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April 28, 1996

Setting the Free-Net free:
Can it survive the crisis?

By Timothy C. Barmann

Ask D. Jane Harrop about the future of the Ocean State Free-Net, and she'll tell you it's in trouble.

Harrop, president of the Ocean State Internet Society, was one of the Free-Net's earliest supporters and is now one of its harshest critics.

And she's sending out a warning flare.

"I don't think people understand how desperate the situation is," she wrote recently in a Free-Net discussion group.

Harrop said later by phone that she's concerned whether the Free-Net, the statewide public-access computer system, will survive beyond a critical deadline it faces on July 1.

That's when two key organizations that provide the Free-Net's essential services - at no cost to the Free-Net's 6,500 account holders - plan to pull out.

One of them is RINet, the publicly and privately funded educational collaborative that links the Free-Net to the Internet. RINet has also allowed the Free-Net use of its statewide pool of 100 modems.

The Free-Net will also lose staffing provided by the Department of State Library Services, which "hatched" the Free-Net and has operated the public- access network since it went on line in September of 1994.

That department has been planning all along to push the Free-Net out of the nest. It started the Free-Net with the idea that it one day would be self- sustaining, according to Howard Boksenbaum, Free-Net vice president.

'We had to terminate'

And RINet, whose mission is to provide Internet service for Rhode Island schools and libraries, can no longer support the Free-Net, said RINet board chairman Bill Fiske.

As the Free-Net has grown in popularity, it has gobbled up RINet's resources, Fiske said. RINet has five partners: the University of Rhode Island, Brown University, Channel 36, the Department of State Library Services and the state Department of Education.

"Every single time we've assessed who's actually been using the modem pools," Fiske said, "it has never been less than 75 percent Free-Net users. At times it's been as high as 90 percent."

Using those figures, he estimates the Free-Net costs RINet between $90,000 and $107,000. RINet's budget will be $170,000 to $180,000 this year, he said.

Fiske said he first raised concerns about the Free-Net using so much of RINet's resources as early as last summer, but nothing was done. "Because there has been an unwillingness on that side to offer a solution . . . we had to terminate the relationship."

The Free-Net steering committee was told of RINet's decision in February, Fiske said.

A planning 'retreat'

The Free-Net has, in fact, been on a slow road to independence. Last fall, it became a nonprofit corporation. Two weeks ago, the Free-Net's steering committee, a group of 19 volunteer representatives of community groups, state agencies, schools and public libraries who set policy for the Free-Net, met for a planning "retreat."

There, plans were drawn for how the Free-Net is to survive as an independent entity.

Harrop, the Internet Society president, raised concerns about what the steering committee has done over the past 18 months to make sure the Free-Net will have the money needed to pay for staffing and its Internet connection.

Free-Net steering committee president Peter Simon said that the Free-Net does have some fund-raising efforts under way, but those efforts won't be fruitful until October at the earliest.

Possible funding includes a $167,000 appropriation from the state budget proposed by Rep. David J. Panciera, D-Westerly, and three other legislators. The group is also seeking funds from the United Way and from the Rhode Island Foundation, Simon said.

In the meantime, the Free-Net is turning to its users for $90,000 in donations to keep it operating from July until December.

"We will need your help," says a message signed "The Steering Committee" to Free-Net users when they first log on.

"We will be seeking grants, and donations from foundations and corporate sponsors, but it is upon you, our users and members of the (Free-Net) community that we must rely (on) the most."

'Nine bucks a person'

To replace RINet as its Internet provider, the Free-Net is negotiating with three local companies that offer Internet service, said Jennifer Bale- Kushner, of the Support Center of Rhode Island. Bale-Kushner is working with the Free-Net to help develop a business plan.

The Free-Net will also need the money to hire two full-time people - an executive director and a system operator - and a half-time person to coordinate volunteer efforts, she said.

What if that money can't be raised by July 1?

"We'll close," said Simon.

But he doesn't think the situation is dire.

"I'm thinking it will work," Simon said. "We have about 10,000 people who have logged on. An average of nine bucks a person doesn't seem like lot to ask."

But to Harrop, it does seem like a lot to ask.

"Why should we donate more money to this organization that generally regards its users as almost parasites?" she said. "We have no idea what's done with the money and who it's going to."

Shrinking access

Harrop and others have criticized the steering committee for being "unaccountable" and for ignoring the complaints of Free-Net users.

The Free-Net for months has had a number of problems. Some basic menu commands and help files have never worked as advertised. And the Free-Net has become so popular that it's difficult to get on line.

More recently, several users have complained through on-line discussion groups that a popular feature allowing greater access to the Internet was removed from the Free-Net without any warning or official explanation.

"You've got a steering committee, an executive committee chock-full of people who don't use the system," Harrop said. "What I'm not sure of is whether that steering committee is aware of the problems of the system."

(Howard Boksenbaum, Free-Net vice president, acknowledged in February that some steering committee members don't have accounts on the Free-Net, but he said all of them have used the system. "I don't think it's necessary for someone to be a user of a particular service to be qualified to design it.")

Last November, Harrop made a bid to get a seat on the committee for OSIS. Her efforts were rebuffed, and in March,

Boksenbaum said, the committee voted to freeze its membership because the Free-Net was about to be restructured.

Too late?

Ironically, Simon, the Free-Net president, agrees that users need to be represented on the steering committee.

"The criticism that the Free-Net needed a different body to govern it was an accurate one," he said. "We've been moving as fast as we can to achieve that."

And at the planning retreat two weeks ago, the steering committee agreed to dissolve itself and appoint a nominating committee that will choose a new board, said Bale-Kushner of the support center.

The Internet Society will likely help choose members of the new Free-Net board, she said.

But Harrop worries whether it might be too late.

"What's been done over these two years?" she said, referring to obtaining the resources necessary to run an independent Free-Net.

"We are in what seems to be a desperate situation. Maybe it's not, but you just can't get any information."

Timothy C. Barmann is a Journal-Bulletin staff writer. 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, Rhode Island 0290.