CCN and ISPs: Defining the relationship

People have a number of choices when it comes to getting online. Some have access to the Internet provided by their employer or school. But those who do not usually turn to community networks like Chebucto Community Network, or to commercial Internet Service Providers (ISPs). While both offer access to the Internet, they differ in many ways. The most fundamental difference is that ISPs are for-profit corporations, while CCN is a non-profit community resource.

To an ISP, you are a customer. Good ISPs treat their customers well, with competitive pricing, reliable service, few busy signals and good, prompt technical support. It's a commercial transaction -- they give you service, you give them money.

Community networks operate under a different model. Those who use community nets are encouraged to get involved in the operation of the network, contributing their time and skills. And contributions of funds, from individuals and organisations, is vital if community nets are to prosper. These contributions help pay for phone lines, modems, computers and staff. Without support from its community of users, a community net could not exist.

Community networks also engage in other tasks. They provide public access terminals in libraries and other public places. They provide training to users. Andthey provide access for information providers, allowing organisations to make a wide variety of non-commercial information via the Internet. So are ISPs and community nets competitors? Not at all. Like bookstores and libraries, they serve different needs, and complement each other. In fact, many people have accounts both with CCN and an ISP. Many people like to use their CCN account for personal use, and conduct business correspondence from their commercial ISP account. University students often find that a CCN account allows them to keep on the Internet even over the summer, or when taking time away from university, when their school-provided accounts are suspended.

And since commercial activity is not supported on CCN, business users wishing to buy and sell products and services need to subscribe to an ISP to conduct these types of activities.

Chebucto Community Net has had good working relationships with commercial Internet service providers from the beginning; CCN depends on ISPs (at first NSTN, and now ISIS) to provide to connection between the powerful Sun Microsystems computer that runs the Chebucto Suite software and the Internet. Another big distinction between community nets and ISPs is the type of service provided. Community networks typically provide a text-only connection. This allows virtually any computer, even "dumb" terminals, to connect to CCN. The downside, of course, is that users cannot see the graphics as they browse the World Wide Web; they have to download the pictures and view them later. Most ISPs provide a "SLIP" of "PPP" connection to the Internet. This means that you can see the graphics of the World Wide Web as you browse. It also means that you can have a number of windows open, reading news in one, e-mail in another. But many older computers can't take advantage of this type of connection, and they take more effort to configure and support on users' systems.

Of course, there's another big difference: cost. Access to the Chebucto Community Network is free. However, all users who can afford to should support CCN by taking out a yearly membership, at a cost of $20 for an individual, $40 for a family. This compares with a rough average cost of at least $300 a year for a commercial ISP account.

With the various options available to people who want to connect to the Internet, it's easy to get confused. But with between this article and resources liked the Frequently Asked Questions and the background on CCN's mandate, we hope you find enough information to clear the confusion.

by Robert Currie, aa019@ccn·cs·dal·ca


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