"Community Networks at the Crossroads"

A discussion document by Wally Bowen, executive director of the Mountain Area Information Network, June 1996. Website: <www.main.nc.us>

Community networking is at a crossroads. Should community networks focus solely on building appealing content, the "If you build it, they will come" approach? Or should community networks provide Internet access as well as compelling content?

As director of a rural community network, I believe that content and access cannot be separated. Furthermore, I believe that the survival of community networking is inextricably linked to providing local citizens an alternative route to the Internet.

Though many observers believe that Internet access will become ubiquitous and cheap -- even free -- the privatization and commercialization of the Internet could place most community networks so far off the "beaten path" that they're rarely visited.

To understand how this situation could evolve requires some historical perspective. Though the Internet is break-through technology, it has also emerged into a commercial media environment with deep and powerful historical roots.

The Public Media Movement

Citizen-access community networking is descended from the grass-roots "public media" movement of the 1920s. That movement -- led by several hundred non- profit, citizen-operated radio stations -- failed miserably. (Public TV and radio -- authorized by Congress in the late 1960s and early 70s -- are not true grass-roots public media. Their "top-down" structure provides little access for average citizens, and their programming choices are increasingly circumscribed by Congressional and corporate pressure.)

The public media movement reawakened in the 1970s with the advent of citizen- operated, public access cable TV channels. Though public-access TV has had sporadic success, chronic lack of funding and public support have severely limited the medium's development.

More recently, the "micro-radio" movement is attempting to resurrect the 1920s tradition of small, low-power radio stations owned and operated by average citizens and small non-profits. This movement is vigorously opposed by the industry-dominated Federal Communications Commission.
Ultimately, the public media movement has roots going back to the American Revolution. The political system spawned by the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights was nurtured and shaped by free and open "public spaces" -- the village greens, town halls and taverns -- where citizens could gather, exchange information, and organize into a self-governing body politic

The Loss of Public Space

The 20th-century has been marked by an alarming decline in democratic, public spaces. From the disappearance of locally-owned, locally-accountable newspapers to the middle-class retreat to the private realm of suburbs, shopping malls, and TV-land, 20th-century America made a dramatic -- but little-noticed -- shift in how citizens access and use information.

In analyzing this shift, the philosopher Jurgen Habermas sees a direct correlation between the shrinking of the "public sphere" and the rise of voter apathy and cynicism. Public space, writes Habermas, is a vital arena -- between government and the private, commercial realm -- where citizens meet to hammer out differences and reach consensus through rational discourse.

For example, in colonial America, the voices and opinions of citizens could be heard and judged in public spaces based on the relevance of those opinions to the general health and welfare of the body politic.

In 20th-century America, however, only those voices and ideas which meet rigid marketing criteria and formulae are available for general, widespread consumption. The validity of these voices and ideas are judged primarily by standards and values based -- not on the health of the body politic -- but on the health of Wall Street and the bottom-line.

Enter the Internet. Despite the media hype, the Internet will not change the dominant, commercial media order of the United States. Passage of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 on Feb. 8 -- and the lack of public debate on its democratic impact -- is ample demonstration of how entrenched the private, commercial media order has become.

Nevertheless, the Internet does present an historic opening for using new digital technologies to reserve some electronic space for public, non-profit, civic and democratic use.

Built mainly by taxpayer dollars, the Internet evolved as open, public space. However, no one should assume that the Internet will retain its "public media" character. Although some techno-philes argue that the Internet is inherently democratic and will subvert any attempts at commercialization and privatization, this belief is based more on faith than on any historical or empirical evidence.

The Changing Internet

The privatization and commercialization of the Internet is clearly underway. What began as an open medium is being rapidly colonized by commercial interests, whose goal is to create appealing proprietary "domains" to attract and hold the interest of consumers.

Media companies make money in two primary ways: they sell audiences to advertisers, and they sell products directly to consumers (subscriptions, pay-per-view, pay-to-play, etc.). Some combination of these two ways of turning a profit will soon dominate the Internet.

Selling audiences to advertisers is the model of so-called "free TV," or what the National Association of Broadcasters -- the industry's powerful lobbying arm -- calls "the American way" of broadcasting.

In this approach, free access to the medium by consumers is subsidized by advertisers, who are willing to pay handsomely for specific target audiences. The presentation of compelling content is used to attract the time and attention of target audiences.

Fox Network, for example, built a fourth major network mainly around advertisers' most prized demographic targets -- the 18-34 age groups. In this commercial relationship, access and content are inseparable and synergistic.

Cable TV, meanwhile, represents the second profit-making model: selling products directly to consumers. Home shopping, pay-per-view, and pay-to-play characterize this "interactive" approach. As cable companies such as Turner/Time-Warner and TCI have amply demonstrated, profit-making opportunities multiply when access (cable systems) is combined with content (Warner Brothers, CNN, Home Shopping Network, etc.)

"The Internet will evolve along a similar path as broadcasting," a leading Wall Street analyst recently predicted. "By the end of the decade," he added, "four private data broadcasters will emerge that will bundle and package branded content on a global basis to a broad array of personal computers."

A similar prediction was reported recently by the trade publication, "Internet Business Advantage": "With the telephone and cable companies entering the Internet service market, the days of the small ISP are numbered, predicts the Yankee Group. Yankee estimates that of the 1,400 ISPs now in the U.S., fewer than 200 will still be around by 2000." Most of those 200 remaining ISPs will be subsidiaries of a handful of dominate media conglomerates.

For these companies, controlling access is inextricably linked to their ability to sell content, and to sell audiences to advertisers. Without access, content-providers (Disney) are at the mercy of those who control the channels of communication (ABC/Capital Cities). For the emerging media conglomerates, access and content go hand-in-hand (Disney/ABC).

Indeed, passage of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 was driven by the media industries' need to break down the barriers between access-providers (telephone, broadcasters, cable companies) and content providers (Hollywood and TV studios, software manufacturers, newspapers, publishing houses, etc.).

This is why Microsoft, to take just one prominent example, is busily trying to overtake Netscape's lead as the dominant World Wide Web browser (access), while it undertakes strategic partnerships with General Electric/NBC (content and access), purchases the Bettemann photo archives (content), and holds talks with other companies such as Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. (content and access) and TCI (content and access).

Whither the Community Network?

Meanwhile, community networks will live or die based on their relationship to the increasingly privatized, commercialized Internet. Assuming that access to the Internet will be plentiful and cheap -- perhaps free -- is to enter a devil's bargain.

As noted earlier, access to the Internet will be "free" provided that it's subsidized by advertising and pay-per-view/pay-to-play revenue. But in order to turn a profit, commercial access-providers must hold the attention of their target audiences within their proprietary, commercial domains. America On-Line is a precursor of the "free TV" model that will soon dominate the Internet.

When AOL subscribers log-on, they do not enter the public space of the Internet. Instead, they enter a domain constructed and owned by AOL. Subscribers can get to the public Internet, but AOL creates stumbling blocks and disincentives (such as higher fees) when subscribers leave the commercial, proprietary domain.

Advertising-supported media are in the business of selling "impressions," an industry term used to describe the time and attention a consumer devotes to the advertiser's message. Commercial media justify the fees they charge advertisers by certifying that the advertiser's message is being exposed to, or impressed upon, specific numbers of consumers meeting a certain demographic profile (middle-class, suburban teens, for example). In commercial broadcasting today, this certification is based on yardsticks such as Nielsen and Arbitron ratings.

Access to these commercial domains will be cheap or perhaps free. Once in these domains, however, consumers will encounter many incentives to remain in the domain (fun graphics, Lotto, celebrity "encounters," etc.), thereby generating revenue via exposure to advertising or via payments to view programming or to play interactive video games. This is the "amusement park/shopping mall" model perfected by broadcast and cable TV.

Meanwhile, community networks which entrust Internet access to the commercial sector will scratch their heads and wonder why more citizens don't visit their local, public domain. The reasons illustrate how content and access are interrelated:

1. Building a community network without direct and convenient access is like locating a public market far removed from a city's main bus and car routes. Those routes run directly and quickly to the shopping mall, but to get to the public market, you've got to change buses several times, take a few back roads and go farther out of your way. For the vast majority of folks, the shopping mall will do just fine because it's so convenient. The problem is access.

2. The "shopping mall/amusement park" domain will also be more appealing because it has the latest in technical glitz and glamour. Because the community network is relatively inaccessible and operated by volunteers, it will lack sufficient funding to approach the commercial sector's level of technical and graphic innovation. This is a content problem, aggravated by lack of access and funding.

This second scenario is analogous to the historic problem of public access cable TV. Some big-city, citizen-operated channels (such as Seattle and Minneapolis) have ample revenue streams (franchise fees, grants, donations, etc.). They can afford first-rate cameras and editing decks as well as professional staff to train volunteers to produce programming that approaches the technical standards of commercial TV.

This level of professionalism allows public-access programming's inherent advantage to shine through -- it's home-grown, local and civic, with no commercial strings attached.
However, many smaller public access operations have inadequate revenue streams. Therefore, they rely on out-dated, hand-me-down equipment, untrained volunteers, and haphazard scheduling. Their programming and audiences reflect the inadequate funding. Any funding they do get from local government is always subject to budget-cuts because the "nobody is watching" claim is credible.

The best-case scenario for citizen-operated, citizen-access TV is when the cable system is publically-owned. Some communities, like Morganton, N.C., discovered that the coaxial "load-control" cable used by their municipally-owned water or electric systems could also carry a video signal. These communities now offer a full array of cable TV channels plus public, education and government (P-E-G) access channels. The citizens pay their monthly bills to the community-owned and operated cable system. The revenue stays in the community to support and maintain the operation.

Think Globally, Act Locally

With the advent of the Internet, communities now have the historic opportunity to create their own locally-owned, locally-accountable computer networks. Those communities who seize this opportunity will give their citizens an alternative to the "shopping mall/amusement park" version of the Internet now being deployed.

Citizens in these communities will probably choose to have two accounts: the "free" access commercial account, and the modestly-priced community network account that supports home-grown, local content and discussion forums.

In return, the community network has sufficient revenue to operate a reliable and appealing civic network that points not only to local content, but also to global content of local interest. In this way, community networks can create a "civic information order" that ties local issues and concerns to the global power and resources of the Internet. This approach is an historic opportunity to breathe new life into the civic slogan, "Think globally, act locally."

If the foregoing analysis is accurate, community networks must view content and access as synergistic and inseparable. Providing citizens an alternative, non-commercial route to the Internet will be just as valuable as providing vital local content and discussion forums.

Citizens are more likely to volunteer for, and financially support, a community network which they feel provides a vital service. They are more likely to enter the realm of civic engagement if they feel like they have a stake in that realm. If the Internet follows the shopping mall/amusement park model of commercial TV, nothing will be more vital for the civic health of our communities than an alternative place where citizens can act as citizens.