches by SCN volunteers, a brief demo, and the community introduction was culminated by three children from a local school who sent a short thank-you e-mail message to a mailing list alias that expanded to include the electronic address of everybody who had sent a good luck message to SCN. (The thank-you message and a few welcome messages are included under the "Inaugurating the Community Network" heading.) Although other communities have launched their network with more fanfare (such as having the governor of the state or Vice President Al Gore cut a ribbon), the SCN community introduction was attended by nearly one hundred people and seemed perfectly appropriate for SCN.



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... 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.

  Steve Cisler (1995)

When the system is operational, community members can begin to put information on-line and start forums. Members of the community-network organization need to train the community members to use the system ("mentoring") and help them solve the problems that inevitably arise. The community members who have provided community information on the system and have started forums will begin their own marketing and outreach, communicating with individuals and groups on the possible uses of the system. When individuals and independent organizations perform these functions, the network begins to grow organically in the community. At the same time, it is also useful to provide introductory material and training to potential users. The "road shows" that SCN volunteer Jim Horton organized at Seattle City and King County libraries were, and continue to be, an excellent vehicle for these activities.

Behind the scenes there are a myriad of tasks that the community-network organization volunteers and staff members must accomplish. These include everyday duties such as registering users, answering the telephone (and/or voice mail and e-mail), registering new users and establishing new accounts, distributing brochures, logging donations and putting money in the bank, performing backups of user files and other data, adding or replacing modems and other devices, and many other activities.

There are also less frequent activities such as recommending hardware and software, negotiating with vendors (of all types) and potential strategic partners, giving presentations, fundraising, dealing with the press and other public relations duties, dealing with policy problems that arise, and short-term and long-term planning.

Running a community network is similar in many ways to running a business. Community networks need to perform valuable services for the community in an efficient and cost-effective manner. As noted, this requires a combination of everyday activities as well as other activities that help respond to exigencies and prepare for the future. Extensive discussion of these activities is beyond the scope of this book. Clark Rogers and Brian Vidic have produced a pragmatic guide (1995) to the management of community information services based on years of experience. Since a community network is also a business, it is useful to think in those terms. Paul Hawken's book on "Growing a Business" offers many good ideas (1987). Finally, since fundraising and proposal writing are generally critical to community network development, it would be useful to consult some of the excellent references on this (Hall, 1988).

It is important to plan carefully for running the network, but it is quite probable that there will still be surprises. In Seattle, SCN's particular bane was user registration. User registrations were picked up at the post office or fax machine. After these were retrieved, volunteers recorded donations, established network accounts and passwords, and mailed the account information to the new users. Volunteers also sent out registration information to people who requested it by telephone or by electronic mail. When the user registration process was taking six or more weeks to establish a new account, there were lots of rumblings. After two months of continued confusion, a more effective system was developed and the waiting period dropped to two weeks. Although some of the challenges will tax the limits of an organization, the Seattle experience shows that a motivated organization will rise to the occasion and meet the challenges.



The real heart of the effectiveness of any community network ... is the learned ability for any given group to work purposely together toward a productive end.

  Frank Odasz (1995)

The purpose of the community network is to promote community participation. Participation in the community network can take two basic forms. One form involves directly using the network in activities such as on-line forums, including those specifically devoted to discussing the system and how well it meets community needs. Modifying and developing services and hosting forums are also included here. The second form involves working with community members and organizations to develop projects and programs, especially those that support the core values of the new community.

While providing information and forums is important, these activities only go so far. To truly develop community technology that helps meet community needs and builds technological literacy, network organizers and community organizations will need to develop focused programs that use the technology to meet their goals. In Seattle, for example, discussions have been underway with representatives of a coalition for the homeless to provide and improve services for the homeless, with the League of Women Voters to increase voter awareness and participation, and with the Evergreen Society to enhance the deliberative infrastructure of the state's nonprofit organizations.

Some types of projects may be more conducive to community network/ community action partnerships. Rogers and Vidic, for example, describe the "user responsive developmental models" including "community memory" or archives; technical assistance network; legislative connections; community training enhancement; and data access collaboration. The "participatory action research" (PAR) framework can be used to orient this second, strongly community-based approach to implementing projects and programs.

A discussion of PAR as employed in a "critical indicator" and a "social contract" project can be found in Appendix F. Each project is notable because it is participatory, long-term, and community-oriented. In addition, both projects have an orienting theme that is at once easy-to-understand, compelling, and action-oriented. Each project could also be well-served by an effective and ubiquitous community network.



To strengthen democracy, we need to integrate NII implementation with local organizational development. And not just any organizations, but specifically those that serve, advocate for, and are run by people from the parts of our society that are least likely to be able to buy their way into a market-driven NII that rations access according to personal income. We must think beyond the already daunting goal of providing service to large numbers of individuals through access points located in public buildings, libraries, and shopping malls. We need to adopt a strategy of working through and with grassroots organizations.

  Steve Miller (1996)

Community networks must integrate as well as empower. They must become woven into the fabric of community — not patched or pieced. Thus community networks need to work strongly and strategically with other community institutions and organizations. After all, these organizations have been working with the community for many years. Organizations, as Steve Miller (1996) has pointed out, are "multipliers" that "leverage any available support services" and are more capable than individuals of creating long-lived community assets. When organizations become involved, they often will conduct training, help raise funds, and advertise the system to their members. Saul Alinsky realized the value of working with organizations and community organizations were a key ingredient in his organizing strategy (1969).

Forming strategic alliances is not without pitfalls, however. Some agencies may want a monopoly on information; some may want to manage the entire network — their way; some may have a closed process; some may believe in censoring some voices; some may want to make money; and some may impose unreasonable and insurmountable demands. Nevertheless, with principled partners, strategic alliances can make the difference between a marginal community network and an effective community network.

Why might organizations want to cooperate with an upstart community network project? The main reason is that the primary mission of the organization may implicitly call for such an alliance. For example, early this century when C. W. Smith, the city librarian of the Seattle Public Library stated that the public library should be a center of public comfort as well as public education, he hardly envisioned electronic community networks, yet were he alive today, he would advocate for them, as a natural consequence of the library's mission. Organizations falling into this category generally feel that they can reduce their costs and/or improve their service by providing electronic delivery or access via computer networks. Another reason is that it may be a legal requirement for an organization or agency to extend its traditional role electronically. In particular, a government agency may be required to provide information in electronic form to the public. This data could include the so-called "crown jewels" James Love of the Taxpayers Assets Program has identified (see Chapter 8) or community related information such as that made available by the Center for Neighborhood Technology in Chicago (see Chapter 5). Or perhaps public participation or comment is stipulated as a necessary part of the planning process. For example, the Washington State Growth Management Act requires procedures for "early and continuous public participation in the development and amendment of comprehensive land-use plans and development regulations implementing such plans" (Section 14, SHB 2929) and explicitly states the provision for "... broad dissemination of proposals and alternatives, opportunity for written comments, public meetings after effective notice, provision for open discussion, communication programs, information services, and consideration of and response to public comments...." When such a requirement exists, it may be possible to force compliance through several means including legal action. Of course "cooperation" of this sort, however necessary in some cases, is too adversarial to be described as a strategic alliance.

When I first began looking at community networks, approximately half of the systems were associated with a university, a library, or both (Schuler, 1994). These percentages may be declining as more types of organizations become involved. There are surprisingly diverse types of community organizations with whom a strategic alliance may be desirable. Some of these possibilities are listed in Fig. 10.4. Any organization whose mission includes a strong degree of public participation is a potential partner. Any other corporation —communications, high technology, or otherwise— may also be supportive. This support may be based on a desire to build a market for its product or service or a commitment to support the community from which its labor force is drawn. Apart from merely using the network or supporting it on some level with equipment or dollars, the bottom line for an alliance or strong partnership is that both parties need to benefit from the partnership. Both need to be able to accomplish more of their mission with the alliance than they could accomplish without it. This benefit could mean involving more people in a dialogue with the organization, bringing more services to an organization (for example, introducing network services to a school), or simply generating positive publicity for the organization.

Approaches to cooperation will be as varied as the organizations themselves. Government networks can cooperate by making government information available on the public network, while community networks can sponsor forums on civic issues. Environmental and other advocacy groups can contribute information to the community network. Media organizations can work cooperatively on public journalism projects, while public access television advocates, League of Women Voters, and consumer groups may push information-technology goals on a political level. Libraries and community-network organizations make natural allies, of course, and some issues involving alliances of this sort are discussed in the next section.

SCN and SPL: A "Mini" Case Study of Successful Alliance

The Seattle Community Network (SCN) and the Seattle Public Library (SPL) are currently working together in a cooperative arrangement that benefits both parties. While the road to partnership may not be as smooth as this one was and the specifics of various community partnerships will undoubtedly vary, reviewing the stages in the SCN/SPL process will still provide a useful example.

People in the SCN project originally convened a meeting with about 40 people from the community, including representatives from the library. SCN representatives presented the early vision and asked for feedback. Reactions were mixed. Some people were not interested in the idea at all; others weren't interested in the particular vision that was presented. Yvonne Chen and Jim Taylor from the Seattle Public Library, however, were interested, and informal discussion about a collaborative effort began that night.


Possible Strategic Partners
1. Other community networks
2. Public and public access broadcasting and cable stations
3. Community (nonprofit and for-profit) radio, television, and newspapers
4. Media and arts organizations-especially alternative and community-based
5. Educational institutions-including K-12, community colleges, training institutes, and universities
6. Libraries
7. "Peace dividend" locations including closed military bases
8. High-tech and telecommunications firms-Boeing, AT&T, or Microsoft, for example
9. Local, regional, state, federal government agencies-employment agencies, for example
10. Electronic bulletin-board systems
11. "Good government" groups-League of Women Voters, for example
12. Economic development and anti-poverty groups
13. Advocacy groups-ACLU, arts and media groups, environmental groups, fair information, toxics right-to-know organizations, for example
14. Social service providers-including crisis intervention and referral organizations
15. Hospitals and clinics
16. Community centers-YMCAs, YWCAs, Boys and Girls Clubs, for example
17. Ethnic organizations-El Centro de la Raza, for example
18. Other civic revitalization and activist groups


Figure 10.4


Randy Groves of SCN and I started meeting regularly with Yvonne and Jim. In retrospect it is clear that this portion of the process should not be hurried (the first "working agreement" took seven months to complete). It is important that all parties trust each other and that any working agreements are clear and well conceived. It is also important that the parties negotiate as peers. As the two parties are very likely to be vastly dissimilar in terms of budget, staff size, and length of service in the community, there may be a tendency for the more powerful party to exert its will over the fledgling community-network organization. If pressure tactics are used by any party, it's better to address this explicitly or back away from the negotiation, as it's a good indication of how the organization will operate in the future.

The negotiation period offered an opportunity to size up and evaluate the potential partners' goals and concerns. The Seattle Public Library, for example, had concerns about SCN's staying power as well as potential negative publicity that might be generated by racist or other unsavory postings that could appear on the network. People working with SCN, on the other hand, worried that the library might try to dominate or take undue credit for SCN.

Any major agreement with another organization should be a legal document whether it is a letter of agreement, memo of understanding, a contract, or other instrument. The initial letter of agreement between the Seattle Community Network and the Seattle Public Library specified one year, yet could be easily renewed. The library agreed to physically locate the SCN hardware in the SPL computer room. The library also agreed to provide a small workspace‹desk, bookshelves, and so forth‹for SCN use. Since the project was just starting, providing physical space for hardware and personnel saved SCN quite a bit of money that was subsequently spent on a computer upgrade and more telephone lines. The library also devoted several dial-in lines to SCN. Most importantly, from SCN's free, public-access point of view, the library installed SCN as a menu choice on its public access system that could be reached via modem and from each of its 23 neighborhood branches. This important step ensured that everybody in the Seattle area had free access to a community computer system, one of the SCN principles. It also meant that SCN became closely dependent on the library for physical access to its computers. Finally, in any alliance it is important to include an orderly procedure for withdrawing from the agreement. If SPL, for example, were to tell SCN that they had to clear out their computer the next day, it would be very disruptive. By the same token, if SCN were to withdraw from the agreement, it would be disruptive to SPL.

The SCN and SPL relationship has thus far been very productive, but it represents only a beginning. There are many possibilities for new joint projects that exist now and will arise in the near future (some of which are described in Chapter 11). Representatives of both SCN and the SPL will need to work together and with the community to craft the programs that are most effective in fulfilling their respective missions.

Additional Thoughts on Strategic Alliances

Strategic alliances are not without hazards for a beginning computer-network project. For one thing, a computer-network effort could be sidetracked from the goals that it has set for itself by a persuasive or more powerful organization. When time is at a premium, advancing one aspect of the project generally means setting others aside. The prospect of a strategic alliance could interfere with the development of a community network. The potential partner, for example, could insist on certain terms in a memo of understanding that were in conflict with the goals of the community network. The desire to join forces with an influential organization could convince the community-network developers to modify their principles, policies, or strategy. A potential partner could insist that the community network charge a fee for services or that some information providers should be denied network use.

Other problems could surface over the use of the names of other partners. On the one hand, an organization might want to invoke the name of another partner to imply that they have stronger affiliations with that organization than they actually have. On the other hand, an organization might not always give proper recognition to other organizations in the alliance. An example of this would be accepting kudos that rightfully belonged to another organization.

Another possible hazard of an alliance, lastly, is the danger of the community network fading from public view as it becomes increasingly seen as just a "part of" another organization. As a matter of fact, a community network organization, over time could begin to lose its own identity and merge into the larger organization — playing in its political arena, kowtowing to its bureaucracy, and generally assuming a subsidiary status.[1]

A good partnership will be synergistic, with each partner undertaking the activities for which they are best suited. Ideally, developing an effective community network will be a natural consequence of each partner's overall mission. Fighting over turf, control, or credit can be very damaging to any project. However tempting an alliance looks to the community-network developers, they need to exercise caution and analyze the situation carefully. And if an existing alliance turns sour, it may be necessary to disassociate the network from the relationship.



Action-based initiatives are needed to explore the possibilities of community networking that will be primarily motivated by the imaginations of the participants. Non-obtrusive measures of the many levels of "success" need to be designed and implemented.

  Frank Odasz (1994)

Comments from attendees at the first "Ties that Bind" (Cisler, 1994b) community-networking conference, sponsored by Apple Computer and the Morino Institute, reveal the wide range of well-intentioned and ambitious hopes, goals, and expectations for community networks. An almost random sample of expectations from the attendees2 includes "... development of civil society in a post-apartheid South Africa" (Bowles, page 1); "... enable our community to plug into the great world" (Kimball, page 2); "... work with children and youth and are interested in how we can tap into and contribute to the resources of community networks to further our efforts" (Decrem, page 3); "... civic networking at the local community level" (Coffey, page 4); "... economic revitalization, environmental consensus building, and education." (Jackson, page 4); "... learning applications within the school, for the local community, and for larger virtual communities" (Newman, page 4); "... providing open forums where free speech is encouraged" (Figallo, page 5); "... bridge the gap that currently exists between people" (Bowman, page 5); "... helping K­12 teachers learn how to use the Internet" (Siegel, page 5); and "... ensure the participation of the neglected inner schools, to consolidate information in a one-stop electronic center, to create innovative applications of the community network to reduce social and environmental problems" (Marcus, page 6).

Without an effective evaluation process, developers and other interested parties won't know if progress is being made or if their goals are being met. An effective evaluation process will provide invaluable information that can be used as the basis to change or to maintain strategic directions of the project. It can also be useful externally. Being able to define, perform, and pre-sent a meaningful evaluation can be useful in funding requests, press reports, public testimony, and community outreach.


Approaches to Evaluation

Kathleen Gygi, a graduate student in the Community and Regional Planning Program at the University of New Mexico, has written a very good report on the evaluation of community networks (1995). In her report she describes two main types of evaluation: (1) the comparative analysis of computer-network systems in which individual systems (or generic computer-network models) are compared and (2) the individual-project assessment in which an individual community-network system is evaluated according to the goals or criteria that the organization or community itself has designated as important.

Gygi has suggested five dimensions for comparing community-network systems and models. These are (1) services, (2) capacity, (3) accessibility, (4) ownership, and (5) financing. Examining these — or other — dimensions is useful in establishing initial goals and design approaches for a planned system. In this approach, one looks carefully at data from other systems. The data would also provide a good basis for evaluating the progress (in number of users, for example) that the community network had made as compared with others that had been running for the same amount of time.

Gygi's second approach to evaluation, the individual-project assessment, places the focus on individual community networks. Community-network goals are often very high but the progress towards them is often reported in terms of numbers of registered users (or other numeric values) or through a small number of personal anecdotes. These methods are generally inadequate, however, as they insufficiently link objectives to results. If getting low-income residents to use electronic resources is a goal, then the total number of users reveals little or nothing about reaching that goal.

Ann Bishop of the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at the University of Illinois, proposes a six-step approach to planning and evaluation (1994).

  1. Choose objective(s) (e.g., increase Free-Net use by senior citizens)
  2. Make it measurable (e.g., issue Free-Net user names to 100 people over 65 in 1995)
  3. Brainstorm alternative means of accomplishing objective(s) (e.g., marketing campaign for seniors, set up public access terminal in senior center, increase number of on-line resources geared to seniors)
  4. Rank each alternative in terms of cost, feasibility, fit with organizational goals, other criteria
  5. Calculate final rank to select best alternative
  6. Plan for implementation of chosen alternative and measurement of its success.

Art Noble, an environmental activist in Seattle suggests creating five lists — needs, objectives, procedures, evaluation criteria, and budget — as still another way to link objectives to evaluation. With his approach, each individual need is linked to an objective, procedure, evaluation criteria, and budget, which, together, form a well-organized approach to proposal writing.

It is critical to be able to discern progress towards stated community-network goals. Although the goals will vary by community and by project, it is important that programs can be evaluated in some meaningful way. Focusing from the onset on evaluation methods that are well integrated with the rest of the project (such as those proposed by Bishop or Noble) will prove invaluable to the success of the project.



... 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 (1995a)

The aims and motivations of the community-networking movement are not new. They've been anticipated and rehearsed several times this century as people endeavored to build stronger communities. These earlier struggles were marked more frequently by failure than success and include the community-center movement, the battle for amateur (noncommercial) radio, and the fight for community public access television. Although each had their particular idiosyncrasies of history and personality, all examples offer valuable lessons for the community-networking movement. Success is not guaranteed. It is clearly possible that the community-network movement may implode, as Mario Morino has warned, or merely shrivel into oblivion.

As with any social and political institution, the shape of individual community networks will depend on many factors. Some are global and national in scope, but many are strictly local, such as competition from other services, funding availability, as well as the motivating principles, expectations, and interests of the developers and community members. Since the future is difficult to predict and even harder to influence, it is somewhat unlikely that the community-network movement will attain the high goals it has set for itself. Nevertheless we can sketch guidelines that increase the likelihood of success.

Network Organization Type — Nonprofit, For-Profit, or Government

Given the goals and underlying philosophy guiding the development of community networks, it is natural to ask what type of legal entity is the best vehicle for developing and maintaining them. As we will see, there are three main types — nonprofit, for-profit, and government — and a wide variety of hybrids as well. But before we consider what type of organization should run the community network, let's reconsider what sorts of things a community network must institutionalize. The short answer to this is that a community network must have principles, policies, and processes as described below.

While these guidelines don't necessarily rule out any type of organization, the current values and orientation of for-profit corporations seem to argue against this approach. For one thing, for-profit corporations are loathe to consider any outside influence, sometimes battling to ensure that their own stockholders can't place issues of social, ethical, or environmental concerns on annual meeting ballots. For-profit corporations rarely express a commitment to free speech or to forums for alternative voices. Many of the commercial networks censor on-line postings that don't meet certain standards. To be fair, until these networks can be protected from legal action resulting from postings, their approach will remain cautious. But traditional commercial media —newspapers, radio, television, and the like— have a long history of control, suppression of unpopular stories, censorship, propaganda, and manipulation. The cooperative model of a for-profit corporation where each "member" owns an equal share seems to have a better chance at meeting the requirements than the traditional for-profit model.

Government, likewise, has several factors working against it. The United States' propensity to spy on its citizens (historically and currently through modern technology like the "Clipper Chip") and its recent betrayal of first amendment rights makes it a somewhat unworthy recipient of public trust, although it remains more committed to free public information than many other types of organizations. Also, in the United States, the government is prohibited by law from directly funding public media, a curb that is intended to discourage state propaganda (but doesn't prevent the government from having thousands of public relations people, however). In both the case of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) and the public library system, the government gives funds to an organization that is at least nominally independent from government. Of course, in the case of the CPB, originally intended to air alternative viewpoints, these funds are often held political hostage when "objectionable" material is aired (and where public stations' broadcasting bandwidth is coveted by well-heeled media conglomerates). If the American people decide that community networks are, like free public libraries, important enough to be universally available and at least partially funded with public funds, then it would be desirable to fund them in such a way to avoid some of the unproductive political wrangling that accompanies current funding approaches.

Most community networks in the United States have been developed by nonprofit organizations. That doesn't necessarily mean that nonprofit organizations are the best vehicle for community networks. A nonprofit organization, for example, can be as exclusive or as removed from the community as other types. Furthermore, a nonprofit organization whose focus lies outside the community-networking area may be unable or unwilling to give the project the necessary attention. The chances are very good, moreover, that a nonprofit organization will be starved for funds and will be run largely by volunteers — a source of energy that is not likely to be sustainable over the long run. Although nonprofits have generally served as the launching pad for community networks, there are now a multitude of options available to developers that include variants on older models, hybrids, or wholly new creations.

In short, there may be no one best organizational type for community networks. The community network (as previously mentioned) must meet three requirements: (1) principles that address core values, (2) open policies, and (3) open processes. A for-profit concern is likely —even obligated— to put profits above the community. A government concern may be overly controlling, exclusive, closed, or patronizing. A nonprofit may also be exclusive and self-serving, while being unable to obtain the necessary resources and skills to run a community network effectively. A nonprofit community network that abides by the three requirements, with adequate government funding and independence from government control, may be the best hope for a sustained, useful community network. Unfortunately, current political and economic realities may not allow such a network to develop in the United States in the near-term. Many of the sections that follow in this chapter (as in the section on funding, for example) will discuss issues that directly relate to the ways in which a community-network organization can be developed.


Structure of the Organization

How the organization is structured greatly influences the development and maintenance of a community network and how well the organization can respond to both opportunity and crisis. The organizational structure should suggest both the tasks that need doing as well as whose responsibility it is to do them. The structure should support the project — it shouldn't be a straitjacket imposing overly restrictive and bureaucratic procedures — nor should it impose a hierarchy where volunteers or information providers are denied an opportunity to participate in a variety of activities.

The remainder of this section assumes that the organization is nonprofit and may or may not have paid staff. A for-profit or government-run community network will have similar functions, but may organize itself differently. (It is unlikely, for example, that a for-profit community network would have many volunteers.) In the case of a nonprofit organization, the relationship of paid staff members to volunteers and to the decision-making capabilities within the community network are both important considerations. In general, the community network organization needs to develop a shared vision, a shared plan, and a shared voice. It also needs to establish how work will be organized, assigned, evaluated, and sanctioned. And it must effectively coordinate the work of paid staff and a variety of volunteers who will generally serve on a committee or a board of directors or advisory board.

SCN Structure

The SCN Project originally established five committees that corresponded to five major areas of responsibility. These are based loosely on NPTN recommendations in the "Blue Book" (NPTN, 1992):

  1. Hardware/software for all technical aspects, including recommending, evaluating, installing, porting, debugging, and maintaining the system
  2. Outreach, for general public relations, working with strategic partners, publicity, and fundraising
  3. Policy, for determining policy and considering policy issues
  4. Services, for working with information providers, and designing system-user interface (including menu arrangement)
  5. Staff and facilities, for all considerations related to hiring, evaluating, remuneration, termination of staff, and facilities management.

In addition to the five committees, a Coordinating Council or steering committee, composed of an elected representative from each of the committees and two other members-at-large elected by the entire membership was established. Also, as negotiated in the formal agreement with the Seattle Public Library, an SPL representative was added to the Council. The role of this body is to respond quickly when necessary, to help determine strategic directions for the group, and to make recommendations. For example, the Coordinating Council may recommend that the group purchase a new computer, which is then voted on by the group. Although this group is not a board of directors in a legal sense (because the CPSR board is the controlling body until SCN becomes an independent organization), its functions are analogous to a directorial board. In fact, some members of this body may be among the first board members of Seattle Community Network once it becomes an independent nonprofit organization.

The advisory board is yet another body that assists with the community-network development. The advisory board is generally comprised of people in the community who are well-recognized for their contribution in one realm or another. For example, the SCN advisory board includes representatives from environmental, ethnic, Seattle city government, education, library, and citizen-activist communities. Although the role of advisory board members is often symbolic, advisory-board members who are enthusiastic about the project can actively assist it in many ways.

In addition to volunteers, paid staff members sometimes work on community networks. Although this usually has happened only when an institution like a university or library has allowed an employee to work on the network, the situation may be changing somewhat due to increased interest from foundations, government, and business. A time when people are actually paid to work on the system — a mythical and magical time in the utopian future for many community-network developers — may actually be arriving in many communities.

What positions would it be appropriate for paid staff to fill? In general, there are two categories: mission-critical and leadership. The mission-critical jobs include those that must be done on a regular basis or the project will fail. If funds existed and if volunteers were not available for registering several hundred new users per week, an employee might be hired to perform this role. Other mission-critical tasks might include rebooting the community network computer, performing regular back-ups, restoring user files, or any number of system-maintenance tasks. If the community-network machine were prone to crashing and if it couldn't be rebooted over the telephone and if the machine were miles away and it were 3:00 in the morning, then a volunteer might not be particularly easy to find.

A leadership role is qualitatively different than a mission-critical one, although many tasks (project-management, for example) require both roles. A person with the major responsibility for running the system — typically an "executive director" in the nonprofit world — assumes responsibilities for speaking for the group, developing strategic alliances, and obtaining funding through proposal writing and other means. The executive director is usually hired by the board of directors and generally is responsible for the staff and volunteer coordination as well as the day-to-day operations.

Communication and Coordination

Running a community-network project can be as complex and as demanding as running a business, with the critical difference being that many, if not most, of the participants in the network project are unpaid volunteers. For that reason, they don't necessarily work in the same location, nor at set times. For those reasons communication and coordination are vital to the success of the project.

Ongoing Communication at SCN

The most important lesson learned from the SCN experience in this area was alluded to earlier: It is critical for participants to agree on basic goals and processes before representing the project to outside people. The early — sometimes tempestuous — SCN planning sessions where major issues were discussed were ultimately very valuable. Hammering out the issues helped provide key insights for the project and helped construct a vision that was truly shared by the whole group. Having this shared vision helped the participants speak with the same voice and increased the solidarity of those who would be working together for the next several years.

A subsidiary issue arose, that of speaking for the project. Before a shared vision existed (and occasionally afterwards), an individual would disclose to others, give a statement to the press, make an agreement, or write an article or letter that purported to represent the views of the project. While this was never done maliciously, it was widely acknowledged to be potentially damaging to the project. Our approach to this problem had three thrusts. One, the Coordinating Council would review all written material (especially proposals) before it was distributed. Two, in meetings SCN representatives were encouraged to say, "I personally can't make decisions for the project —I'll take this issue back to the Coordinating Council." Three, people who were familiar with the SCN vision were encouraged to speak to the press and in formal presentations. Since SCN was not a closed organization, it was more susceptible to problems of mixed messages than smaller, more exclusive organizations. Yet after the shared vision was defined and some communication guidelines were agreed upon, these types of problems all but vanished.

The SCN project meets every month —on the third Wednesday— at a branch of the public library. Some community-network groups set aside half an hour before the actual working meeting begins. This is a good opportunity to talk about the general project, answer questions, and possibly view the Heartland Free-Net (NPTN, 1992), Naples Free-Net (1995) or other suitable videotape. After a brief welcome, attendees at the meeting introduce themselves and briefly describe their interests and affiliations. Each committee chair gives a report, and volunteer opportunities are discussed. This is followed by consideration of pressing business, such as discussion of new by-laws or a controversial proposal or event. At the end of the meeting, each committee meets briefly to discuss current issues and concerns, and new people often start working with a suitable committee. Committees usually meet at various times throughout the month. In Seattle, the Services committee meets two or more times every month, Hardware/Software meets formally once every one or two months, and the SCN Coordinating Council, which serves as a steering committee or executive body, meets once a month. Various electronic forums are employed, especially now that the system has become operational. There is an electronic mailing list for each committee, one for all project volunteers, and one for people who are interested in community networks whether or not they're working on the project. SCN also uses electronic forums for each committee. The medium allows a multitude of communication approaches among participants, a flexibility that can sometimes result in confusion. For this reason, it is critical that all appropriate participants share in each forum's information and expectations. Electronic forums, e-mail, and listserves can be very useful but they're not a panacea, nor are they a substitute for face-to-face meetings.



Developing basic documents is another important responsibility that helps to ensure long-term impact and sustainability. Documents include FAQs (a list of answers to Frequently Asked Questions), a statement of purpose and principles, and a business plan and budget (see Appendix D and the Web site for this book for some sample documents). Another important document is the policy statement, which addresses a wide range of complex issues including censorship, privacy, dealing with grievances, and establishing forums. The organization's by-laws and articles of incorporation are legally required and form the basis for system governance over time. Other documentation includes brochures and registration forms to distribute to the general public.

Expenses and Funding

We shouldn't be surprised to learn that there are financial costs associated with the operation of a community network. As Tom Grundner has frequently noted, "Free-Nets are inexpensive to run, but they aren't free." Funding is needed for computer and communication equipment as well as office space and office expenses. Funding may also be needed to compensate people for performing system administration, outreach, software development, and maintenance tasks. As we've mentioned, it is unlikely that volunteers and donated space and equipment can meet the need for professional service over the long run. Unfortunately, funding for community networks thus far has been sporadic and unreliable. It is necessary to find funding for the short-term, but it's equally important to develop equitable, reliable, and replicable funding approaches for the long term.

There is wide variability in the costs of running community networks. Many current systems are "church-basement" operations with no paid staff and a handful of volunteers performing the necessary tasks, while other systems have state-of-the-art equipment, paid staff, and a relatively steady cash flow. Looking at the current crop of community-network systems, however, may not be indicative of what the next generation and succeeding generations of community networks will look like. Also, since the systems are still in their infancy, many have had to rely to a large degree on the largesse of others. Computer manufacturers like Sun Microcomputers of Canada have donated machines to several of the Canadian Free-Nets, while Ameritech, the regional telephone system in the midwestern United States, has given substantial support to NPTN. US West has helped fund the Big Sky Telegraph in Montana, while Hewlett-Packard and Meta Systems Design donated hardware and software to PEN in Santa Monica. In helping launch the Seattle Community Network, the Seattle Public Library donated the physical space for the computer and the nonexclusive use of some of their telephone lines; Washington Library Network (WLN) donated the Internet connection; BSDI donated the UNIX operating system; and PCN Computer, a local retailer, donated the original machine. IBM as well as local businesses and organizations donated substantial numbers of obsolete —though usable— terminals and modems that have been distributed without charge to information providers and other nonprofit organizations.

Just as public television stations vary in scale from shoestring operations to behemoths in some metropolitan areas, community networks also vary in scale. The size and role of the staff and the physical surroundings and the sophistication of the technological infrastructure including computer, disk drives, modems, and phone lines can also vary wildly from location to location. (SCN actually started operating with a budget in the hundreds of dollars!) A staff could run a minimal operation providing bare-bones support, or it could be a more dynamic and proactive operation deeply involved in a wide range of community activities. We may find that community networks are beginning to shift slightly from an all-volunteer base of information and service providers to one where professionals are employed to moderate or manage certain services, such as the homework services mentioned in Chapter 3. A community network might also pay staff to develop services that are shared ("cybercasted") with other community networks, much as PBS affiliates share television shows.

Community-network costs can be broken into three main categories (shown in Figs. 10.5, 10.6, and 10.7): staff costs, office and organizational costs, and technology and infrastructure costs. These categories are general and can vary tremendously. The Seattle Community Network, for example, is running (two years after initial launch) almost entirely with volunteer staff and a "virtual office" consisting of a post-office address, telephone voice mail, and e-mail contact, but essentially no physical office space of its own. (There is some available office space at the library, and the monthly meeting is conducted in a public meeting room at a Seattle branch library.) On the other extreme, office facilities could contain classrooms, meeting rooms, and even an auditorium. And technology costs, of course, can also vary. Factors include the number of people served and the availability of technology, which could include Internet capability in the near term as well as video, audio, or more extravagant capabilities in the longer term.


Estimating Costs

How much would it cost to run a community network for a municipal area of, say, half a million people? It's difficult to get a reliable figure for this as it would depend on technology costs, staffing (and number of volunteers), and user demand, all of which are difficult to quantify based on current data. User demand, for example, would depend on system accessibility, user interest in services, and competition. Although it's impossible to precisely develop cost estimates, we can try to develop something that's not too far off, based on several assumptions.


Staff Costs
Establishing user accounts
Maintaining financial records
Technical Support
Bug fixing
Integrating new services
Backing up user data
Grant writing
Presentations and article writing
Developing newsletter and other publications
Negotiating with other organizations
Publicity, such as press releases
Coordinating volunteer activities
Developing materials
Policy development
Developing and conducting user surveys
Answering telephone, e-mail, and written queries
Dispute resolution
Software development
Professional services, such as education
Professional services, such as education Political work

Figure 10.5


Office and Organizational Costs
Telephone costs
Fax machine
Filing cabinets
Printing costs
Printing costs Postage
Book and magazine subscriptions
Miscellaneous office supplies
NPTN affiliation
Payroll service
Conference and other travel

Figure 10.6


Technology and Infrastructure Costs
Disk drives
Telephone lines
Internet connection
Terminal servers

Figure 10.7


Although neighborhood computing clusters connected to a central hub are a possibility, we'll use the general FreePort model of a single, central hub of Unix-based computers to which users can connect via telephone or Internet. (A connection via the Internet currently costs about one-hundredth of a telephone connection.) What about user demand? How many people who could use the community network at a given time would do so? Like our other guesstimates, this figure is difficult to pin down. The number of modems and telephone lines of community-network systems is currently the limiting factor on demand, according to Tom Grundner. For purposes of this analysis, let's say that one person in 200 people will want to use the system at a peak time. This works out to about 2500 users on-line at one time, or about six times the number of maximum users that the Cleveland Free-Net can handle.

A very rough analysis would include $150,000 for computer equipment, $50,000 for modems, another $200,000 for miscellaneous equipment and telephone lines. If salaries, rents and other expenses came out to $600,000, then $1,000,000 a year should be nearly adequate for a regionally based community network. Using a population figure of 500,000, the yearly cost per person would be $2.00 per person. (The National Capital Free-Net is worth noting here because of its extensive community use and professional administration and the fact that its budget is available on-line!) Note that the amount of money spent on salaries depends on how much of the work is done by volunteers. Obviously, if tasks done by volunteers were shifted to paid staff, the costs would quickly escalate. Of course, current data suggest that use may never approach these high levels. The Cleveland Free-Net, for example, has 40,000 registered users out of a metropolitan population of nearly three million. Santa Monica's PEN system has 7,000 registered users (with 4000 log-ins per month) and a population of 95,000. As Frank Odasz points out, no community has over 5 percent of the population on-line (although this figure may now be obsolete), and only a small percentage of registered users, say five to fifteen percent, are regular users. However, this percentage is likely to become much higher as the number of users increases, network use becomes cheaper, and network software becomes easier to use.


Funding Options

Developing an adequate, equitable, and sustainable funding stream is one of the major challenges facing community networks. There are two basic ways to look at the prospects for funding: funding by direct users or through indirect users (see Fig. 10.8). Individual users and organizational information providers that benefit directly from using the services (consuming and/or providing) on the network are direct users. (Note that this includes advertisers.) Foundations, government agencies, or businesses that benefit when other people use the network are indirect users. It is interesting to note how interrelated funding issues are to community-network policy and how subtle the arguments can be. It also is worth noting how strong the pressure becomes to charge for services when funding is difficult and sporadic.

Funding by Users — Donations

People who use the community network can help fund their community network in two ways. The first is through voluntary donations, much as public television and radio stations in the United States hold regular "pledge drives" to exhort the faithful to ante up. Although these funding drives consume a lot of staff time and resources, this approach is relatively successful in many communities. "Viewers like you" supply much of the annual revenue for the average PBS television station. If this approach covered all expenses, then other issues would be largely irrelevant. In New York City, community radio station KBIA is funded solely by user donations —they won't accept money from foundations or businesses. The National Capital Free-Net in Ottawa has been regularly receiving over $3,000 a week in voluntary user donations in addition to over $110,000 (Canadian) in government funding. It has generally been demonstrated, however, that voluntary donations by users are insufficient for funding a community network. In the rare cases where voluntary funding does seem to work, moreover, there is often an accompanying doubt whether the trend will continue indefinitely.

Another approach to voluntary funding that an enterprising community-network organization may employ is selling network-related merchandise such as T-shirts or coffee cups. And, of course, there is the usual panoply of fundraising activities including spaghetti dinners (or other food easily prepared in mountainous quantities), auctions, bake sales, and car washes. Resorting to these prosaic approaches may mean the difference between survival and extinction — and they're all familiar, time-tested, and community-oriented.

Funding by Users — Paying for Services

The other approach to funding by users is through fees. This model, while presenting funding opportunities, diverges from the original motivation for community networks. A free model for basic services is conceptually simple and clean — it doesn't require complicated explanations like many pay-for services approaches. People immediately understand it just as they understand other public, universally available, civic institutions like free fire and police protection, public schools and public libraries.

People of fewer economic means will be discouraged from using a fee-based service. Since we are consciously trying to involve all members of the community, erecting economic barriers would be nonproductive. Even if poor people could afford the services, they are less likely to participate without the knowledge or expectation that the services will provide anything of value to them. Another funding possibility — offered by many developers — is to charge for "premium services" such as a SLIP connection (to the Internet) or FTP capabilities from the community network. Unfortunately, charging for premium service create a two-tiered user community, where the "paying customers" who pay the community-network bills may begin receiving more attention than those using "basic services."

There are also pragmatic considerations to charging users. When an organization charges people for services, it becomes a commercial establishment in the eyes of many people and leads to higher expectations (and higher costs, perhaps for customer services and marketing). If, for example, the system went down, users of a commercial system might complain vociferously whereas users of a noncommercial organization, although disappointed, might be more forgiving. Community networks must strive to deliver reliable service but users will need to have realistic expectations especially during the early phases of a community network's development. Finally, if users are charged for services there is a layer of administration — including usage monitoring, billing, and accounting — that must be added. Debt collection alone could become a major headache.

In spite of these reservations, some community networks will still institute fees for services. There are a variety of approaches to these charges, and some may be more effective as well as less harmful than others. The primary way to charge for a service is to establish what the services are and determine suitable fees. There could be "basic service" (the same for everybody) or "premium service," for example. There could also be fees for out-of-community users, user IDs (the Free-Nets often assign user names like BB142 or CZ881), or an original registration-processing fee.

These could be a basic flat rate or another rate based on actual, monitored usage. Actual usage could be based on amount of disk storage used, length of time logged on, or number of characters sent via e-mail. The possibilities here are nearly endless, and people have spent a lot of time trying to devise the "right" charging approach. The more complex the pricing scheme is the more difficult it will be for the user to understand. Moreover, these pricing schemes introduce an administrative layer that must calculate the rates, send out bills, and the like. Staff people must also be available to answer questions about bills and make changes if necessary. The bottom line is this: Charging for service is not a panacea for funding concerns.

The community-network community needs to promote — for as long as possible — the idea that a useful and effective, free community-oriented electronic commons is feasible. The best way to demonstrate this goal is with actual working systems. The existence of lively, highly reliable, free community networks will make it more difficult for fee proponents to make effective counterclaims.

Support by Members

If the community-network organization is a membership-based organization with an active dues-paying membership, then there will be some predictable revenue. In keeping with the principles of inclusivity, the organization should be inexpensive to join, and it should be possible to perform volunteer work in lieu of paying dues. Becoming a member is completely voluntary and is an institutionalized approach to supporting the community-network organization. Normally, only members could vote for board-member positions or be eligible for a board-member position, although nonmembers could perhaps serve in some capacity. Before we advocate such a suggestion, let's look at the implications of such an approach.

The first question to ask is whether there is a reason to become a member or if this is just a donation with a different name. Here we are making a distinction between users and members, although there could be a large overlap between the two categories. Also, membership is not a prerequisite for community-network use: That would be a fee-based approach going under a different name. If a community-network organization is an advocacy organization as well as a service, then a membership organization is not only plausible, but preferred. If a person uses the system but does not support the system's goals or advocacy stance, that person should not be coerced into being a member. However, if the community network is organized and operating following the suggestions in this book, the answer is clear: Community-network organizations are inherently advocacy organizations — hence, voluntary membership is desirable.

The question of membership raises anew a possible connection between service and funding. If some people are users and some are members, then wouldn't it be natural to give the members a little more disk space, a private telephone line, or other membership benefits? As tempting and obvious as that approach may appear, this division of people into two distinct castes would be counter to the goals of the community network.

The final question remains as to whether a membership-based approach to funding would be adequate. Initial experience has been encouraging in the Buffalo Free-Net case and with SCN. Although local conditions vary widely and the effectiveness of membership-based organizations varies accordingly, nevertheless, a membership-based organization raises important possibilities about community support as well as funding opportunities for those networks.

Funding by Indirect Users

If the funding source is not composed of people or organizations that use the network directly, then it is an indirect user of the community network. Indirect users might include businesses who would make donations for civic and community responsibility, recognition for good work in the community, or tax write-offs (by donating obsolete equipment or surplus inventory, for example). Other businesses, especially telecommunications or computer companies, may see the community network as a way to decrease their expenses or to increase the market for their services or products. (A community network may make it easier to pay bills electronically or to help increase long-distance telephone calls, for example, making it attractive to telephone companies.) Foundations may see certain community-network programs as within their purview, improving social services, education, or the quality of democracy, for example. Finally, government agencies‹at all levels‹may choose to support community networks through bonds or direct funding. Tom Grundner of NPTN has developed an intriguing proposal for a "Corporation for Public Cybercasting" (1993a), which would match federal funds up to a limit with local funds for community-network development and administration. Government has myriad responsibilities in the areas of information access and facilitation of communication, especially because delivery of government services is so important. Additionally, since government is under increasing pressure to reduce costs, a community network that reduced costs might be an effective government investment. Although currently not in vogue, government partnership with community organizations and activists may hold the key to long-term community-network survival.


Advertising on Community Networks

I believe the quickest way to kill broadcasting would be to use it for direct advertising.

  Herbert Hoover (Fowler and Crawford, 1990)

For thousands of years commerce of some sort has been fundamental to the affairs of a community. Since commerce is inseparable from community affairs, it makes little sense to arbitrarily prevent it from being part of a community network. Community want ads seem indispensable for innumerable reasons: People have general announcements, are looking for a new baby stroller or a used car, or need to advertise a garage sale. People may want to provide living space in exchange for help with child care.

On the other hand, relying on advertising for a substantial percentage of community networks funding is problematic. The ill-effects, ranging from implicit control of the system (including content, policy, and board membership) to general "commodification" of information of the system. The network's basic nature could change to that of a newspaper's classified advertisement section or home shopping network rather than a library or inn. An over-reliance on advertising revenue carries the threat of redirecting the focus from the community to mass culture in general. Pepsi-Cola, General Motors, Reebok, Microsoft or other large companies advertising on a "community network" would qualitatively change it.

In the early days of radio, broadcasting was not the dominant mode (Czitrom, 1982). By 1922 there were approximately 15,000 licensed amateur transmitting stations in the United States and perhaps another quarter of a million people who could receive signals but not broadcast. Radio enthusiasts developed the ARRL (American Radio Relay League) and lobbied extensively for their rights. As the ARRL print advertisement in the 1920s beckoned, "After you grow tired of the broadcast stuff, come in with us and enjoy real radio." They viewed broadcasting as just one use of radio, just as community-network developers might view commercially oriented and controlled broadcasting over the information superhighway as just one type of access that should coexist with other noncommercial, community-oriented uses. Although well organized, the radio enthusiasts of the 1920s lost the fight. While the community-network developers of the 1990s prepare for the next incarnation of that fight, we would do well to reflect on the challenges (and failures) faced historically by other community media advocates (Felsenstein, 1992).

Clearly, if the intent is to develop a community network addressing the spectrum of community needs, including commerce, care must be taken to prevent the system from becoming just an electronic billboard and also prevent undue economic influence on the system, its organization, purpose, and directions. Since it is important to promote individual usage and influence over those of corporate interests, it will be necessary to level the playing field or even tilt it in the direction of the individuals. "Classified ads," if designed according to fairly strict criteria, could sidestep many of the dangers of asymmetric funding sources, commercial influence, and fee-based services that advertising poses to communications medium. Unfortunately, for those looking for a reliable and steady source of income, reliance on paid advertising —even limited paid "classified advertising"— is inconsistent with the principles of a community network. Simply put, allowing people to display their commercial messages for a price is a type of fee-based service and, as such, is a form of discrimination based on individuals' ability to pay. Although the distinction between it and advertisements can sometimes be fuzzy, a "public acknowledgement" of support that does not advertise products or services is generally acceptable.

Providing for the ability to place classified ads on the system without charge is, however, entirely consonant with the objectives of a community network and the economic needs of the community. For leveling purposes and for other practical reasons it may be necessary to limit the length of time that the posting will stay on the system (usually a week, two weeks, or a month), the size of the ad (usually one screen), and the number of ads that can be posted per week or month by one user. Seattle Community Network permits one free 14-line ad per week.

A more subtle issue arises if individuals or groups sometimes pay. This is the same issue that arises with the concept of fee-based services in libraries, where patrons with certain needs that are designated as being beyond the scope of ordinary needs, can elect to use those services for a fee. The first problem is that now a charging process must be introduced along with the entire administration of a new system, requiring staffing and funds to implement and operate. Nor is it obvious that the charging of fees for ads would bring enough revenue to compensate for the additional expenses. Moreover, this shift in focus changes the nature of the whole system. As in libraries with fee-based services, a danger exists that the world of users would be divided into those who pay for the services and those that don't pay for the services and that paying users would get a more favorable treatment than nonpayers.

Funding by Organizational Participants

If an organization saves $10,000 per year by using the community network (in reduced staff, computing costs, or mailing costs, for example), then investing $1000 per year (voluntarily) into the community network would be a very good investment. An alternative to this would be to actually charge the information providers (perhaps on a sliding scale, based on ability to pay) to include their information. On analysis, this approach makes the network organization beholden —or unequally beholden— to information providers, especially big account information providers. This approach can ultimately become a counterproductive advertising-based approach, as discussed above. The worst thing about this approach, however, is that it renews the bias of money and could act to squeeze alternative and unpopular voices from the network. On the other hand, donations by organizational participants should be encouraged —not as a quid pro quo, but as an investment in a community-wide resource that organizational participants use and enjoy. Joint development planning and joint proposals should also be encouraged, and these activities are very appropriate for strategic alliances.


Funding by Indirect Users

There are many organizations and individuals who are interested in successful community networks who may or may not be direct users of the systems. These indirect users, including foundations, government, or businesses, have a wide and diverse range of motivations, responsibilities, and resources to draw upon.

Foundations are often oriented toward advocacy or social change and may be interested in exploring new uses of community networks to further their mission. Unfortunately, many foundations are apprehensive and somewhat leery of new technology or may be loathe to explore new ideas.

Government, too, has a wide range of responsibilities in this area and is exploring many of them in some detail. These responsibilities include providing access to government information and services. In the United States, government historically has helped guide the development of transportation and communication technologies that are deemed to benefit the country, including the postal system, the highway system, and, more recently, the Internet. However, ideological articles of faith (including vague promises that the private sector will efficiently, inexpensively, and equitably provide many of the functions that government is expected to provide) are artificially constraining current discussions. These attitudes, along with a public policy that has been disproportionately influenced by large corporations and a relative lack of technological sophistication helps retard the development of creative and progressive initiatives from government.

Businesses represent a third type of indirect user of community networks. Businesses may want to encourage the development of civic institutions and to be positively associated with that development. In a more self-interested way, businesses may feel that providing another access route to their information, products, and services may benefit their bottom line.

Public Funding Possibilities

There are several other funding mechanisms that are also worth some discussion. In the public access television world, an approach has been found that is relatively stable and relatively free of political wrangling (especially when compared to the never ending legislative struggle over public broadcasting). With the public access television approach, cable providers have often been required by contract either to run their own public access facility or to remit a portion of their profits (via a tax) to a city government or other organization to run the facility. Information superhighway corporations (including communications, computer, and media companies) could all contribute in this way to support nonprofit, community networks. Miles Fidelman of the Center for Civic Networking has done a substantial amount of work in examining funding models‹public and otherwise (1995)‹including the airlines, the interstate highway system, electricity and other utilities, the telephone network, cable television, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and the Internet.

Bonds could also be a source of revenue for city- or county-run facilities, as could funding directly from existing budgets. A Community Development Corporation (CDC) is yet another option. CDCs are quasi-governmental bodies that have some public resources or capabilities open to them including, in some cases, the ability to tax.[3] Business Improvement Districts (BIDs) or Building Improvement Areas (BIAs) are established when a majority of business owners in a community vote to impose a tax on themselves. This tax is then used to fund projects for which the BID/BIA was established. Many BIDs/BIAs are for community beautification, for fresh paint or new shrubbery, for example. Others are more ambitious, perhaps working for refurbishing an entire community or business district, like the New York City BIDs. While CDCs or BIDs/BIAs offer intriguing possibilities for local initiative and control, they are not necessarily as democratic as they could be and can sometimes be unaccountable as a result.


The Funding Challenge

The multiplicity of benefiting groups and organizations and individuals spells a multiplicity of funding possibilities. Each source brings a different approach toward funding, outreach, bookkeeping, and so forth. The situation is fairly complicated — a jigsaw puzzle with scattered and dynamic pieces. The challenge that funding presents over the long term may prove to be one of the most perplexing community-network issues of all.



It's in our hands now, or, more specifically, it's in your hands to make it all work.

  Tom Grundner (1993a)

Community networks go through distinct phases of evolution and each phase is marked with distinct opportunities and challenges. Nobody knows the precise formula for successfully developing and sustaining community networks. There are, however, several guidelines that should prove helpful. The first is that the community-network organization must itself be a community. This is a fundamental point of this book: A community is needed at the core of the effort. Developing a community network is not a business proposition, and a community-network organization is not a machine. When the project itself is a community, it is more likely that a shared vision will exist and that people will work together cooperatively. Since many people on the project are volunteers, a paycheck is not an issue. They will work together because they enjoy it.

Saying that the project is not a business project is not to say that the project shouldn't be run efficiently. In many ways, such as planning, budgeting, and managing, the financial affairs of a community-network organization need to be professional and "businesslike." In fact, in many ways, the organization is a business. Also, since time and money are likely to be scarce, it is important to recognize skills that exist within the project, including fundraising, communication, technical, or organizational skills. Communication and coordination within the project needs special attention, particularly as the project grows. Using electronic capabilities is, of course, a logical approach, but brochures, newsletters, and other printed material are also useful.

It is critical to involve the community in the development of the network. Community organizations are natural partners, and their work will help spread the word and increase the effectiveness and reach of the community network. The community network must be a part of the community. If it's detached from the community, it's not a community network. Local newspapers, radio, and television stations are community organizations, as well, and they should be kept up to date regarding the project and should also be considered as possible strategic partners.

Finally, it will be necessary to be diligent, patient, diplomatic, persevering, and, at times, cautious. People working on the project need to be able to listen to the viewpoints of others. They need to listen well to other people working on the project, to people in the community, and to people working on similar projects locally and around the world. As time goes on there will be pressure to water down your original principles. Establish high principles at the onset and stick with them.

1 There are positive sides to a merger, of course, including increased financial security. In September, 1995, WETA, a Washington, D.C. based public broadcaster, acquired CapAccess, the Washington, D.C. community network, in a move that was enthusiastically welcomed by both organizations.

2 This roster of attendees and accompanying comments was sent to all registered attendees. It was not part of the formal proceedings.

3 Since local laws vary, developers are advised to check with municipal attorneys or law departments or with the state attorney general for precise guidelines.