Spring 2003

AFCN Update Community Technology: New Times, New Tactics
by Gene Crick
Gene Crick

Community Technology projects are under fire. Money is tight in a downturned economy; support for public interest work is increasingly difficult to find. Why should elected officials spend scarce money today to build lives and offer opportunity? They may well be retired by the time those people show up in hospitals and prisons.

Okay, that's vented. Now what do we do with the situation we actually face?

Community technology leaders have always dealt with inadequate resources for overwhelming needs. AFCN urges: don't buy into gloomy predictions of a dark future for community technology. Community technology leaders have always dealt with inadequate resources for overwhelming needs. If we work together, this year of crisis can bring more benefits than burdens.

At AFCN, we are feverishly addressing sustainability as one key issue, largely because so many CNs are facing vital deadlines for operations and payrolls. Fortunately some solid questions and promising initiatives are beginning to emerge. One fairly obvious example:

Community Technology Integration: Centers, Networks, and... Commissions?

All too often our projects become insular. Daily problems seem so pressing we don't have time to stay in touch with valuable allies, even in our own community. That has to change. AFCN recommends strongly CTC and CN leaders find time to meet with other local technology stakeholders. Perhaps monthly breakfasts? However you gather, invite ISPs, government leaders, economic developers, businesspeople, IT professionals... anyone with an interest in healthy growth of local telecommunications.

If a more formal structure appeals, help create a regional telecom advocacy organization. One good model is a 501c3 "commission," endorsed but not owned by your government(s).

Each "partner" group can retain its own identity and leadership in this collaboration. But together we can exchange information, share resources, and seek additional support.

I recognize collaborative efforts are hardly news for you. So if you have one already, support and energize it. If not, start one. The time has come to get serious about local control and activism.

Whatever you do, MEET! Get the mayor there. Ask bankers. Don't overlook service organizations. The work you do and capacity you help build matters to everyone.

Related questions:

  • Do you have both a CN and CTCs in your town? What's the difference?
  • Is supporting separate programs becoming a burden? Could you serve better by closer cooperation or even merger?

Though autonomy, control and separate history are not always compatible it's usually worth the effort to explore sharing operations and facilities. Might help keep the doors open.

Affordable, Accessible Software, Tools

Two other current priorities for AFCN support of community technology leaders are basic: tools and training. We're preparing a report on powerful tools already available and usually free. Some overworked CN leaders may not yet know where to find assistance they may badly need. For example, have you noted the ACC Regional Development 2002 Report and the Regional Consortia Directory recently posted on the CTCNet website? Or the self-evaluation toolkit on AmericaConnects.net? You don't have to be a CTC; anyone can use these tools.

Gene Crick

Gene Takes a Call
From the Home Office

Another increasingly timely resource is the growing selection and sophistication of "Open Source/shareware/accessible/whatever" software. (Richard Stallman was just visiting, decrying the more common name "Open Source" – but you know what I mean). Andrew Cohill and others have long recognized their value, and they're right. Flexibility and cost make these important options for efficiently-managed community technology projects. (For years MAIN/TCRC has been running Linux on some servers in our NOC, but since we are an R&D facility for community IT we expect and even presume high maintenance. So I hadn't realized how far open source has evolved. Now we have a local Open Source Forum to exchange information and advocate continuing development.)

If you are interested in more information on Open Source, and/or would like to volunteer to help in its development, please make contact via the AFCN.org website.

Funding, Training

In the last issue I discussed our new professional Community Network training programs. For this issue I'll remind that we are responding to the lamentable reductions in federal government support for key community telecommunications programs like CTC, America Connects, NTIA/TOP, VISTA digital divide initiates, etc. State governments are cutting back as well. In Texas we currently have nearly 200 community networks, mostly funded by one program, now almost certainly being eliminated. I sadly predict we'll lose a number of them during the year ahead.

That's why we're pushing to identify support resources still available and working to assist CN leaders in participating in programs that fit their needs. The most recent example is our March 27, 2003 TOP grant workshop. TOP officials, whose outreach budgets are terribly slim, were wonderful about partnering with us to help inform prospective applicants about the 2003 RFP.

We're hurriedly working toward a second workshop like this, to be held in the DC area. Workshop information is posted on the TOP workshop web page and on AFCN and CTCNet member lists. For information on this and other funding assistance programs, you can also contact Patti Clifford (pclifford@main.org).

We Need Leaders!

Are you willing to help out (and help your own efforts, too) by working with AFCN to gather information and develop resources? One immediate need is experienced "volunteer program" leaders able to coordinate basic online volunteerism. Please let us know if you can help.

New Mexico Milestone: Judith Pepper, member of the AFCN Board of Directors, reports the world-famed La Plaza Community Network of Taos, New Mexico, is winding down operations. Judith and the La Plaza leadership decided the primary goals for which La Plaza was created have been met and, given increasing difficulty of economic sustainability, their time and efforts could be more productive in other activities.

Though this passage naturally brings some sadness, La Plaza will be recorded as one of community networking's clear successes. Plus there is the brighter news that Judith will be sharing her expertise and insights professionally, as a consultant for other communities.

This brings a question I'd like to ask AFCN members. As our profession matures we are blessed by a growing number of true experts, capable of assisting communities everywhere. When Steve Snow left Charlotte's Web and Andrew Cohill left Blacksburg Electronic Village, we added two assets to the small cadre of skilled consultants, like the legendary Frank Odasz.

And I can't mention them without noting other friends who are also genuine experts, like Terri and Karen and Richard and... see the problem?

So The Question: Would it be valuable for AFCN to create some sort of directory of qualified community network advisors? Your input is invited.

Finally... Remembering Don Furth

Don Furth
Don Furth

I'm sad to report a loss in our family. On February 27th, 2003, Don Furth of Rio Grande FreeNet passed away. Though not so widely known as our beloved Toni Stone, Don was one of the true pioneers of community networking in this country.

Upon retiring as a U.S. Army Ranger Sergeant Major with Purple Heart and Bronze Star, Don recognized great human need in the vast, economically struggling, geographically-isolated area surrounding El Paso, Texas (El Paso, in a different time zone from the rest of Texas, is closer to Los Angeles than to its own state capital.) So he founded the Rio Grande FreeNet, the first FreeNet in Texas, to offer access, education, and opportunity to hundreds of thousands in his community.

An unassuming but dedicated man, Don Furth embodied the best of our profession. He worked devotedly for this wonderful project until the day he passed away. His decency and commitment were truly an inspiration to those blessed by his friendship. This is not mere eulogy: Don was always there for us, offering quiet guidance and spiritual support, with his trademark warmth, wit, and wisdom. He will be greatly missed.

That's about it for this issue, except to say again: These are times we need each other more than ever. Please tell us how AFCN can best serve you and your community. And please join AFCN to help us make that happen. Thanks, Gene

Gene Crick is President of the Association for Community Networking.

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