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10/10/1999 the haves and the have nots

When I was a student in Columbia, MO, five years ago, I had three options for internet access. One, was through my school. Two, was to pay for it myself from an ISP, and three, was the Freenet. In a truly communistic sense, the Columbia Online Information Network provided a basic internet connection to anyone who lived in the local area. However, in 1994, a standard internet connection was a text-based shell account, but since then they have added PPP access for people willing to contribute a certain amount every year. In order to prefent abuse of the system, time limits were imposed and every user is only allowed 90 minutes each day.

For as common as it is discussed on TV and in newspapers, I doubt the internet is as prevalent in peoples' homes as we would be led to believe. A $500-$1000 appliance is needed to access it, and it requires around $20-$50 a month in maintenance costs to keep the internet coming into your home without interruption. If you're not making a lot of money, then getting on the internet is just as expensive as having a used car as your main source of transportation. For most low-income households, a computer can still be out of their price range. The low-income households make up a large part of society, but they are also the people least likely to do their shopping online. These days, the internet is not a place to find bargain-priced food, toiletries, and cheap clothes -- you don't shop for the neccesities of life online; you purchase the perks. Since money cannot be made off of them, the poor are not part of the system, and no one is trying to accommodate them. This is also transposed to small-town people; the cost of living in a small town is lower than a large city, but the pricetag on a computer is the same either way. A family living well in a small town could not live happily on the same income in a large city. You may ask -- why do this for the poor? Is internet access as important as food, shelter, and clothing? Of course not; I'm not talking about the decrepidly poor here; the poverty line for a small family is in the $20,000-$30,000 range, which is barely crossed when two adults are both making minimum wage. In Fargo, you can still lead a very productive life, even on $20,000 a year, but you are left out of this technological revolution which relies on the public's participation. There are plenty of people who have the neccessities of life, but don't have online access. In today's society, this is comparable to not having a telephone or a television. The internet is molded by those who participate in it, and this is worth standing on a socialist soapbox and preaching to the masses, but without the input and utilization of the lower income brakets, the internet will be come more and more exclusive, leaving them out of the system.

Excuses can be made; Sure, Netzero gives free internet access, but it requires a high-power Pentium class PC that are still selling for several hundred dollars. Access is available at school, but it is for school purposes. There are a handful of PCs accessible at the library, but the permanency of having an internet accessible computer in your home is what is needed to include the lower income families into the online world. What is required is to create free internet access, which can be done easily from any PC, including a 286 with a 2400bps modem. Considering garage sale prospects and thrift shops sales lately, it's not hard to scrounge up a whole computer for under $100. A lot of lower income people probably even have a computer like this in their home already -- whether bought 10 years ago when they had some extra money, acquired from a relative when they bought a new computer, purchased from their employer during an upgrade, or picked up as a bargain at a garage sale. There are a lot of computers in homes out there, but internet access is still seen as a product for the rich, a perk for the people who have the money to spare.

This is where we look back to the Freenet presence. To access most freenets, all that is required is a computer, a modem, and some terminal software. The provider gives e-mail access, news/BBS resources, and probably text-based WWW access. This makes up the majority of internet access, especially e-mail since the bulk of internet traffic is entirely email. When I was sysop of a BBS, I saw how easy it was for any user to access a text-based system. You don't need to configure internet addresses, server IP numbers, or any of the software. All you need to know is the service's phone number, and hope you remember your when the system asks for it. Freenets are not in place to make money; their services are provided via grants, advertisers, and from higher-power users willing to pay for a higher level of service. They are put into place in order to provide, simple free internet access to any user who wants it.

What I propose for Fargo to have in order to even out the internet access playing field is to establish a Freenet. It could be in the private sector, it could be set up by the government, but either way it needs to be established for the benefit of the public. Since it is not a full-service internet provider, the system requirements are far less than that of a normal ISP. It requires one IP address, a couple servers to handle the workload, and a host to answer the phones. Since people are limited to a ceratin amount of time online, the service does not need to be ready to acommodate every user at any time; since 90 minutes is only 1/8 of a day, in theory you only need to have 1/8th of the incoming phone lines of a full service ISP. Since it is text based, the bandwidth required to provide the access to the user would be far less than a service ready to accommodate graphics, multimedia, and large downloads.

Fargo did have a free service which was didn't quite put enough effort into what they were trying to do. Prairie Online shut their doors about a month ago, but for 7 or 8 years they had provided a community online service. Where they lost was that people on the internet could access it, but people with only POL access could not access the internet. People paying for the service received a limited amount of internet access, but it wasn't much compared to the price. Had POL taken a look at what a successful free online service was in other communities, they would have found freenets. Considering their statewide presence, including dialup points as far west as Beech, and with their servers and internet connection, they could have turned themselves into a very powerful and influential freenet. If every small town family in North Dakota sent and received their email for free, with a POL.ORG suffix on their address, POL could have demonstrated a presence of benevolence and shown their effort to be a true online service designed for the people that live in the communities that Prairie Public Television serves.

Now, Fargo is left without any sort of free, budget online service. A friend of mine, going by the alias Papa Pooh on the local BBSes, is becoming less and less connected. His computer is a HP 386 which he and another friend have been trying desperately to keep together and up and running. He has been online since around 1995, but BBSes have slowly beeing dropping away, one by one, until now he is struggling to find any online service, internettable or not, which he can access. He does not have the resources to purchase a fast computer, and his computer knowledge is limited so he does not have the abilities to make use of what he has (this is worth another story, but a 386 can access the internet just as well as a Pentium, given the effort and the skills involved). A freenet in Fargo would open up the internet to the inexperienced and the poor, and show to the world that, even if we weren't foresighted enough to do it in the first place, that this community does care about opening up the online world to everyone, and not just the people with large bank accounts.

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