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March 17, 1996

Ocean State Free-Net
plots its course

By Timothy C. Barmann

The Ocean State Free-Net is about to hatch.

The statewide public access computer network is nearing the end of a 1 1/2-year ``incubation'' period and is plotting its future course, says vice president Howard Boksenbaum.

The Free-Net, which came to life under Boksenbaum's direction, has been operated by the Department of State Library Services since it went on line in September 1994.

But that will soon change.

``We've ventured into the dangerous waters of the transition,'' Boksenbaum said in a recent interview.

Boksenbaum said it's now time for the Free-Net to figure out how to survive on its own. Work is under way on creating a business plan and finding its own resources.

The Free-Net bills itself as ``Rhode Island's electronic library and community center.'' It has some 5,500 account holders who can access a host of resources from their personal computers, including the CLAN library network, federal legislative information, electronic mail and text access to the Internet's World Wide Web.

Accounts are free to any Rhode Islander, but donations are welcome.

Besides user donations, the Free-Net's principal funding has come from NYNEX, the Governor's Commission on the Handicapped, the Rhode Island Foundation and the Department of State Library Services, which has provided staffing. The Free-Net computer is stored at Channel 36.

The transition to ``independent entity'' actually began last summer, when the Free-Net was incorporated and obtained nonprofit status.

Since then, users were surveyed about their likes, complaints and suggestions, which will help formulate how the ``mature'' Free-Net will carry out its mission.

That mission, Boksenbaum said, is two-fold. First, it's to give local nonprofit groups, community organizations and government agencies a place to electronically publish. Second, it is to ensure that ``everyone in Rhode Island has access to that local information and other information they need for daily living ... in an increasingly electronic world.''

But Boksenbaum admits the Free-Net has fallen short on at least one of those counts -- that of providing community information.

Only a small percentage of the local groups that have expressed interest in being information providers ``are actively working on the Free-Net right now.''

`Lots of busy signals'

``That's a big problem,'' says Jennifer Bale-Kushner, of the Support Center of Rhode Island, an agency hired by the Free-Net to help develop its business plan.

Another problem is users' inability to get on the system. Its popularity has generated a lot of new users and a lot of busy signals.

That increased modem traffic has also put a strain on RINet, the network the Free-Net uses to link to the Internet, and to all users who dial in by modem.

When users call the Free-Net, they are actually connecting first to RINet, a separate entity jointly maintained and funded by the Rhode Island Department of Education, the Department of State Library Services, Channel 36, the University of Rhode Island and Brown University.

RINet was established to provide a link between the state's schools, libraries and the Internet, but it has allowed the Free-Net to ``piggyback'' on its statewide network of modems.

But Boksenbaum said the Free-Net's needs ``are growing faster than RINet.'' The Free-Net has asked several local Internet providers to submit an access service plan that will help the Free-Net expand, Boksenbaum said.

`Not an alternative' service provider

The Free-Net may even consider becoming a nonprofit Internet service provider, Boksenbaum said. (Please read this update from the March 31, 1996 Cybertalk column.)

That would be an about-face in terms of the Free-Net's current official policy: The Free-Net ``is not an alternative to commercial Internet service providers,'' says an on-line mission statement.

Boksenbaum said since more and more state and federal government agencies now use the Internet to distribute information, it's become more important to allow users access to the world-wide network.

Free-Nets in some cities now offer full Internet access. The Tallahassee, Fla., Free-Net, for example, offers its local residents full Internet access for free.

The Free-Net's planning is expected to be completed by late spring. The steering committee and the Support Center have scheduled a retreat for the middle of next month where many decisions about the future of the Free-Net will be made, said Bale-Kushner. She said she hopes to see a business plan written about a month later.

That's when we're likely to see the new Free-Net creature begin to emerge from its shell. Let's hope it can fly.

To access the Free-Net, you need a computer and a modem. For detailed connect instructions, call 277-2728, Ext. 500. It is also accessible from 23 public libraries around the state.

Computer calendar

Tuesday -- The Providence Chapter of the Boston Computer Society and the Ocean State Internet Society will hold a joint meeting at 7 p.m. at CCRI in Warwick, in the East Conference Room. Perry B. Haynsworth of Grand View Technologies will give a seminar, ``An Introduction to Using the Information Superhighway: Avenues to Information About Cancer.'' General question and answer session begins at 6:30. Cost: Free. More information, see the Providence BCS home page at http://ids.net/~louissn/ribcs.html or call Louis Stein at 739-2810.

March 27 -- The Ocean State Internet Society will meet at the Weaver Public Library, Grove Avenue, East Providence at 7 p.m. Question and answer session is at 6:30. Topic to be announced. Cost: Free. For more information, contact D. Jane Harrop at OSIS by e-mail: osis@osfn.rhilinet.gov or at 435-8083, box 2.

Timothy C. Barmann is a Journal-Bulletin staff photographer. His column runs every other Sunday on the On Line page. Send him comments via e-mail at tim@cybertalk.com or U.S. mail, c/o the Journal-Bulletin, 75 Fountain St., Providence, R.I. 02902.