Chapter One: What Is A Community Network?

A Short History of Community Networking Models

The term "Community Networking" was first used to refer to making human contacts through face-to-face interaction at events such as meetings and conferences. With this definition, it is important to note that all communities already have a sophisticated "community information network" that involves many forms of face-to-face, written, and technology-assisted interaction such as telephone, television, radio, and other familiar communications tools.

In the early 1980’s, The term "community networking" took on new meaning when computers and modems were used to allow people to interact through the convenience of anywhere, anytime email and text-based conferencing. This was well before we had the World Wide Web! The popular perception during this period was that "text-based online communications" was difficult, and required expensive equipment, but despite this, many "early adapters" in many different communities experimented and found the possibilities exciting!

Community networks have two fundamental components. The first is the physical infrastructure; the wires, computers, and technologies required to establish Internet connectivity. For most communities, the economics limit the range of choices for physical infrastructure, which makes this component the relatively easy part.

The second component of community networks is the social info-structure. This consists of the ongoing process of engaging people in purposeful applications of the physical connectivity. The history of community networking has shown us that exactly how people learn to share the visions of what’s possible, how they learn to build their self-esteem and confidence in their use of these new capabilities, and how they make meaningful commitments to work with others to realize the potential benefits for the common good, will be the greatest challenge for those championing the creation of sustainable community networks.

In 1986, the Cleveland Freenet, lead by Dr. Tom Grundner, presented a text-based menu of community information and service options; and offered free text-based Internet access over phonelines. The vision was wonderful, and Tom was articulate; people could now extend their impact on their communities with the convenience, inherent efficiencies, and the social safety of online communications from their own homes. High quality information from worldwide sources could now be accessible to all, to meet local needs.

Over 100 community Freenets soon appeared with the National Public Telecomputing Network (NPTN) as the non-profit lead organization. But, for NPTN, and most of these Freenets, the grant funding ran out and the lack of a sustainable income caused them to close down. Perhaps because not enough citizens yet understood their value. The greatest contribution of the Freenets was raising national awareness that there was such a thing as "community networking," and that equity of Internet access for all was important!

The mid-to-late 1980’s was a pioneering age when the technology was too difficult and expensive for most people to get excited about the visions of these innovative ‘early adapters,’ who had already proven that with a little training, and commitment, "community networking" does indeed work to bring benefits to citizens!

As more communities drafted innovative projects, and received funding, the term "community networking" broadened to include many different definitions. Wonderful stories were told of grassroots champions creating community networking opportunities to ‘bring people together to make good things happen.’ The vision of the potential for dramatic electronic extension of the impact of the goodwill of citizens began to flower.

Five main models of community networks appeared, with a certain confusion regarding just what defined a community network, and which emphasis, or combination of features, any given community network represented.

1. The Freenets

Freenets began with the mission of providing free local dialup Internet access, and creating a public forum for online discussions, to those who would otherwise go without such access.

Freenets were community networks dedicated to providing Internet access to citizens in a day when this access was very new and otherwise not available to most citizens. As Internet access became less expensive and more commonplace, Freenets were challenged to refocus their mission from bringing Internet to have-nots, to that of providing some enhanced form of community value and collaborative capacity.

2. The Community Website

When the WWW appeared, bringing easy-to-use graphical web pages, many people viewed the collaborative text-based Freenets as obsolete text-based systems. The new model of a community network was a community-sponsored web archive of graphical web pages, with hyperlinks to resources from community organizations and businesses, and it made great sense! But one-way billboards of information had little impact on community collaborative capacity.

It was not unusual to have a community network with no specific communications component, except for posting email addresses, despite the availability of free web conferencing tools. Confusion often resulted from multiple city web sites appearing in a single city, as to which was the official city web site.

3. Community Learning Centers, also called Community Technology Centers;

These consisted of a physical computer lab for training community members on the use of computers and Internet by providing computers and Internet access to those who would otherwise have access to neither. While such centers were, and are, certainly necessary, often there was/is no real online community network, community interaction component, or use of online learning. Many community networks, however, created such centers to provide training for citizens. Opinions differed as to what "community curriculum" would most benefit citizens.

4. The Community Education Network;

School, or college-based, systems were created to specifically provide online training and instruction regarding use of computers and Internet, and other topics. Such systems attracted primarily educators and perhaps an educated subset of the community. It was presumed that developing online collaborative skills was something that needed to be learned. Issues surrounding the appropriate role for, and effectiveness of, online learning, continue to be debated!

5. The Community Public Forum;

After the WWW appeared, this was the rarest model, ironically the model of the original Freenets, dedicated to creating a public forum for discussion and was based primarily on supporting civic collaboration through web-based text systems, or a combination of both web-based and older text-based systems. The future of electronic democracy is likely to focus on the use of these public discussion and decision-making tools.

Continual Evolution

In short, keeping up with community networking over the past ten years has been like painting a moving train in that the technology changed steadily, causing the definitions of community networking to change, perceptions to change, and the expectations of the benefits to change.

"Real Benefits For Real People" has to be clearly understandable if the general public is to support "community networking." Most of us need a behavioral role model for how we, too, can learn to leverage our individual creative potential for the common good.

By 1998, schools were getting wired for Internet, business applications were proliferating and home Internet access was becoming commonplace. Costs of access, and PC’s, continued to drop and awareness of Internet applications increased.

Today, the web-based interactive tools allow just about any capability one might imagine. Because the technology has improved so fast, the general understanding of what community networks can become, using these latest tools, has not had time to evolve. Dedicated computers called "servers" were once required, along with technical staff, to run a community network. Through locally available Internet providers, many of these same capabilities are available free, or at very low cost. The opportunity, and challenge, is to apply practical common sense to thoughtful application of these newest capabilities, and to avoid unnecessary duplication of existing capabilities.

As a quick example, a new free service for families, called Ecircles, has appeared at which offers private web-conferencing, chat, file-sharing, photo-sharing and more, allowing anyone to easily facilitate online group interaction. Other free services for organizational planning are available at and , with dozens of similar services available, and more appearing all the time. Free Ebusiness services are now available at and

It used to be very expensive to offer such services to a community in the past; now, for those with Internet access, its everywhere and its free. So your vision of what your community network will offer may now somehow need to incorporate this new capability where everyone has free access to creating their own online community. Similar free tools exist which allow anyone to create online courses of instruction for others. A Web Tools listing with many of these free collaborative and instructional tools exists at

There is a real risk of creating community networks on models that these newer capabilities have already made obsolete. Since economic sustainability has been the downfall for the majority of pioneering community network projects, one must think clearly about what community needs will be served, and the economics for sustainability!

Rural communities face a major challenge creating effective strategies for keeping up on this evolution on an ongoing basis! A Web Tour of Community Network Models and Resources exists at

Meeting the Challenge of Creating Community

Directly related to defining "community networking" is the challenge of defining simply "community." Do we define a community as those who live in geographical proximity? Or, is a "community" formed simply by any group of people making a commitment to support each other in some way, such as in a "virtual community of interest?"

We must acknowledge that every geographical community is still literally, a "community of communities." The "Milkstool Theory" suggests all communities stand on the four legs of their educational, business, government and health-care communities. While this model might be overly simplistic, within any geographical community many different overlapping communities exist, each with their own special interests, including the ethnic and religious communities, as well as the various other communities of interest; the many clubs, social organizations, and so on.

Applied Common Sense for the Public Good

If you were to lead a community networking effort, as a grassroots champion, your challenge will be to involve as many folks in purposeful action as possible. Where you give your attention and time defines your commitment to the communities of which you’re truly a part.

Citizen engagement strategies involve creating opportunities for people to help others by combining "caring and connectivity." Building an umbrella support community of volunteers, to assist all the communities within your community, might be considered the ‘heart" of creating a community network.

When citizens use their local community network primarily to participate in virtual communities with little or no relation to their geographical communities, local community collaborative capacity doesn’t necessarily increase. Access to free collaborative tools doesn’t mean people will learn to use them to improve information sharing within the local community.

Here are a few general guidelines to consider when planning a community network:

Identify those situations which would engage citizens purposefully using the unique features of online communications, the Internet and your community network.

Consider how you will encourage citizens to balance the time they spend on global explorations VS local interaction. Ideally, global explorations will result in citizens bringing knowledge home to share locally, but such activities will likely need to be modeled, encouraged, and socially rewarded.

Community is NOT what you expect to be given by others without giving something in return. Community is the sum of what we give to each other and is everyone’s responsibility. Encourage others as you’d like to be encouraged; contribute to discussions, listen to the ideas of others. Remember, democracy is not a spectator sport!

We’re all kindergartners in the information age. We’re all new to collaboration on the Internet. (Learn from your kids!)

Balancing Investments in Infrastructure and Training

Though basic access to Internet and computers continues to be the primary focus, today we’re seeing an increase in programs offering free Internet, and free computers. As prices for both Internet access, and computers, continue to drop and as new satellite, fiber optic, and wireless technology are employed, emphasis on the physical infrastructure will become less important. The projection is for billions to have Internet access within ten years, in a world where today half the population has yet to make their first phonecall.

It is likely that within five years we’ll each have our own laptop computer with Internet access. If we presume this to be the case, what applications will we be engaged in which will produce for each of us the highest levels of benefit? No doubt, ongoing learning as to the best known beneficial uses will be a major focus. Lifelong learning has already become accepted as an essential survival skill in a world of accelerating change.

If your community were to win a grant of half a million dollars within the next six months, how could the money be most wisely spent? You would face the option of investing in physical infrastructure, perhaps increasing the speed of locally accessible Internet, with the issue of sustaining this infrastructure after the grant money has been spent. Will you risk duplicating Internet access that businesses will be bringing to your community anyway?

Is your community using whatever Internet access is now available to the greatest extent possible? If you purchase more Internet bandwidth than your community is really ready to use, once your community is ready for it, the cost may well be dramatically lower than what you’d pay today and you’ll have wasted money on unused capacity. Would a public access community technology center focused on providing a friendly Internet skills training environment be a better way to spend the money?

While broadband is currently viewed as essential to the long term success of all rural communities, keep in mind "Value-Pull, Not Tech-Push" as a common sense theme. It will be what people learn to do with broadband access that will bring the benefits, not simply access to broadband, alone.

Lusk, Wyoming, in the late 1980’s, installed fiber optic cables and had one of the fastest Internet access systems of any rural community in the world, but no local businesses benefited because they didn’t know how to use this capability. Past projects such as this have important lessons to share!

Should you focus on increasing Internet bandwidth, or on training citizens and measuring the resulting benefits? Consider ‘Human Bandwidth;" as the quality of the relationships and human-assisted training available, as opposed to "Volume Bandwidth;" the speed at which information can travel to and from your community through the Internet. Past projects have shown, that if one dollar for training is not invested for each dollar spent on infrastructure, unused bandwidth and potential may result, wasting huge sums of money.

Whether your community network project will focus on infrastructure, training, or both, you’ll need to be clear on whether you’re building on a successful proven model, or engaging in risk-taking innovation. You will need to be clear on what community needs a community network can best serve in your community, that cannot be met through existing community information systems.

Expectations increase with experience. Think about what could be. As we all get more experience using collaborative tools, our joint idea of what might be possible inevitably expands. We can expect to see grander, and more effective, community network models emerge as more and more of us gain the experience to expand our visions of what’s possible for joint action to benefit our communities. One major question is ‘Who will be left behind?’

What is the Digital Divide?

The U.S. Department of Commerce has published three reports over the last five years "Falling through The Net, I, II, and III" ( detailing who has Internet access and who does not. The term "digital divide" relates to the differences in Internet access between the "haves" VS the "have-nots." The digital divide studies have focused on Internet access (physical infrastructure) more than measurable educational or economic benefits (social infostructure) resulting from such access.

We can expect to see more and more attention given to the quality of applications resulting from physical Internet access and particularly measures of the effectiveness of training programs. Most of us need to be motivated by believing that accepting such training will make a meaningful positive difference in our lives. Imparting a personal vision for the self-empowerment potential of the Internet is a very real challenge, particularly for cultural groups that may not share the dominant "White" worldview.

Have’s, and Have-nots, may be measured in the future by their level of vision and self-motivation, as the availability of the incredible self-empowerment opportunities the Internet offers will become increasingly commonplace as costs continue to drop.

Leadership Training

In addition to "Haves" and "Have-Nots," there is an important third category, the "Will-Nots." These are folks, often in leadership positions, who refuse to accept Internet training of any kind, viewing such use of technology as somehow demeaning of their intellect, social stature, and humanity. Often, they are the ones who decide how school and community Internet training and equipment budgets will be spent. Leadership training will increase in importance as the rate of change continues to increase. Gandhi once said, "There go my people, I must hurry to follow them for I am their leader."

A Community Network Planning Exercise

Before reading further in this guide, it is recommended you write a short press release announcing what you’ll have specifically accomplished after you’ve created your ideal community network. Include briefly how you measured your success. You are welcome to edit your press release as you continue to read through this guide. Many community networks of the past had very general goals which made it near impossible to determine whether they achieved them or not. The more specific you are in what you hope to achieve, the easier it will be to determine whether you’ve been successful, or not. This can be vitally important should you see further funding!

If you and your community create a replicable, sustainable community networking model, other communities may well beat a path to your door for decades to come, creating a cottage industry for your community teaching other communities how to emulate your success. If the citizens of your community can all conceive the same vision and commitment, you’ll have achieved the hardest part of creating a successful community network.

There is no upward limit as to how far people can go learning to support and empower themselves and others. We’re limited only by our individual and shared imaginations, with powerful new technologies and tools at our fingertips. As citizens gain new skills, and new ways of working together, they will continually reinvent "their" community network.