Socialized Silicon, Public Access and the American Dream
Wiring communities with silicon, coaxial cable and fiber has become a focus for community activists of the 1990s, but is it worth the effort?
P> Call it the Reverse "Field of Dreams" Theory: If you build it, they won't come. That's what Blacksburg Electronic Village found, and it's one of the success stories among pioneering wired communities. "People have been living their lives quite successfully for thousands
of years without the network," said Andrew Cohill, BEV's director. "Just to have it pop up in the town -- 'Here it is!' -- is not enough."
The limits of technology, lack of fiber, cost of equipment, lack of penetration of computers in homes -- none of these are the reason why the national information infrastructure remains a pipe dream.
No, it's convincing folks they want it and teaching them how to use it once they have it that cause problems. The cost of salaries for education and outreach are more expensive by far than wires and chips.
Idealists and visionaries have been wiring communities for nine years, and each town and each believer has a different definition of what a wired community is, how to run it, how to pay for it and where it's going.
For the Freenet movement, the emphasis is on community, not wires. These towns and cities assemble a shoestring budget, a few low-cost computers, a few modems and a whole bunch of volunteers. Soon the modems are ringing off the hooks.
The first Freenet was in Cleveland in 1986, and provided only local bulletin boards. Now there are more than 150 Freenets and community networks in the United States alone. Many are old-fashioned, menu-based systems with e-mail, local news and Usenet discussion groups.
But even without the flashy graphics and sound, Cleveland Freenet has drawn well over 100,000 logins a week for the last four years. Only 250 lines support dial-ins, though half log on through telnet, which lets you log on remotely to another computer and operate off of that machine.
Freenets officially sanctioned by the National Public Telecomputing Network have nearly 300,000 accounts -- the fourth largest computer network in the country, according to acting director Dennis Hoops. Cleveland's NPTN has four staffers, but like the networks it serves, runs on volunteer power.
Hoops wants Freenets to stay close to the original mission of free local information. "We don't advocate full access to the Internet. Cults and subversive groups are out there," he said. "You don't want people tying up the lines cruising the Internet for entertainment."
Even with the emphasis on free access, Freenets find their usership very narrowly defined: white, male (about 85 percent), upper-middle class or students. Hoops said, "You'll pick up 10 to 15 percent of your population quick. But what about the other 80 percent of the population?"
Surfing in Seattle
By American standards, Seattle's city government is progressive. The city is so far ahead of the curve on public transit, recycling, composting, homeless services and city planning that you might think you were in Canada. This is fertile ground for socialized silicon. "There is this underlying feeling, at least in Washington state, that people have a right to this information," said Aki Namioka, president of the Seattle Community Network Association.
Seattle Community Network, a service with local news and some 7,000 free Internet e-mail accounts, was the brainchild of Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility. Eric Rehm, Seattle's chapter president, said SCN came out of a "political maturity" as activists started letting go of their outrage about Central America and turned to bringing local computing to the masses.
But it's not just leftist organizers who feel this way. The city government also runs a local news system and a World Wide Web site through its Public Access Network. And it heavily subsidizes SCN by allowing the organization to piggyback on some 2,000 library computers and many of the library system's modems as well.
"Everybody ought to have free unfettered access," said Roger Iida, an outreach coordinator for PAN. The city spends some $300,000 a year just on PAN, and has three full-time staffers. But even in this progressive polity, things don't always fall into place.
Instead of reaching the poor, many SCN users are retired or recent college graduates, and only about 30 percent are women. "I still think we need a little more cultural diversity on our system," Namioka said.
Iida agreed and would like to expand PAN to Russian, Hmong and Chinese speakers.
PAN just set up a handful of computers in a community center in a disadvantaged neighborhood. "They have more immediate survival issues," he said. "You have to do a lot of outreach and education into those traditionally underserved communities. If you just put technology out there and walk away and declare a victory, it will be broken or misused." PAN helps community activists tutor residents on using a word processor or writing a resume and cover letter. "It's pretty easy to get the money together to buy a 486 or Pentium. It's difficult to get a person to maintain [it] and train someone to use it," Iida said.
The city also had a false start when it tried to go with kiosks in public places. "We've hit a lot of mines. We've gone down a lot of dead ends," Iida said. Kiosks were too expensive, and trying to use them delayed PAN's eventual debut.
But with free computer time in libraries, both PAN and SCN have begun to make the better world they envision. One homeless man said the network was his link to sanity. "He could interact with other people without having them smell him or see him or judge him," Iida said. Some homeless people even got technical jobs out of their experiences. "If they had walked into a technology company, would they have gotten a job?" Iida asked. "No matter how fair you're trying to be, you're going to have some visceral reaction."
Glasgow, Kentucky, pop. 15,000
Glasgow couldn't be more different from the Emerald City. A small, light-industrial and agricultural town in southwest Kentucky, where accents are as twangy as banjos and steel guitars, it is 100 miles from Louisville and Nashville. And yet, it's had a 4 megabit-per-second connection to every single home in town for seven years. The city owns the electric company, and in turn, has its finger in the phone service and cable lines of work. It's coaxial cable -- not a strand of fiber -- that links the homes in Glasgow.
The connection for most of that time was 500 cable channels. And only 20 percent of the town gets cable. About a half a year ago, Billy Ray, superintendent of the Glasgow Electric Plant board, started the computers. And even more recently MCI Communications Corp. donated a T-1 line to connect the cable network to the Internet. Only about 200 homes in town use these cables for computers, which can carry about 140 times the amount of information the fastest modem can. Just click on an icon and go.
Couldn't get any simpler, could it? Well, not exactly.
"One of the real discoveries we've made on this project is the possibilities of the technology. But to get people to take this technology and actually do something with it is hard," Ray said. "Putting a high-speed data connection to somebody's home is easy compared to teaching them what to do with it."
Before this program, about 7 percent of Glasgowians had computers. (Nationally, it's more than four times that number.) Now, almost 25 percent do. "We're teaching them how to turn on their PC and how to click with a mouse. That's where people are," Ray said. "The vision is exponentially ahead of where people are." Few businesses are on-line, and none are selling products. "People selling stuff, is still on our hope list. It's still our dream," Ray said.
"There was not a hue and cry for connectivity," Ray said. "In fact, the reverse was true." Even with these big pipes for those who do sign on, it's not animation and audio that folks want. "E-mail drives the whole interest in it," Ray said.
Now, signing up four or five people a week, the town has a two- or three-week waiting list. "It's been too steady. There's bugs with it," Ray said. "Seventy-five percent of the problems we have are in running a reliable enough system that it's plug and play."
Cable in the home, "it's a mess. Every home in America, it seems, somebody has jakelegged another TV. It's just been slapped in any old way," Ray said.
So, even if the cable to the curb is clean, the electronic noise from cordless phones and other sources in the home leak into the system and prevent connections. So people constantly call and ask, "How come I got this network error?" Because of the high need for telephone support and trouble shooting, "we can't just open the doors and allow everyone to come on," Ray said.
But even with less than 2 percent of the town taking advantage of unlimited, ultra-fast Internet connections plus cable for $24.95 a month, Ray sees signs of hope. He said within four years, half the town should be on the network. He's preached the gospel of connectivity to 372 other towns, large and small. And already, a story in USA Today brought a cardiologist to spend his summers working in the town. "He was kind of a wirehead, I think," Ray said. He and telecommuters are welcome migrants. "Those are the kind of people who pay their taxes."
Blacksburg Electronic Village
Don't be fooled by the two-block downtown and the Appalachian Mountains looming close by. Blacksburg, with the largest university in Virginia, is a far cry from Dogpatch. Like many large research universities, Internet access at Virginia Tech only spread much beyond computer science and engineering departments two years ago. E-mail accounts on campus grew from 200 to 15,000 today. But what makes Blacksburg different is that when they pushed to get faculty and students on-line, they tried to bring local residents on as well.
The system started with just Internet e-mail and gopher capabilities in a menu. Today, the service includes full Web access and space to write your own home page, and access to newsgroups, though all sexual topics, even political discussions of homosexuality, are censored. Nearly 90 percent of the 16,000 users, last polled in November, are affiliated with Virginia Tech. In the town of 36,000, there are 23,000 students and another 2,500 faculty and staff. (For a more detailed demographical description of BEV's customers, see sidebar.)
Even with this highly educated clientele -- 35 percent have postgraduate degrees -- Director Andrew Cohill found BEV wasn't an easy sell. "Personally, when the project started I thought it was just a technical project. The technical part of it has turned out to be simple."
There are 42 miles of fiber laid in Blacksburg, mostly to dorms and campus offices, with a handful of apartment complexes, schools, the library and one university-affiliated research park on the Ethernet as well. Everyone else dials in.
"The landlords here have been pretty slow to catch onto this," Cohill said. It costs about $150 per apartment in a complex, and he thinks within two years 75 percent of the apartments in complexes will be on-line. But with houses costing as much as $800 to wire, he thinks it'll be three years before half the houses are on.
That's not to say there haven't been any technical problems. Cohill estimates that about 10 percent to 15 percent of the users regularly have software and hardware problems that prevent them from logging on.
"It's usually people with Windows. It's just a horrible operating system. It was never designed for networking," Cohill said. "We just never hear from our Mac users."
Educating the public has been the hardest part. "[It's] an enormous amount of education, more than any of us expected," Cohill said. Now things are getting easier. Cohill said folks are saying, "'I tried a year and a half ago, I had problems. I'm trying again because all my friends are on.' We've reached some sort of critical mass in the community. There are so many people on, that the people who aren't feel left out." More than 150 people a month have been added to the network for the last year.
Almost one-third of the businesses are on the network, but that didn't start happening until the Web was offered. "Nobody's made a million bucks, but everybody's pleased because they're getting new markets," he said.
The proper mix of capitalism and compassion is on everyone's mind, from revolutionary House Speaker Newt Gingrich to local lefties. More than half those interviewed for this story see at least the potential for a dystopia of information haves and have-nots. Seattle government's Roger Iida talked about how folks see everyone ordering groceries for delivery over the Internet. "What about the person who has to deliver your groceries, are they a part of this world?"
Already, there is a deepening division between those with college degrees and those without. Even women who lack strong math and science skills but have college diplomas are falling behind rapidly. And the cycle goes on. Statistical analyses find that the single greatest predictor of school quality is how many of the parents went to college.
"People around the country are freaking out about the welfare class. What's going to happen when this welfare class gets larger?" Iida asked. "I think the people who are at the bottom of the food chain are a relatively small number compared to what it could be."
Others predicted that computers and networking would become so ubiquitous that tax dollars would subsidize universal access, though perhaps poorer people would get less powerful models.
Glasgow's Ray suggested that electric utilities may distribute computers that would run smart homes to conserve electricity as well as print book reports.
Namioka suggested that providing public access could be the price for the big boys to do business, just as broadcasters have requirements to keep licenses.
"If you're going to do this commercial venture, you have an obligation to the public as well. MCI wants to tear up city streets to lay down some wire -- you can do that if you're willing to provide free Internet to all the schools and libraries."
Ray hopes networking will save dying small towns and slow the creep of the strip mall. "Instead of building more and bigger all the time, we're going to build smaller and smarter." And with the aging of the baby boomers, we need to wean ourselves from auto dependence, he said. "The largest growing segment [of America] is over 60 years old. Our whole culture is based on the assumption people can drive."
At the heart of all these ventures is the desire to show that technology doesn't have to sink to the lowest common denominator. Iida said, "We want to try and provide another vision, a real working vision of what it can be. If we leave it in the hands of large conglomerates, we won't have a choice. You'll be given 500 channels of TV. It could be so much more."
Computing by the Numbers
Seattle Public Access Network:
Service: local bulletin boards, Web sites, local e-mail only
Users: 6,000 bulletin board users, and dropping
90,000 World Wide Web hits a month, growing 20 percent monthly, half local, half out of town
Cost to the city: $300,000 a year, mostly in salaries for three full-time and one part-time employee, and hardware costs.
Seattle Community Network:
Service: local bulletin boards, Internet e-mail, Seattle-specific Usenet groups
Users: about 7,000*
Cost to the city: unclear to organizers, much of the infrastructure is through Seattle public libraries, including 2,000 public terminals that double as computerized card catalogs.
Service: local bulletin boards, Internet e-mail, Usenet
Users: about 75,000, including Case Western Reserve University students and faculty. Possibly as many as 30,000 long-distance users.
Cost to the city: Case Western Reserve University runs the Freenet as part of its networking services on campus. Estimated $50,000-$70,000 a year.
Glasgow, Kentucky's Local Area Network:
Service: full Internet and 500 cable channels through a 4 mbs connection on coaxial cable
Users: about 200 homes, a few businesses
Cost to the city: salaries of 34 linemen, system administrators, secretaries. The T-1 connection to the Internet, worth about $2,000/month, is donated by MCI.
Blacksburg Electronic Village:
Service: Web, censored Usenet, Internet access, local bulletin boards
Charge: free on 10 library terminals, $8.60/month for modem access, $5/month for campus Ethernet connections, $20-$30/month for apartment Ethernet connections.
Users: 16,000, 90 percent affiliated with Virginia Tech
Cost to the city: Virginia Polytechnical Institute runs the service as part of its campus networking service. But the public libraries estimated their costs for providing free access as:
-$48,000 in salaries and benefits
-$45,000 in hardware and software (a Xyplex hub-router was donated)
-$4,000 in supplies
-$600 in Ethernet costs
When Bell Atlantic's trial ends, another $5,100 for the T-1 line.
The libraries received another grant for $40,000 to continue testing Winsock's version of NCSA Mosaic, the Trumpet newsreader, gopher, telnet and FTP.
Blacksburg Electronic Village subscribers:
Overall: (home, work, free library terminals)
-mean income $30,000 range, but that's lowered by large numbers of students
-18 percent have an income under $10,000/year
-58 percent have an income more than $30,000/year
-75 percent own a computer
those who pay for modem access:
-78 percent men
-2/3 own computers
-but for 53 percent, the library is the only chance to get on the Internet
-30 percent make less than $10,000 a year
-41 percent make more than $30,000 a year
-46 percent women
Library stats in October 1994:
-there had been 23,400 sessions at the seven stations in the first year
-that's 650 a week (over six days)
-an average of 100 hours a week
-33 percent came specifically to get on-line
-70 percent weren't regular library visitors before BEV
-E-mail was the main objective for 40 percent of the