Telecommunities Canada Conference

August 16-20, 1996 Edmonton, Alberta

By Steve Cisler, Network Outreach, Apple Computer, Inc.

Copyright Steve Cisler. This report may reside on non-profit, educational, and hobbyist BBSes, ftp servers, web sites, listservs, and (if any are left out there) gopher servers. For all other uses, please contact the author sac@apple.com . Notable URLs are at the end of the document.


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The Canadian community networking conference in 1993 had been an inspiration for the first conference I planned (Ties That Bind, 1994), so I was glad to finally attend their 1996 annual meeting this year and spend three rewarding days in Edmonton, Alberta.

Besides being curious about the activities taking place in Canada (both technical, political, and social), I was worried about attempts to form an International Association of Community Networking which began this year in online fora as well as meetings in Virginia and Taos, New Mexico. Some money had been collected, and a core organizing team has been chosen in Taos after a long meeting, but no strong consensus had been reached once we broke up and went back to our jobs and communities, even though all of us are fairly adept at expressing our views in electronic mail.

I felt that the Canadians might offer some advice and examples for IACN to proceed beyond the embryonic stage it was in as of May 1996. So I went to listen and learn and not, for once, to present my own views.

Friday night: opening session

The host this year was the Edmonton FreeNet, and they did a good job, though they never received my registration or followup email about it. Their main hard drive failed just as the conference was starting, so they had to devote a lot of time and resources to deal with a big crisis as well as the conference. My plane arrived late, and I registered on the spot, dropped my bags in the college gymnasium where the opening session was being held and took my seat in the audience of about 75 to hear Garth Graham, TC board of directors, go into a lengthy discussion of the place of community in a knowledge society.

From his postings and from talking with him, it's clear he is one of the main theorists about Canadian community networking. He questioned what happens when you mix the real and virtual communities, and he stressed the need for the most participation possible. He showed a strong faith in self-organizing systems and the efficacy of grass roots democracy (not everyone agreed, as will be evident later in this report).

Other speakers included Peter de Jager, an expert on technological change, and Jon Gerrard, Sec. of State for Science, Research, and Development, and for Western Economic Diversification.
The attendees included speakers, registrants, and volunteers. The first two categories totaled about 80 people including a few Americans and, I believe, someone from Korea. Most of the others worked in existing FreeNets or community networks. Many of the former have changed their name because of trademark issues, but some have done so because of the negative connotation of the word "free" when a fee was being charged to many users.

TC has been working on an agreement with the new NPTN for the use of "Free-Net" again. There were also people from the Community Access Program, an Industry Canada project, to provide matching funds to small communities around the country for the establishment of public access sites. 359 were funded this year, and more will be chosen by regional teams after an October 1996 filing date. The TC board sees these CAP sites as potential community networks, and the attendees I spoke with from Rocky Mountain House, AB, and Lumby, BC, were enthusiastic and even more inspired after the conference was ending. Jody Konynenbelt of Rocky CIA, said their grant money would be running out, but she hoped to train some volunteers before she went back to cutting horses on a ranch to earn some money. I wish there were easy ways for small communities to continue to support smooth-running projects such as this. As everywhere else the problem of continuing projects without the continuous infusion of grant money is serious.

Saturday plenary session

The Saturday plenary session featured Doug Schuler present "How to kill community networks" which was slightly modified from the talk he did in Taos. The first part of the annual general meeting for TC took place at this time. Community networks are voting members of TC, not individuals. TC has no paid staff but hopes to later this year. They received some funds from Industry Canada, but it was clear from the continuing comments and discussion that the relationship between TC and Industry Canada was not all that it could be.

Industry Canada people I met at the Internet Society in Montreal said they probably would not attend because they had been beaten on pretty badly. A TC representative said part of it was because Industry Canada reps had come to last year's conference as if they owned it, and yet had just donated $5000. The 1996 conference saw both sides being more diplomatic and conciliatory toward each other. I think the TC people wanted the government people to refer newcomers to them and to recognize the experience they were acquiring. It also seemed that cooperation between the two was better in some regions than in others, and this might be due to personalities and not policy.

The conference was divided into four tracks: get the spirit going; keep the spirit growing; leading the spirit; and spirit of technology. I jumped around and attended sessions in all but the technology track.

Chebutco software for Unix machines

David Trueman of Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, discussed the CSuite community network software for Unix machines. It's running on 12 Canadian community networks and won a Canadian Internet award in 1995. I hope some of the features Ken Klingenstein showed at Taos from the Boulder Community Network system can be integrated into CSuite. I have urged both systems to contact the other for some cross pollination.

Defining the community network board of directors

Carol Humphries of Learning Link in Edmonton provides office space as in-kind support for the local FreeNet. She is also chairman of the board, and she ran a good session on her view of the way boards should be set up. Her board is a governing board, and they hire an executive director who hires the rest of the staff. They make policy; they don't count paper clips and deal with registrations. The founding sponsors include a mix of public (libraries) and private organizations (IBM-Canada, Learning Link, Software Alberta Society, Edmonton Telephones, Edmonton Journal and they are entitled to sit on the board. The board does not post minutes or encourage members to attend the board meetings.

Recently they have begun a "bulletin board" for interaction between members and the board, but it seems the digital tools they are promoting with Edmonton FreeNet, with the exception of email, are not really being used by the board itself to facilitate better communications. Nevertheless, her presentation pointed out how many governance issues any organization has to deal with, especially one that usually is techie-driven at first, but needs to change as the organization membership grows.

Ms. Humphries clearly stated the limits of her interest in participatory democracy several times during the presentation. Others in the audience thought this would isolate the board from the digital masses, but she said that the board should probably perpetuate itself by vetting candidates for new board positions, yet she did see a pendulum swing from more control (which she espoused) to one that was more open. Jon Hall of NTNet Society in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories (which has 60,000 people in an area 1/3 the size of Canada!) talked about the problems of running a meeting where off-the-wall candidates or positions were suggested by members from the floor. Garth Graham said that National Capital FreeNet in Ottawa had open elections where each account holder could vote (or change her vote) over a two week period. Even with the ease of electronic voting, only 2000 members vote from a membership of 57,000.

I went into some detail because this is the kind of topic not covered in any American community networking conference, and because the level of discussion was such a major part of the session. Having 90 minutes for each one allowed most speakers to have their say and still entertain a substantive exchange with the audiences. This was to be the way most of the other sessions were as well.

Statistics

Ian Allen of National Capital FreeNet in Ottawa detailed the kinds of information a system operator can get from monitoring the software and charting the results. He charts unique IDs using the system per week, Usenet traffic for local groups and even the number of articles posted in different groups. There was a long discussion of what these stats meant, and how you needed to weigh different ones before coming to any simple conclusion about user needs or trends.

Shawn Henry also had a good session on different sort of stats: from a survey of Calgary FreeNet users. Henry is with the Canada West Foundation and is writing up a report on what they found from their survey. Since there have been inquiries from American community networks about users stats, contact him about the report and where it will be published. <henry@freenet.calgary.ab.ca. One interesting stat that I report without comment: 99.5% of the users thought Internet access was a right!

Time Out for Fun

The Edmonton organizing committee also allowed time to visit the surreal mall that houses hundreds of shops, an ice rink, a Spanish Galleon (sponsored by Kodak), a nine acre water park with bungee jumping, treacherous slides to take years off your life--or push you over the edge, and a big wave machine. I had been swimming in Santa Cruz, California, two weeks before, and it was quite weird to be in the northern Canadian plains body surfing along with a thousand other people. At the same time a theater/street fair event was underway (the Fringe), so we had two very good breaks from all the network related sessions.

Edmonton Public Access

After the Edmonton FreeNet started up again with substitute hard drives, I visited a local public access site to try it out. Since I'm a librarian by training, I visited the main library in downtown Edmonton. At the cluster of terminals and PCs they had posted a sign about the FreeNet problems, but I was able to log in as 'guest' on their machine. The first page displayed in lynx was a registration page, and I was unable to view anything else. The elderly woman at the help desk was friendly and supportive but she said she was not a member of FreeNet and did not own a computer. She tried to log in using a special password. When she could not get past the registration screen, she consulted a younger helper. I said I'd contact the system administrator who was at the conference.

When I logged on again a couple of days later, it was fixed. However, it is clear that computers are still hard to use, and not everyone can easily help people solve problems with an interface or system error. This makes the user experience a negative one, and the support staff gets frustrated with something outside of its control. Once these barriers are surmounted, more people will enjoy or at least make use of our systems. In Edmonton there are over 11,000 users in a metro population of 850,000. It is clear that not everyone is going to use our community networks, but what will the magic application be to attract more than one or two percent of the population to our sites?

Censorship

Alvin Schrader of the U. of Alberta School of Library and Information Studies spoke about censorship on the Internet, from the perspective of a librarian who has studied this ever popular pastime in libraries of all sorts. There was a very good discussion about how to set limits. Generally libraries have a greater tolerance for controversial materials than do other institutions (government, industry, law enforcement, schools) and I wondered if any Canadian libraries felt they had to compromise when they partnered with others to form a community network. Neither Schrader nor Penelope McKee (head of Edmonton Public Library and a member of the board) knew of any such compromise. Schrader recommended getting a board approved mission statement and having it reviewed regularly. Have a complaint policy and procedure. Edmonton PL has a strong freedom of expression statement. There should be a national statement for handling due process for complaints, and support for network officials who are being threatened should be provided (as it is for librarians in the U.S.). Dr. S.M Padsha of Edmonton FreeNet said setting a policy on controversial material has been problematic. A small number of users want some "special" Usenet groups, and nobody knows how to decide this: not the users, the board, nor the staff. Nobody had an answer for him at the session, but having a strong mission and goals statement can help. Parts of Edmonton's statement are ambiguous (you can't put up material that is _objectionable_) and they are searching for a way to resolve this.

The Canadian Government's message

Andrew Siman, director of communications development in the Department of Industry, gave a talk on insights about the "information highway" a term still quite popular in Canadian government and industry. He hopes to extend the CAP program and fund 100 community networks for $60K over three years (for a total of $6 million), establish a Canadian studies institute to assess the social impact of the IH, and hold regular conferences on public information and networking issues. He compared the funding of the CAP program with that of CANARIE, the public/private consortium that has received over $100 million in federal funds. At the end of this report you can find a URL for the most recent report on the IH (May 1996) that was being handed out by Industry Canada. Siman's talk seemed to be a very conciliatory overture to the TC membership, but he could not distribute the talk until it was translated into French.

Unlike the Internet Society conference in Montreal in June, there seemed to be no tension over Quebec and Canada; French and English. The whole conference was in English. However, there seemed to be just one Quebecois present, and I wished I had had time to talk with him about these issues as they are manifested in his new system in Montreal that came online earlier this summer.

The Next TC conference

There were many other sessions I did not attend, but check the TC 96 web pages for more info on the speakers and sessions. The next conference will be in Halifax, Nova Scotia 15-18, 1996, sponsored by Chebutco Community Net <http://chebutco.as.ca/TC97> The theme is partnerships, and the organizing board is interested in ideas for keynote speakers and presenters.

My quick impression of the Canadian community networks is that they have more features in common with each other than American ones do, but each is run differently. The subject matter for the conference had less evangelizing and cheerleading than we had at our meetings. This indicates a practicality and perhaps more advanced stage of development than the American scene as a whole. However, many are struggling with ways of supporting themselves in the wake of ISPs growth, grants running out, and a growing mass of users who want new services and static fees. One Freenet vice president said he wished his group had paid more attention to content and less to phone lines. Many still place more emphasis on basic dialup access to serve those with older or slower machines than they do on improving services for people with more capable equipment.

Many community systems do not want to compete with ISPs, and if the role of the Freenet is to serve mainly the underserved, they will have to secure funding from sources other than users who can afford to pay very little if anything. Some of the Calgary stats showed a sizable portion of middle and upper-middle income people using the system when they could afford to pay quite a bit more for Internet service. I worry that many of the community net members are like Price Club or Costco customers: they will stick with the service as long as it's free or cheap, and even a good cadre of volunteers (as most Canadian systems seem to have) will not keep such a system financially solvent in the medium or long run. This is not so different from many public libraries where most of the users are well-educated and middle class but who draw a great deal of value out of proportion to the taxes they pay. The FreeNet does not draw on the whole tax base, as a library does, and that makes their support less reliable. I think that the skillful use of statistics to show the way CNs are serving the populace and are helping to further the government goals of equitable access may be one of the best ways to show the impact these systems are having in many communities. I'd recommend deciding on a measure of stats taken from log files and surveys that are common to each system and coming up with a picture of CN activity by province and nationally.

URLs of note:

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