Winter-Spring 2004

The Third Age of Community Networking

As the dot-com era collapsed and cable/DSL access became more common in communities, many local leaders turned their backs on the issues of how communities use technology. But from the work presented at the AFCN conference this last December, it was clear that we are just at the start of what I would characterize as the "third age" of community networking. The "first age" was the early days of CN projects that had a key focus on access, and offered dial-up in many communities where there were no or few ISPs. As commercial dial-up services became more widely available, a "second age" CN focus emerged to provide training, education, and local services, as appropriate. During the second age, infrastructure issues were left largely to the private sector.

But the infrastructure job is not done. One thing that has been lost in recent telecommunications deregulation is the notion of universal access, ensuring that every household and every business has affordable broadband access and affordable services (e.g., email, Web hosting, videoconferencing, blogging, community directories, etc).

The "third age" of community networking will blend some "first and second age" infrastructure solutions with successful communities developing public/private partnerships to get affordable access to more households and businesses. Most community wireless projects will need commercial ISPs to make them viable over the long term. Communities can now make modest investments to help attract commercial wireless providers. They can also make modest wireline investments (e.g., duct, dark fiber, co-location facilities) that will also attract commercial ISPs to light the fiber and bring advanced business and commercial services into the community.

What is really exciting about the "third age" of community networking is that Community Networks can now provide inexpensive, very sophisticated services, including online learning, civic governance forums, "safe" chat rooms for kids, videoconferencing, audio and video streaming of community events, and collaborative work environments for community boards and local committees/commissions, just to name a few. In short, the "third age" of community networking is being characterized by mature computer hardware, mature broadband access, and mature services.

Now, any community in America (and the world) can have services and infrastructure that are as good or better than any urban area.

Andrew Michael Cohill, Ph.D., past president of AFCN, is Information Architect with Design Nine, Inc., in Blacksburg, Virginia.

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