"Community Networks at the Crossroads"
A discussion document by Wally Bowen,
executive director of the Mountain Area Information Network, June 1996.
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
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
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
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
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.