Community Networks

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Community networks, often called "civic networks" or "free-nets," are computer networks that have been developed for public access in broad support of a geographic community. The developers of community networks hope to create long-lived public institutions that focus on digital communication much as public libraries, at least historically, have placed their focus on books and other printed material. Community networks apply the notions of free and uncensored access for everybody, both as producer and consumer, to the text, graphic, audio, and other resources found in cyberspace.

Although there is no precise definition of community networks, they have several common characteristics. Community networks aggregate a wide variety of information and communication services in a central, though "virtual," location, becoming, in effect a nonprofit "portal." Community networks are general purpose and strive to support the six "community core values," defined by Douglas Schuler (1996) as conviviality and culture; education; strong democracy; health and well-being; economic equity, opportunity, and sustainability; and information and communication. Furthermore, they generally do not charge for their services or make their money through advertising. In addition to performing the technical duties related to running a networked computer for a large community, community network developers typically engage in a wide range of other related activities including training, social activism, and advocacy.

The question of funding has plagued the community networks movement and the search for financial stability has been an overarching concern for community networks since their inception. Unlike public libraries, public broadcasting, and public access cable television, no universally adopted formula for sustained support has been found. Although many early developers believed that success was to be found through a business-oriented perspective, few (if any) community networks attained this. Many community networks have been kept alive only through long hours of unpaid volunteer labor and intermittent (and insufficient) foundation and government support. With the current lack of public and political support for government projects, it has been difficult to devise a model of financial viability. Also, as is discussed below, access to computer networks has become much more widespread and there are many web-sites offering free e-mail and other services that compete with community networks. Although it remains to be seen whether the advertising-based model will be viable over the long term, many community networking efforts have already ceased.

The Seattle Community Network

Community networks reflect the intent of their developers and users, and vary from community to community. The Seattle Community Network (SCN), however, can be considered somewhat representative. Launched in December 1992, SCN is a relatively successful and stable community network. SCN offers free e-mail (dialup and web-based), free web space, and free list servers to anybody.

The SCN is a nonprofit membership organization that elects its board of directors. The board of directors works with members, users, and volunteers to maintain and expand the system according to the dictates of the principles and policies that the organization has adopted (and made available online). SCN may be something of an anomaly as it has been all-volunteer-based since its inception. Although SCN has received very little direct financial support from foundations or government, SCN has received strong nonfinancial support from another civic institution, the Seattle Public Library. Since its beginning, the Seattle Public Library (SPL) has allowed SCN to house its computers in the same room as the SPL computers, to use the Internet connection of the library, to hold classes in SPL branch libraries, and to distribute SCN brochures in the library.

Although SCN first used a line-oriented menu system that was primarily accessed via dial-up telephone lines, it quickly became more oriented toward the World Wide Web. When a World Wide Web user accesses SCN (, he or she will see the SCN logo, some announcements, and links to the thirteen subject areas of SCN (i.e., activism, arts, civic, earth, education, health, marketplace, neighborhoods, news, people, recreation, sci-tech, and spiritual). Although "activism" is listed first only by virtue of its alphabetic ordering, its placement highlights the focus of SCN on civic, citizen-led activities rather than activities that are commercially driven. Each section is managed by a volunteer subject-area editor who works with the information providers (IPs) in that subject area to make sure the information is readily accessible. The activism page has links to information on the World Trade Organization (the 1999 WTO Ministerial Meeting was held in Seattle), human rights, women's issues, and other concerns. The earth web-page has links to farmer's markets, environmental groups, and other organizations and projects related to the environment. The neighborhood web-page has links to one hundred neighborhood sites in Seattle and elsewhere in the region and beyond.


In the early days of the Internet, when access to computer networking services was restricted to academia and military research and development, several innovative pioneers developed projects aimed at the general community. Although most of these early community networks are no longer operational, they explored important new ground related to technology, community development, and the public sphere.

Community Memory of Berkeley, California, created by Efrem Lipkin, Lee Felsenstein, and Ken Colstad, was the world's first community network. Initially started in the mid-1970s after experiments on unmediated two-way access to a message database through public computer terminals, Community Memory was intended to help strengthen the Berkeley community. Their brochure stated that "strong, free, non-hierarchical channels of communication—whether by computer and modem, pen and ink, telephone, or face-to-face—are the front line of reclaiming and revitalizing our communities." Their commitment to serving those without ready access to information technology was demonstrated by numerous training programs and their insistence that all Community Memory terminals be in public places (e.g., libraries and laundromats) but could not be reached via modem or from the Internet. Moreover, all of the information on the system was community generated, such as the "Alameda County War Memorial Project," which contained information on every deceased veteran in Alameda County. Community Memory adopted a creative, direct approach to funding: They offered coin-operated terminals that were free to read, but required twenty-five cents to post an opinion or a dollar to start a new forum.

Big Sky Telegraph was designed to overcome some of the problems related to sparse population and long distances between communities in the rural American West. Frank Odasz (1991), working out of Western Montana University in Dillon, Montana, started the system in 1988 when he began electronically linking one-and two-room schoolhouses across Montana. Odasz used the telegraph metaphor, reflecting the influential communication technology of the nineteenth-century. According to their Homesteading the Educational Frontier brochure, "Teachers in rural Montana serving as Circuit Riders, Community Telegraphers, and Teletutors have used modems to overcome time, distance, and economic limitations to empower rural education and community survival." By the early 1990s, Big Sky Telegraph was a distributed system consisting of "Big Skies" and "Little Skies" that offered K-12 lesson plans and a "telecurricular clearinghouse" for K-12 projects running on networks all over the world.

The Public Electronic Network (PEN) in Santa Monica, California, a computer system designed to promote community-oriented participatory democracy, was one of very few government initiatives during that period. Through PEN, Santa Monica citizens could converse with public officials and city servants as well as with each other. PEN was established in 1989 and had over three thousand registered users and over five hundred user log-ons per month in the mid-1990s. PEN provided access to city government information such as city council agendas, reports, public safety tips, the online catalog of the library, and to government services such as obtaining permits. PEN also provided e-mail and conferences on a wide variety of local civic issues. PEN was an early test-bed for many ideas related to "electronic democracy," and Pamela Varley (1991) has documented some of the problems PEN experienced.

The Cleveland Free-Net, the world's first free-net, was the most influential community network. With more than thirty-five thousand registered users and more than ten thousand log-ins per day, it was probably the largest as well. The model was developed by Thomas Grundner at Case-Western University and grew from his work on the public health information system, "St. Silicon's Hospital and Dispensary," an electronic question-and-answer forum devoted to medical topics. Doctors, lawyers, automotive mechanics, and others answered questions online on the Cleveland Free-Net, and this format persisted until the system was closed down in late 1999.

The free-nets employed a "city" metaphor to orient users; users go to the appropriate "building" to find the information or services they want. U.S. Supreme Court decisions, for example, were found in the "Courthouse." Free-nets were established in hundreds of locations around the world (although mostly in the United States and Canada) and were often members of the National Public Telecomputing Network (NPTN), an umbrella organization for free-nets that ceased operation in 1997.

Other notable early efforts include the New York Youth Network, which explored computer networking for disadvantaged youths; the Electronic Cafe project, developed by Kit Galloway and Sherrie Rabinowitz, which explored interactive encounters among people in the Los Angeles area and around the world using video and satellite technology; and Playing to Win, a popular educational effort, launched in New York City prisons and housing projects, that evolved over time into the Community Technology Centers Network (CTCNet), a coalition of several hundred computer centers in the United States.

Related Efforts

There is a wide range of efforts worldwide that promote the idea of "community networking" without necessarily being community networks. Community technology centers provide physical places in communities all over the world. Proponents of these centers, like proponents of community networks, believe that access to digital communications, both as consumers and as producers, will be key to economic—as well as political—survival in coming years. The centers, unlike community networks, address the fact that many people worldwide do not own computers at home and need a place that is conveniently located where they can learn about and use computers.

No census of community networks world-wide—or even in the United States—is completely up-to-date or exhaustive. Community networks and institutions that promote community networking exist all over the world. The Association for Community Networking (AFCN) in the United States, the European Association of Community Networks (EACN) in Europe, and the Community Area Networks (CAN) forum in Japan all focus on community networking issues. Six community networks were launched in the late-1990s in Russia and similar projects are underway in Latin America and South America. Government support does exist in some cases. In the United States, the Telecommunications and Information Infrastructure Assistance Program (later the Telecommunications Opportunities Program) was launched in 1994 to provide assistance for innovative civic projects (including community networks) that use telecommunications technology, while similar projects exist within the European Union.

There were fifteen thousand Internet users when the Cleveland Free-Net started in 1986. Thirteen years later, when the system ceased operation, there were an estimated fifty million. What do community networks do when access is less of an issue, when the world, seemingly, is finding access to digital networking without their assistance, a world that is apparently willing to put up with advertisements to use Hotmail and other advertising-based networking services?

One answer is to concentrate less on the technological infrastructure and more on the idea of community networking in general—the idea of aligning communication technology to community needs in a noncommercial, inclusive way. Ann Bishop and her colleagues (1994) have been involved in several relevant projects. One example is the "Assets Mapping" project, which uses the insights of John Kretzmann and John McKnight (1993) to promote community development using community assets (rather than deficits) through the Prairie Net community network. Bishop and her colleagues have also worked with SisterNet, a local grassroots group, to develop web-based information services that address African-American women's health concerns.

Directions and Issues

The 1990s witnetssed major changes in political, economic, and other social forces, with the rise of global capitalism perhaps being the most dramatic. The accompanying changes in communication technology, such as the explosive growth of the Internet and its rapid commercialization, and the mergers of the world's largest media corporations, are also noteworthy. As the world has shrunk, so, too, as many have noted, have our problems increased. The possibility of global warming and other ecological disasters confront humankind collectively as does war, economic disparities, and our difficulties in addressing these problems collectively.

Robert Putnam (1995) of Harvard University has written about the decline of "social capital," based largely on declining membership in nearly all sectors of noncommercial and nongovernmental organizational life. At the same time, there was a phenomenal rise in the number of nongovernmental organizations worldwide between 1950 and 1999 (see Runyan, 1999) and in so-called virtual communities in cyberspace. Community networks are expressions of civic society whose objectives, unlike commercial systems, are complex and not intended to be judged in economic terms alone. They are alternatives to the commercial systems and often evolve to fit needs not met commercially, such as providing forums for voices that are often unheard or unrecognized. Community networks, though obviously no panacea, may ultimately become a meaningful institution for a new collective intelligence.

See also:Computer Literacy; Computing; Internet and the World Wide Web.


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Douglas Schuler

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Community Networks

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