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July 21, 1996

Users to be part of new
Free-Net board of directors

By Timothy C. Barmann

It's not often that a theater critic must himself turn actor, but something similar is about to happen on Thursday.

That's when a new board of directors for the Ocean State Free-Net, the state-wide public access computer network, will take the stage.

At the meeting on Thursday, a 20-member board will be formally elected. It's a milestone for the Free-Net because it will mean that, for the first time, users will have a direct say.

Six of the new members were chosen from Free-Net users. Among them are some outspoken critics of the out-going steering committee.

The Free-Net provides about 7,000 users with electronic mail, community information and limited Internet access. It's free to join.

It was launched nearly two years ago as a pilot project by the Department of State Library Services. There are dozens of other Free-Nets nationwide and in other countries that were formed to provide free or inexpensive access to community computer networks.

The Ocean State Free-Net has grown in popularity, but it has suffered from a lack of staffing and resources. Some features of the system have worked only intermittently, and some haven't worked at all.

It recently began to pay for its Internet and modem services, which were formerly provided for free by a coalition of public and private organizations. Because of the new costs involved, the Free-Net had to cut its pool of modems in half.

The Free-Net steering committee, the group that has guided the network since its inception, has been the target of criticism by some Free-Net users, who have charged it has done little to address problems.

In a lighthearted protest this year, many users participated in an on- line "contest" that awarded points to those who could spot a steering committee member logged on.

The contest was the idea of Pamela Chatenay-LaPointe, a West Greenwich Free-Net user, who said at the time that it was a fun way to try to persuade steering committee members to get more active on the system.

This spring, Chatenay-LaPointe and several other dissatisfied users formed their own group, called FTP, for Free-Net Tea Party, to gain more user representation on the Free-Net board.

Six of the new board members will be Free-Net users, including Chatenay-LaPointe. Another will be Cal Mesler, a Portsmouth resident who was among the first Free-Net users to seek user representation. (Mesler also "won" the spot-the-committee-member contest.)

(Chatenay-LaPointe, who is president of FTP, declined to comment for this article.)

"It will be pretty interesting," said Jennifer Bale-Kushner, of Non- Profit Resources of Southern New England, who has been working for the Free-Net to help it formulate a business plan.

"We have brought together enough people and backgrounds that it's going to be fascinating," she said.

Besides the Free-Net users, there is a politician, a lawyer, people who represent concerns of the disabled and minority communities, various public library administrators, representatives from colleges and other community advocates.

The new board will be faced with a number of challenges, including how to raise money.

Free-Net administrators are waiting to hear the results of several grant applications.

But a more immediate challenge facing the board may be how to work together. About six of the current steering committee members will be staying on.

Free-Net president Peter Simon said he won't view the new members any differently than any of the other board members.

"I think they really are desperately committed to making the Free-Net work - it's just they sometimes expressed it in negative ways," said Simon, whose full-time job is an assistant medical director for the state Department of Health.

He said that despite the criticism lodged against him and other steering committee members, he has "never had any question about their motivation."

He has acknowledged that some of their criticism was on target.

"This is hopefully the end of that frustration and the beginning of a more constructive partnership."

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, R.I. 02902.