Community Networks

by David Wilcox.
This article first appeared in the British Telecommunications
Engineering Journal, January 1996.


By David Wilcox, Partnerships for Tomorrow.


Over the next year we are likely to hear much more about local authorities and voluntary bodies using the Internet and other local systems to provide public information services.

More Internet-access kiosks will open in public libraries, and cybercafes will be started in community centres. Systems which began with teletext listings of council services will migrate to the World Wide Web and expand to become 'Virtual Cities' of entertainment, shopping and information about every aspect of local life.

Voluntary bodies and community groups who previously limited their IT activities to word processing and databases will join in bids to Government 'challenge' funds, sponsors and Europe to develop multimedia projects, community networks or even telematic regions.

Bulletin board systems run by enthusiasts in their back bedrooms, carrying esoteric discussion of shareware programmes, will become the electronic equivalent of community newspapers.

Champions of community networking hope that these various projects together will enhance local democracy, provide new education opportunities, and help bind together communities by communicating across boundaries which divide us in an increasingly specialised world.

However, before we join in hyping the possible benefits the information superhighway may bring at local level, we should examine North American developments, and consider the nature of 'community' and 'networking' in the UK.

I suggest we need to consider three issues with complex linkages: the technology, the information, and the connection of computer-based networks to 'real world' networks and activities.

North American developments

North American community networks are varied, but have some common features which provide a framework for similar systems in the UK.

Technically they help computer users in a locality connect with each other, mainly using modems and phone lines. They may do this through one computer, the server, dedicated to acting as a hub in a closed system, or by building their network on the server of a commercial Internet Service Provider. Some provide that access free, covering costs through grants, donations and earnings from elsewhere, others charge subscriptions.

Users connect from home, work or public terminal - perhaps in a classroom or library. The connections available on different networks range from a couple of phone lines to fibre optic links. These links, perhaps between key sites like schools and training centres, could offer two-way video conferencing, audio and data networking. Others are experimenting with wireless radio networks.

Through these connections users can exchange messages privately, conduct public discussions, exchange computer files and access centrally held information. Their exchanges may be limited to the local system, or they may have gateways to the wider Internet and other systems.

The information the networks offer to network users may range from timetables to job opportunities, electronic library catalogues, restaurant listings, tourist attractions and news reports to material from community groups.

The electronic networks depends on local organisations and real world networks for their support in funding, information provision and volunteer help - local government, libraries, university, voluntary bodies, sponsors. In turn the networks will train local groups in using the technology and help them develop new projects.

The general form of organisation of a community network is a non profit distributing company, which may consequently gain tax advantages. Funding and support comes from a mix of grants, donations, sponsorship, subscriptions and volunteer help.

The Morino Institute, one of the champions of community networks in the US, has published a directory of Public Access Networks, which it splits into two sections: first Free-Nets, Community networks and Civic Networks aiming to serve communities as a whole; and secondly Special Focus Networks. The latter split into further categories including economic development, government information, education, community service, health and education.

Morino draw a distinction between relatively passive broadcasting and interactive communication where information users are also providers. They argue that:

'This new medium offers immense potential for helping people address many of the challenges to their individual success and the vitality of their communities. Those who have experienced the richness of interactive communications understand its ability to empower individuals, inspire collaboration, facilitate learning and enhance our patterns of access to people and information.

'On the grand scale, interactive communications is already connecting millions of individuals around the world in unrestrained dialogue and helping them to reach vast resources of knowledge and information. Closer to home, it is helping local communities energize citizen participation, reinvent institutions, provide outreach services and spur economic development. Perhaps the greatest opportunity is that it may provide a vehicle for bringing together groups of people in collaborative efforts to solve the interconnected social problems afflicting those communities.'

References for the Morino Institute, other sources, and community networks themselves, are given at the end of the article.

Some communication basics

Before considering how the mix of technology, information handling and real world connection may operate in the UK, I would like to ensure we are on common ground by dealing with the basic functions of interactive communication and the systems they use. In the process I will declare a few personal dispositions which colour the later discussion.

One of the great difficulties in this field is the lack of a common language and framework of understanding between (social) community developers and (technical) network developers, so I make no apology for a simple approach which aims to close the gap a little by trying to make this article accessible to both.

The following functions are common to most systems.

Email, mailing lists and conferences.

I have found general accord that the most useful function of electronic systems for general users is email - the one-to-one transmission of messages which might otherwise go by fax or post.

Two forms of public email provide additional benefits. Mailing lists allow members of an interest group to subscribe to a central email address, and then receive any message posted by any other subscriber.

Conferences, also called newsgroups or forums, perform the same function except messages stay at the central address and users must take the trouble to access them periodically rather than find them automatically piling up in their mailbox each day.

Personally I prefer mailing lists, but over enthusiasm in subscribing to them gives you the equivalent of an overflowing intray every day, with the constant temptation to check what's just come in and to join in the discussion.

Conferences can work well, but I believe that their likely value in community networks depends upon the software available. Older system use text-based menus which are frustrating for those used to the friendlier graphical interfaces of Macintosh or Windows.

File transfer

File transfer theoretically enables system users to send anything on their computer to that of any other subscriber to the system: whether text file, magazine layout, spread sheet or graphic. In practice, the ease of transfer depends on the nature of the system and agreement of common standards.

Files sent attached to Internet email have to be encoded and decoded, and this can be troublesome. Unless users agree simple matters like which word processing format, anything more than a simple text file must go through tedious processes of translation.

Other means of retrieving files from distant computers trend to baffled novice users.

These difficulties apparently disappear when using World Wide Web (WWW), software which presents the user with attractive pages of text, graphics and hypertext 'hot links' to other pages which may be on the same computer or anywhere else on the Internet. Just click on a link and you can 'surf' across the world to further information, download a file, email a response or join an associated conference.

WWW appears to be the application which makes everything work easily - but there are problems even there. All pages must be designed and prepared using HTML - HyperText Markup Language. While this is becoming easier, it means that WWW is principally a one-to-many publishing medium, compared with, for example, many-to-many publishing through a mailing list.

And although WWW can be read as text only, its main benefits require a computer capable of running Windows, or a Macintosh. Links can be slow, and combined with the temptation to just try the next connection to find what you really want, can consume a lot of time.

Systems and platforms

The pros and cons and possibilities of different applications and approaches come into sharper relief when considering the different systems or platforms on which community networks may run.

Community networks in North America started on simple Bulletin Board Systems (BBS) as early as 1980, when David Hughes set up Old Colorado City Communications in Colorado Springs to help people become more active and involved in local government.

These early systems required their users to deal with text menus to work their way through to discussion and file areas, and would limit email addresses to others on the same system. Later BBSs would connect together, so that users could send messages across the country - and the world - by Fidonet.

Today a community network using a BBSs might use First Class software which can run on equipment costing under L2000, and a software licence costing a few hundred pounds. Subscribers are greeted with the equivalent of a new Mac or Windows desktop (unless they are running DOS), and a range of email, conferencing and file transfer options.

Costs will, of course, increase substantially with the numbers of users, storage and connection requirements, but the look and feel is much the same whatever the scale. It has some similarities with commercial systems like Compuserve, that have for some years offered subscribers a friendly graphical interface, with email, conference areas, specialist databases and a host of information services from timetable and weather reports, news services and film reviews.

The BBS-based system could expand its services to include email out to and in from the Internet. It might offer both direct dial in and access via the Internet for long distance users.

Many community networks have seized the opportunities offered by World Wide Web, and created community networks on systems run by Universities or Internet Service Providers. These systems are excellent for publishing information attractively, but demand that all core material is designed and coded using HTML. There may be associated discussion groups, but in my view these are not as flexible as those running on First Class systems.

No doubt in a few years personal computers and television sets will be one, and conferencing and World Wide Web software will converge, but we aren't there yet. Even so I think that the constraints on community networks lie more with information handling and their real world relevance than with technical limitations.

Organising the information

I suspect that good community networks need a mix of skills drawn from journalism, librarianship and facilitation. News keeps users coming back to check what's happening. Well-structured information on screen with signposts elsewhere is the core of the system. Conferences are likely to need moderators to keep people on track and ensure an acceptable noise to signal ratio.

Community networkers should consider how much central work they can put into to develop and maintain a Web site, and how far they want to encourage users to be information providers under central guidance.

Whatever the software and the system, experience suggests that a great deal of effort and skill is needed to create an information-rich environment and keep it updated.

The social context

At one level it has never been easier for the UK home or business user to enjoy the benefits of interactive communication. While there are no developed community networks on the North American model, he or she can open an account with Compuserve which will provide a wealth of information plus Internet access at about L6 a month plus use charges, or simply gain access to the Internet for L10-L15 a month plus only local call charges.

Once on either system he or she will have international email, an ability to transfer files, and access to the World Wide Web. A look at the North American community networks may prompt a socially-conscious user to think about developing something similar locally. Here I would offer the enthusiast a few cautions, which lead to where I think the main issues for community networks lie - in the real, not the virtual, world. Here, first, are the cautions:

The level of computer use and connectivity in the UK is much lower here than in North America, and getting online is a big jump for most people. The potential user base in most localities is still very low.

Little will be achieved by creating a World Wide Web site called Anytown Community Network, with some basic information, and hoping enthusiastic volunteers will email you with pages of fascinating material. Ask the editor of a community or parish newspaper how easy it is to get good copy.

Even creating mailing lists or conferences around local topics and hoping people will send basic messages may not work. People simply 'lurk' on the lists, uninterested or under-confident about joining in.

Managing even a modest bulletin board system can be time-consuming, maintaining a Web site even more so.

Key public sector partners for a community network - local council, libraries, colleges, training agencies - may not even have email. They probably won't understand what you are talking about.

Community and voluntary sector interests are unlikely to see online working as a priority, unless there are very obvious benefits.

Potential private sector supporters will be more likely to offer help in kind than funding.

Behind these observations lie some lessons and possible guidelines for community networking.

Networking the real world community

Community networks are significantly different from public or private ventures. They rely on a wide range of different interests to commit technical support, information, and 'animation' voluntarily.

The collaboration and commitment needed to build them does not come easily, particularly when the different interests probably haven't worked together before and are new to the technology.

This means a lot of early effort to build up teams, assess technical needs, develop information structures, plan training and support. Later this work may be done by paid staff, but in the early days there may be no funding to cover the work. Start up costs cannot easily be repaid from later funding or earnings.

The more 'commercial' a system tries to make itself, the less voluntary effort it may attract.

However, there is a positive side to these difficulties. In reality there is no one 'community'. There are communities of locality and of interest. Every place has a myriad of links of family and friendship, of clubs for sport and recreation, support for health and learning, campaigning for the environment and citizens rights.

These communities need to communicate better within their interest groups, and between themselves. They need to share experience with others nationally and internationally, and increasingly they need to form partnerships to bid for funds from Government and Europe and demonstrate continuing collaboration.

They are the human infrastructure which already uses the technology of phone and fax, as well as print and face to face meetings, to maintain the web of relationships which makes up what we call community.

So for the new community networker a good starting place is the existing networks which want to enhance their activity. They have information and they have members who could become network users. They will do your marketing and provide content. They understand voluntary effort, fundraising and non profit distributing companies.

Once a critical mass of users develops, there will be scope for lively informal networking between individual users, finding others with similar interests, trading information and maybe holding the electronic equivalent of parties or car boot sales.

This is in addition to the more conventional information providers in local government, libraries, schools and colleges and other public agencies who will soon begin to feel some political pressure to join in.

A UK model?

I wouldn't like to propose an off the shelf UK model for community networking. We start from a different place than Americans or Canadians. We have better Internet connectivity, but higher local call charges. Our traditions of volunteering and civic responsibility are different. We have better public service broadcasting and, perhaps, a better Press. There may be less perceived need for local electronic networks.

On the other hand there is growing interest in getting online, and a realisation that while the Internet may provide good connections, it doesn't necessarily provide useful information. There is too much, which is too diverse and too difficult to find.

Organisations and networks need customised solutions which go beyond a simple Internet connection.

Our community networks may well be networks of networks and projects, as much as information providers. They may be teams of technical experts, information brokers, trainers and facilitators who ensure there is an appropriate platform, and help people use the new medium.

Their work will reinforce our sense of real world place, as well as create new virtual communities online, because they will be making face to face connections which might not otherwise happen. I have found email has increased the people I know across professional and other boundaries, and I have now met quite a few. Community networking could help get us away from the computer screen into new real worlds, as well as create virtual ones.

David Greenop, writing in this journal in October 1995, touched on many of the social issues raised by the new technology. He remarked:

'Above all else in bringing about the information society is the necessity of partnership between the builders of the information infrastructure and the representatives of society.'

He added: 'The challenges and the opportunities of new technologies must be made apparent to all members of society and its institutions, and a health debate must be encouraged.'

Much of this debate will take place through normal media and political channels. However, community networks - broadly defined - could provide the telecommunications industry with an unparalleled opportunity to test different approaches and contact a wide range of individual and organisational users not readily accessible through normal public and private sector channels.

Even if we discount the hype, community networks could demonstrate the social benefits of connecting computers at a time when people are becoming fearful of an increasingly machine dependant society.

The only way to find out what may or may not work is to try it. We need a number of local pilot projects which share their experience nationally and internationally, and which draw on expertise in telecommunications, computing, information management and community development.


The Morino Institute is dedicated to opening the doors of opportunity - economic, civic, health, and education - and empowering people to improve their lives and communities in the Communications Age.

The National Public Telecomputing Network is the parent body for Free-Net systems worldwide.

Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility has a reference section on community networking

The Center for Civic Networking is a non-profit organization dedicated to applying information infrastructure to the broad public good

Community Networking Documents and Resources can be found at the International National Federation of Library Associations and Institutions.

Among the useful documents are Community Computer Networks: Building Electronic Greenbelts by Steve Cisler of Network Outreach, Apple Computer, Inc, and his Can We Keep Community Networks Running?

Finding networks:

Free-Nets and Community Networks are listed by Peter Scott at:

A couple of WWW-based UK community networks:

Coventry Community Network

Capital Net - Cardiff


The Virtual Community, by Howard Rheingold, Minerva, 1994, 6.95 pounds, provides an optimistic view of the benefits the technology.

Silicon Snake Oil, by Clifford Stoll, Macmillan 1995, 9.95 pounds, offers sceptical second thoughts on the information highway.

Inventing the Future