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Community network checklist for success

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Education, not technology

Over the past three years, every problem that we have encountered has turned out to be an education problem, not a technology problem.

  • We had to educate local town and county government officials about the net and how it might be used to provide better service to citizens while lowering the cost of delivering those services--a rare win/win situation.
  • We had to educate local community groups about why they should publicize their activities on the net. When they did, they found that their attendance at physical meetings when up.
  • We had to educate consumers about the value of having the network connection in their homes, and how that connection (to the world) offered them better control over their time and their interactions with family, friends, and people in the community.
  • We had to educate public school administrators and teachers about the value of having a network connection in the classroom.
  • We had to educate business people about how the network might help them serve existing customers better and find new ones more easily.

Show, don't tell

The net is different enough from what people know that any successful community network project has to have a place to take people where they can use the network themselves to see firsthand what all the talk is about. The local library is also one of the first public facilities in any community that should get direct high speed Internet connections, so putting the lab there may be less expensive with respect to the connectivity costs associated with running a lab.

Many localities have a community college near by, and this is another place where the placement of a computer lab may pay off by doing double duty as a college teaching facility and a public use facility. The third place that may make sense is in a local public school, where again, double duty as a teaching facility for the schools and a public use facility during non-school hours allows the community to maximize the use of the equipment and Internet connection.

Find a project evangelist

You must find someone who is able to speak about connectedness in plain English. Most people's first experience of the network will probably be from the mouth of a real human being, and that particular human being should be quite comfortable talking with people.

Direct connections

In Blacksburg, Bell Atlantic began offering low cost routed T1 lines soon after the start of the project. A T1 line is simply a telephone company term for a specialized phone line that is capable of transmitting up to one and a half million bits per second (about a thousand times faster than ordinary modems). When we say it is a routed T1 line, we mean that back at the telephone switching office, it is connected to the Internet. So when a routed T1 line is installed in a building, dozens of computers in the building can be connected directly to the Internet at speeds up to a hundred times faster than using individual modems on each machine.

Even more important, direct connections are on 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. There is no dialing, no busy signals at the other end, and many fewer technical problems than with modems. For any organization with more than a few computers, direct connections are often cheaper than using modems when you consider the cost of providing phone lines, modems, and individual network access accounts for each machine.

Use the local public library

It will also take many years for everyone to afford a computer in their home, and until then, libraries can play an important role in providing free access to the community. Even though a computer in every home is the most desirable long term goal, in the short term it will be very important to support community access through libraries and other public facilities. Andrew Carnegie understood this simple principal–he did not propose to buy everyone one book of their own, but knew that the community would be better served by creating a public, shared resource for books, which we now know as the public library.

Find a modem pool provider

Dial up access is often referred to as a modem pool. When connecting to the Internet via a telephone line, two modems are required. Each user must have a modem connected to their computer and a phone line in their home. First, the user runs a little computer program on his or her computer that calls, via the modem and telephone line, the Internet Service provider. The ISP has a bank of modems, called a modem pool, that answer the the incoming call from the user's modem.

Running a modem pool has high costs associated with it, both in the initial equipment investment and the ongoing cost of technical support, means that modempool providers must have a revenue stream adequate to cover all these costs. This means that a modem pool service provider must have a flexible rate structure and a very efficient organization to provide good service and remain solvent. This is not to say that a community or local government should not undertake the provision of a modem pool at all, but there should be an organized and extensive effort to explore for-profit support for this service first.

Community support

It may be stating the obvious to call this a success factor, but there are find . -follow -type f -print0 |xargs -0 grep 2139 |less several key players in the community that should be willing to work cooperatively on a community network. These include the local government, the local public libraries, the public school system, and some of the key business people in the private sector. If the area has a community college, private or public four year college, or even a university, the facilities and people of those institutions can become a very valuable resource. Finally, an active group of citizens that are willing to help proselytize the concept of a new communications tool for the community are essential.