June 26, 1996
Many Free-Net users and volunteers have been asking about the services that TCFN offers. Common questions include:
“Why doesn’t TCFN offer SLIP or PPP access?”
“Why can’t I telnet to ____________?”
“Why can’t I use ‘talk’ or IRC?”
“Why do I get so little disk space for my Web pages?”
The answers to these questions will be clearer if you understand the real purpose of the Free-Net (something we have not done a very good job of explaining, unfortunately.)
TCFN’s mission is:
To help build community within the Twin Cities metropolitan area by promoting dialog and information sharing, without regard to social or economic status, through the use of information technologies.
Yes, I know, mission statements tend to make your eyes glaze over. But ours is very important. Everything we do flows from this statement of purpose.
The core of our mission is to build community.
We aim to accomplish this by creating an online conferencing center. This will be a place where people can discuss local issues and collaborate on community projects. It will feature both public and private discussion forums.
Our forums will not be “chat rooms”, nor will they be much like Usenet newsgroups or listservs. If you have ever participated in a conferencing center like the WELL, Echo, Grex, or Cafe Utne, then you have some idea what TCFN will be like. TCFN has already taken some steps in this direction by hosting E-Democracy debates and citizen forums, and the Twin Cities Neighborhoods mailing list (nbhd-tc). Our Caucus conferencing center will make the Free-Net a better home for forums like these.
In addition to discussion forums, TCFN will provide other interactive utilities that will make it easy for people to post and share information. Possible examples:
Classified ads (already available!)
Community events calendars
Registries of 12-step groups, book clubs, computer user groups, etc.
So what about access?
A common misconception is that the purpose of the Free-Net is to provide free access to the Internet. But that’s not our mission. Our mission is to build community online. To put it in terms of the “information superhighway”, we’re building a destination, not an on-ramp.
In the past, Free-Nets have served both purposes: they have provided both the destination and the on-ramp (a pool of modems and phone lines). But the Internet is changing that. It’s now possible to buy affordable dial-up access through a multitude of commercial vendors. The price of unlimited Internet access is now about the same as a cable TV subscription, and will likely continue to fall, because competition is fierce.
We encourage people to access the Free-Net via a commercial Internet provider if possible. We have no desire to compete with the commercial vendors. They have relieved us of a large burden! We no longer have to devote so much of our resources to physical access, and can concentrate instead on building community.
BUT – there are some people who still can’t afford Internet access, or who don’t have a computer or the skills to use one. What about them?
As our mission states, we are committed to making the Free-Net available to everyone, “without regard to social or economic status”. It’s crucial that our online community be diverse and representative of our physical community, with participation by people from all walks of life.
There are many barriers to participation: lack of money, equipment, and education all can present obstacles. TCFN will do whatever it can to overcome such barriers. That might mean conducting training sessions, distributing low-cost used computers, providing free or cheap dial-up access, etc.
But providing these services will be expensive, and we can’t afford to give them away free to everyone. We will have to carefully target these services at those people who need them the most, and make sure that those who can afford to pay their own way do so.
To the extent that we do provide dial-up Internet access, it will be a means to an end, not an end in and of itself. Everything we do will be aimed at fulfilling our mission: building community.
So, to get back to some of the questions I listed at the beginning: the answers make sense when you evaluate the questions in terms of our mission.
Q: Why doesn’t TCFN offer SLIP or PPP access?
A: Because such access is not needed for participation in the most important aspects of the Free-Net, and providing such access would put us in direct competition with commercial vendors, which we wish to avoid.
Q: Why can’t I telnet to ____________?
A: Because our modems are a scarce resource, and we need to reserve their use for activities that help fulfill our mission of building community. That is, they should be used mainly to reach the Free-Net itself rather than for access to arbitrary sites on the Internet.
Q: Why can’t I use “talk” or IRC?
A: The Free-Net is designed primarily as a local resource. If you need to talk with other local people in real time you can use the phone rather than tying up TCFN’s modems. We have nothing against worldwide chat sessions, but since they don’t contribute to building community here, we can’t afford to subsidize them.
Q: Why do I get so little disk space for my Web pages?
A: The standard disk quota is enough for a fairly extensive personal Web page if you stick mainly to text. We discourage graphic-intensive Web pages because pictures take a lot of space and usually offer little information content. We need to reserve our disk resources mainly for online forums and other community uses. It’s possible that in the future we might offer additional disk space on a fee basis as a way of generating revenue for the Free-Net, but we don’t yet have any billing procedures in place.
I hope this helps to clarify the direction TCFN is headed, and why we do some things the way we do.