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154. Fifteen Years of
Community Networking

By Andrew D. Wright

In June 1994 a group of people from a variety of backgrounds did something that put Halifax on the map. They created a community net, only the second one in Canada after Ottawa.

A community net is a non-profit organization that ensures access to the Internet is available to everyone. The Halifax group formed a non-profit society, calling it the Chebucto Community Net.

These were people from the general public, the public library system, and from Dalhousie University who gathered together to make sure people in the Metro Halifax area would all be able to access the Internet at a time when most people were only vaguely aware that there was such a thing at all.

Looking around at all the software packages available for community nets, none met the needs of the budding Chebucto Community Net so undaunted, they wrote their own. Tying together text-based web browser, email and text editing programs into one secure shell capable of administering user and organizational needs was no easy feat.

The hallways of the grey stone Chase Building on the Dalhousie University campus buzzed with students working on the collection of shell scripts making up what they would call CSuite, the Chebucto Suite community networking package. Professors volunteered time to oversee the development work and community nets across Canada and as far away as the Ukraine would use the award-winning software to set up their own community nets.

And the users started coming. With Chebucto Community Net's text-based interface able to run on virtually any computing device capable of dialing a phone, users running everything from Commodore 64s to later generation electric typewriters with modem capability were connecting to the Internet and using email for the first time.

Local government offices and companies discovered what a web site was and they were hosted on Chebucto's servers. Halifax City Hall, HRM Public Libraries, all originally started on the web on this non-profit service. Volunteers with Chebucto and the local libraries offered free classes in using the Internet.

For the first four years of existence, Chebucto Community Net saw incredible growth as it introduced the local general public to the Internet. The Internet became serious business as the local telephone company then the local cable company began offering Internet.

Chebucto Community Net's numbers started declining. Still, it is not a coincidence that Halifax scores in the top tier of Canadian cities for Internet awareness and that all the top cities have their own community nets.

Tens of thousands of people and hundreds of groups and organizations can owe their web initiation to the volunteers who started the Chebucto Community Net and to the dedicated people still keeping the idea alive today, fifteen long years later.

Chebucto Community Net serves a vital role in the ecosystem that is network access in Metro Halifax. A web host for small groups and businesses where they can be safe. Web access to people who cannot afford commercial Internet. An information resource for the world.

In fifteen years the Internet has gone from being a curiousity to becoming a crucial part of daily life for most people. Technology has moved on in giant leaps and there is a home computer almost everywhere. And the Digital Divide has grown. With today's economy people on fixed incomes, seniors, people with disabilities, all folks who could use home Internet access, are being left out.

Here's to 15 years of non-profit publicly-run Internet, Halifax! To the staff, volunteers and members who have made this possible, the work continues! We can always use more help. Donations are welcome and tax deductible.


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Originally published 12 June 2009


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