What is a FreeNet?

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What is a FreeNet?
Steve Snow -- Triangle FreeNet

What is a FreeNet?
A FreeNet is a nonprofit, free community-wide computer system. It allows you to communicate with people throughout the local area--or even the world-- with just a local telephone call.

How does it do that? By hooking up to a world-wide collection of computers that all are linked to each other.

The FreeNet can give you access to libraries, government documents (such as city council minutes or perhaps tax records) and services, business and consumer information, medical and legal information and even help with fixing your car or landscaping your yard.

With the FreeNet, you don't have to leave work --- or home --- to get this information. You can get information, and even send messages to friends around the state, the nation or the world right from your home --- 24 hours a day. When it is convenient for you to do it.

You can get involved with your community, chat with friends about hobbies, swap recipes --- just about anything you can imagine.

I'm just an ordinary citizen. Why do I need all this high-tech stuff?
Well, the FreeNet actually is not high-tech. It is ``now'' tech. It now costs less to buy a decent, working computer than it does a new color television!

But a FreeNet offers a tremendous amount of flexibility to individuals. Families spread far apart may be able to communicate, either for important family matters or even just to make plans for a weekend reunion. You can send and receive messages from friends.

The FreeNet puts you in touch with elected officials. You may be able to register your disagreement with certain government proposals, and find out when action is scheduled. If you can't get to the council meeting, you may be able to read the minutes of the meeting on the FreeNet.

Your voice will be heard more on local, state and national issues. As the U.S. Congress gets hooked up to the communications network in coming years, you will be able to speak directly with your congressman, and even the President.

FreeNet offers special possibilities to people who are shut in or have disabilities that make it difficult for them to get out. For you, the FreeNet means you'll be able to keep up with events and things you couldn't have before. You won't be shut off from friends; they'll be just a short computer ``call'' away.

Also, the FreeNet never closes, so you can use the FreeNet whenever it suits you. Have a medical question at midnight? You don't have to wait to call in the morning. Ask your question when you have it. The same is true for legal information, the weather, local concert schedules, blood mobile schedules, flu shot schedules. Just about anything you can think of, the FreeNet can offer: it works like a community Bulletin Board, where people can post their messages for others to see.

What about kids? Is this just for adults?
Children definitely will benefit from The FreeNet. Not only can they learn to use a computer effectively, they also learn about different places in the world. They can trade information with classrooms from Maine to Australia They also can be put in touch with experts to help them answer those tough questions kids often have, whether about their school, social or personal lives. It offers a doorway to immense educational opportunities for children.
This sounds great, but what if I don't have a computer?
Well, the FreeNet requires a computer and a modem (which is hooked to a telephone so your computer can ``talk'' to the FreeNet computer). But the FreeNet won't be complete the moment it begins. It will gradually be able to add more and more access so more and more people can use the system.

In some communities, there are FreeNet computers in libraries, retirement high-rises, even community centers and other places where people commonly gather in a neighborhood. This will take some time. But keep in mind that the cost of computers continues to drop and the number of people knowing how to use computers is rising fast. Just as the free public library system is built on high literacy and the low cost of publishing books, so the FreeNet is based on the rising computer "literacy" of people and the falling cost of computer equipment.

It won't be too many years before computers are viewed as televisions and telephones today --- just about everyone will have one and use it routinely. The FreeNet will be working to make sure the greatest number of people have use of the information on the FreeNet. That's what the FreeNet is all about.

Tell me, briefly, just how this works.
OK. Say you have a computer and a modem hooked to your telephone. You dial a local telephone number that connects you to the FreeNet computer. From there, simple instructions and "menus" take you to the information or area you seek. Most FreeNets are set up on a Town model. They have areas designated as "post office" or "city hall" and so on. So to send a message to a friend, you'd simply go to the "post office," write your message, and "mail" it. It's really that simple!
Let's be real here. What's all this going to cost? Nothing is free.
You're right about that. The equipment and material it takes to run a FreeNet are expensive. Other FreeNets estimate their costs at somewhere around $100,000 per year.

There are many ways of paying for the FreeNet. Many FreeNets are partly financed by individual tax-exempt contributions, much in the manner of public radio or TV. In addition, private companies give money to FreeNets in their local communities, as do various foundations. Often, local governments find that a FreeNet saves them money in serving the citizens, and thus is worth their support.

The basic goal of a FreeNet is to be free, that is, not charge people for access to public information and discussion services.

Beyond these basics there is a wide range of information and services that people, non-profit organizations and government can pay for, things that add to the value of their work and lives in such a way that it's worth an extra fee. Gaining access to the Internet, the world-wide communications network, may be one of those additional services. Having the ability to keep large amounts of information on file with the FreeNet computer is another. They would be paid services because it cost the FreeNet extra money to supply them.

But remember, the FreeNet is not in business just to make money. It is a nonprofit organization established by your neighbors who believe it is important to supply people with information which can make their lives better.

I don't know. This sounds like another way just to make work for people.
Actually, the FreeNet will have very few paid employees. One of the largest FreeNets in the world, the Heartland FreeNet in Peoria, Ill., has just 3 employees: one full-time executive director and two part-time staff members, who help update and maintain the system.

Most of the ``muscle'' of the FreeNet is supplied by volunteers, people like you who feel a sense of pride in sharing with the community. They help supply information and keep the system running smoothly, either through donations, time, talent or a combination of these things. It's the dedication of the volunteer force that makes the FreeNet a special place for sharing the sense of community.