Community networks are as important to society as public libraries.

Letter to the Editor, Times-Star, Middletown, CA and Clearlake Observer, Clearlake, CA, January, 1996


Community networks (Free-Nets) are an attempt to use computer network technology to address the needs of the community. A major part of that effort is spent making computing facilities available to everybody in a community, especially people without ready access to the technology.

With a strong sense of community responsibility, most community network developers insist on the utopian ideal that the services be provided without charge. Realizing that the low-income citizen has been generally left out of the Information Age, developers are actively working to build free public-access sites.

Community networks are not designed to be on-ramps to the Internet at large. While virtually all community network systems do offer access to at least some Internet services (e-mail at a minimum), the focus of a community network is on the local community. Other access that can be provided are FTP (File Transfer Protocol), telnet (directly using remote computers), and Gopher (searching and reading on-line information on remote computers). Some Community Networks offer a Web interface to the world and can allow limited World Wide Web browsing to it's users through a text interface.

Community Networks currently rely chiefly on volunteers to run them, usually organized into committees. It is important to maintain high levels of unpaid volunteer participation, even while some aspects of the operation may need paid professionals. Many networks are run by independent non-profit organizations, while others are under organizations like universities, libraries, or government agencies.

Government has clear responsibilities in this area. It is essential to ensure equal access to information and the infrastructure of government. Although libraries make ideal candidates, they are under continual economic pressure and may not have the resources available for the project. Universities generally are strong proponents of Free-Nets although there is some reluctance to get involved in community work within higher education.

The Middletown Area Council (M.A.C.) has expressed an interest, along with Helen Whitney, our County Supervisor to pursue this idea here in Middletown as a pilot project for the entire county. I am willing to participate in this project as a technical adviser and consultant, and in any other way I can.

M.A.C.'s interests lie along the line of Middletown becoming an "Electronic Village" with the goal of putting Middletown merchants and citizens on the Internet and promoting the "soft" industry of small computer-oriented businesses to increase our economic base and provide more jobs.

Helen's interests, along with supporting M.A.C. is to get local County government information on-line and available to her District constituents. She feels County information should be available to our area without having to call long distance or spend hours driving to the County Seat.

In addition, information from both the State and Federal governments is available on-line for access by all citizens as well as libraries and other community organizations. One local Free-Net in Ukiah is sponsored by the County Library system ( ) and is very active with over a thousand members.

Computer networks, unlike traditional media, provide the opportunity for many-to-many communication, since they are a two-way street. This opens up immense possibilities for increased political participation by all people, both the economic haves and have-nots.

Some of the aspects of community that can be placed on-line include information on arts and crafts fairs and classes, writing workshops, local dance and theater events, homework hotlines, parent's forums, on- line education, e-mail to local government agencies and District Supervisors, Board agendas and public meeting schedules, forums on local issues, legal documents from government on-line, social services information, job listings, forums for unemployed workers, library catalogs on-line, ethnic and alternative newspapers, letters to the editors of newspapers, and civic journalism projects.

Community networks need funding for computers, equipment, Internet connections, and telephone lines. They also need funding for ongoing development, office facilities, and staffing. Computer companies, and telephone companies have made substantial contributions. There is some foundation support and government funding is also available.

If community networks are going to become a community resource, they need a more reliable form of continuing funding. Providing some services, such as Web Pages for local businesses and full Internet access, for a fee is reasonable. Public funding, just as for libraries, public parks, and schools, may also be necessary.

Tom Grundner of the National Public Telecommunications Network likens free public computing to free public libraries, saying, "I can't envision a 21st century without free public computing" Community networks could become a cornerstone of that vision, but will only happen if people work to make it happen. Please join me in that vision, call Peter Conrad Cumminsky at 987-9484

(C) Copyright 1996,