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The Washington Post
August 1, 1994
Washington Business, Page F15
Civic Hookups Put Locals on The Internet
Community Networks Offering Free Access
By Stewart Ugelow
Special to The Washington Post

Students, researchers and other professionals have long had no-cost access to the global computer network called the Internet. But for everyone else, getting in meant getting out the wallet.

Now a growing number of "community" or "civic" computer networks are springing up around the country to tie local people together and hook them into the Internet for free.

Last week, Maryland’s planned state-wide "Sailor" system, which makes the Internet’s so-called gopher services available at no cost, began limited operation in the Baltimore area. Officials hope to start making it available in Washington’s Maryland suburbs in September.

Sailor also will offer subsidized rates — $ 100 per year — for full access to the Internet, which is used by an estimated 20 million people worldwide. Commercial Internet services often charge three times that.

Sailor will join a more established Washington area community network, CapAccess, which in a year and a half has attracted more than 9,000 users by offering electronic-mail connections, limited access to the Internet and other services.

Since 1986 when Case Western Reserve University launched the Cleveland FreeNet, community networks have sprung up in many North American cities. The goal is to foster local communications and make sure that the poor and public service groups aren’t priced out of the electronic future.

They are free in the sense that public television is. People can sign up for nothing, but once aboard they are typically urged to donate money or time. Some services, such as Maryland’s Sailor, receive tax dollars.

"The whole idea of a civic network is new to everybody, including those who think they understand what it means," said Mark Bolgiano, a Greater Washington Board of Trade vice president who is studying a partnership with CapAccess.

"The number of people among our members who know what Internet is is still pretty low," he said. "CapAccess is even harder to understand."

Any area resident with a computer, modem device and communications software can reach CapAccess with a local telephone call. The number is 202-785-1523. Newcomers can log in under the name "guest", using "visitor" as the password.

People who already have Internet connections can reach CapAccess by using the telnet command to reach the address cap.gwu.edu.

Based at George Washington University, the service is geared toward helping users new to "the Net" get up to speed quickly. Instead of grappling with confusing typed commands, they can move around the service by picking numbered options from a menu or by typing shortcuts, such as "go post" to read e-mail.

There are on-line guides to appropriate Net conduct — dubbed "netiquette" — and other hints, such as how to select a good password. For users who would prefer face-to-face help, volunteers conduct free weekend training sessions.

CapAccess has targeted local schools, libraries, governments and social service groups by letting them use the service to promote their activities and collaborate with similar groups. Volunteers will help any such group post information or set up on-line "discussion groups" in which people carry on electronic dialogues.

Arlington County, for instance, has put a government information center on the system. The Montgomery County Public Library put its card catalogue on-line, and the Kennedy Center added performance schedules.

Several local schools put PTA minutes on-line and some churches have started posting sermons. Virginia Sen. Charles S. Robb set up a "virtual office," believed to be the first of its kind, which allows constituents to skim his voting record and official policy statements.

"It’s a good forum for people to look at what Senator Robb has been saying and doing," said Matt McGowan, Robb’s office manager.

The CapAccess experiment has created "new cross-community connections" between governments and community service groups, said CapAccess Executive Director Taylor Walsh.

"If there’s an information resource in Montgomery County that helps people who are homeless, there’s no reason for Arlington or Prince George’s to replicate that database and pay for its implementation if they can get access to it through the network," he said. "We’re already beginning to see that kind of thing happening."

Unlike many computer services, which tend to be used overwhelmingly by white males, the CapAccess user base is a fairly representative sampling of the region. At a recent membership meeting, half of the people attending were women, and almost a third were black. Overall, about 35 percent of CapAccess users are female, Walsh said. Only 10 percent to 15 percent of CompuServe and America Online users are women.

To provide true public access to the system, CapAccess has started a "recycling" campaign to refurbish old computers from corporations and governments and redistribute them to libraries, schools and community centers across the region.

"We need to put access points in the hands of the disadvantaged so [CapAccess] can be a tool for the many, not the few," said attorney Jack Young, a CapAccess volunteer.

Funded initially by grants from the Annenberg/Corporation for Public Broadcasting Projects with technical assistance from George Washington University, CapAccess now relies entirely on donations and volunteers such as Young to cover its $ 300,000 in annual costs.

This collaboration could serve as a model for national networks, users say.

"We are doing exactly what the government wants to do," said the Rev. Fred Williams, a board member. "Our ‘family’ is building a better community through technology. What we’re doing is replicable and exportable throughout the whole country."