Bigger Than A Breadbox
With somewhere around 5000 active members and with more than 23,000 user accounts assigned, you would expect the Chebucto Community Net to be rather large. Its numbers certainly are. More than four and a half million web pages accessed each month, more than 250 community groups with their web sites on CCN; the mind boggles at the sheer volume of information being transferred. Email, news postings, FTP, web pages, all coming in and going out 24 hours a day. It is easy to picture CCN as one of those refrigerator sized boxes with the obligatory oversized tape reels spinning away madly on the front, though of course a moment's reflection would exchange the magnetic tape for a CD ROM. Someone in a white lab coat would be making notes on a clipboard beneath sterile white fluorescent lighting.
As it turns out, the only part of that picture that is accurate is the lighting.
If you go to the basement of one of Dalhousie University's less travelled buildings, you'll see an unmarked door, one of many in the grey hallway. The corridor smells a bit musty and you'll see some old 1980's terminals stacked in a pile with a hand lettered sign saying "Help yourself". Opening the door reveals a room about the size of a medium bedroom, lit with white fluorescent and a couple of degrees warmer than the corridor. Metal racks with different types of hardware line the walls and the only sound is from an assortment of cooling fans.
One of the racks has a couple of shelves of little boxes each the size of a hardcover book with blinking red lights flickering away on the fronts of them. These are the modems people use to connect to CCN. There are 72 of them there and every flicker of light is another email to a loved one or web page being read. Below the modems are two more shelves, each with a plain unornamented VCR sized box sitting on it. These are Halifax and Chebucto, the two lobes of CCN's split personality brain. Halifax was added last year to take some of the load off of the dangerously overburdened Chebucto and has assumed control of the email and some of the archives.
Speaking in two different and incompatible languages, the two machines exist in an uneasy truce, sharing information grudgingly and sometimes not at all. The now famous false "You have mail" message is a product of this alliance as the all volunteer tech team devotes evenings and weekends to shifting everything from Chebucto to Halifax, translating it from the one machine's language to the other and setting up the scripts that tell the newly moved programs how to talk to the ones now left behind speaking a different tongue. The goal is to move everything to Halifax and take Chebucto down for upgrading and after nearly a year the job is about half done.
Of course that is not the only change being made by the tech team. As the Internet grows and adapts, so must CCN. Beta tests of a new Lynx browser that handles frames, cookies and virtual domains and a more robust Pine email program are well under way and CCN users are likely to see them become the standard soon. A beta-shell is being tested that allows users to customize the CCN welcome page to suit themselves and for welcome page content to be geared toward the individual user. Some kind of graphical interface is in the works as well as a host of upgrades too obscure for all but the true Bobs to make any sense of.
About 3000 people navigated this maze yesterday, 2400 of them logging in through the 72 modems while the rest telnetted in from public access terminals and other Internet Service Providers. They each spent around thirty minutes reading their email, working on their web space. reading the newsgroups and making their presence felt all over the Internet. Some 155,000 CCN web pages were accessed by people both in and outside of CCN. A butterfly's wing flapping in the breeze can be the catalyst for a hurricane and the Chebucto Community Net's effect on the Internet can be similarly judged.
The core of CCN's existence is the Vision. When you talk to any of the CCN founders you can hear the capital letters in their voice. The Vision is of universal access to the Internet for anybody who wants it, no matter their income or circumstances. Public access terminals at every library across the province and every region served by its own community network. It is still a work in progress. CCN was built by volunteers and is run by volunteers, and the struggle to make the Vision reality has not been an easy one. When the Freenet software commercially available proved inadequate, CSuite software was created to run CCN. It has worked so well it has been adopted by a growing number of other community networks all over the country. Ripples from this Halifax network are still spreading outwards and four years on there is no end to where they will yet go.
Still, the dialogue continues about CCN's role in the community. There are still some community groups unaware of what CCN can offer them: world wide visibility; a place to make their information - words and pictures and the whole host of multimedia possibilities - accessible to everyone, everywhere; a place to organize people and above all, a way to communicate that was never before available at any price and is now free for the asking.
That is the other miracle about CCN - you can join for free. Universal accessibility means never saying to someone that they are too poor to have access to the sum of human knowledge which is available online. When you can afford it, take out a membership - $20 or what you can afford - you're on the honor system here. And that is the best lesson that CCN has to offer: the honor system works! People will, when given the opportunity, do the right thing and they will build something better than what was there before. They will donate their time, money and sometimes even equipment to doing the right thing.
The ultimate extension of democracy, laid out on a silicon plate and sitting in two VCR sized grey boxes in a basement.
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