The Secret Of CAP
There is something going on across Canada, a government plan using volunteer labor that is proceeding so quietly and efficiently as to pass virtually unnoticed by media and individuals alike. Groups have organized in thousands of locations in the past three years and thousands more are in the works. Hundreds of millions of dollars in government and private sector funds are being spent, people are meeting in both urban and rural settings all over the country and you won't read about it in the morning paper. The schools, the libraries, volunteer groups and individual people are all involved but chances are that you have never heard of what they're all doing - you've probably never heard of CAP.
In the past month as this is written three more Nova Scotia CAP sites - in North End Halifax, North Preston and Terence Bay - have held their official openings to join the more than 100 others already in place in this province.
The story starts in the early 1990's with Industry Canada and the growing perception that some very big things were happening. This internet thing was taking off and business and government alike were taking notice of numbers that showed exponential levels of growth. The concern among the bureaucrats was that there would soon be two classes of Canadian: those who had access to this burgeoning cornucopia and those who didn't. Competition in the global marketplace was quickly moving into the electronic realm and if major steps weren't made soon then Canadians would be operating at a severe disadvantage. A way had to be found to bring the internet to everyone whether they lived in a major population center or not. Community Nets like CCN (online in 1994) were starting to be organized as members of the community-at-large began to see the need for wider net access for the general population. Talks with the provinces began in earnest and the Connecting Canadians initiative came to be with CAP - the Community Access Program - as a key component.
The "information superhighway" as it was called then, offered many attractive possibilities to government, not the least of which was the ability to provide services at a low cost to a geographically widely scattered populace. Canada was (and is) well suited to technological advances; we have more telephone, more cable TV, and more computer access per capita than any other country in the G7. What was needed now were onramps to this superhighway. The obstacles then impeding progress were not to be taken lightly: net access was often limited to major population centers, there may only be a single regional provider of service who may or may not see having free net access as an infringement on their own commercial enterprise and to be blunt, the technology was in its infancy, promising much but limited to poor quality phone lines, achingly slow modems and meager content. Much has changed since but to those original pioneers the first step was a leap of faith.
Seed money was provided for community based networks (like CCN), and libraries all over the country became hotbeds of after hours meetings as over and over again the precepts of this new world were explained to business, academic and community leaders. What is it for? What does it do? Why do we need it? The internet was an unknown quantity and was often a hard sell to a skeptical audience. Still, change was coming and after a time even the most conservative of bystanders could feel the ground start to shift beneath them. Funds and equipment were donated, space was found and Public Access Terminals began appearing as if by magic.
Since February 1995 when Industry Minister John Manley announced the creation of CAP with its original goal of bringing 5,000 rural communities online much has happened. For one thing, the internet has become as much a part of life at the close of the twentieth century as horse stables were at the dawn of it and having to explain what the internet is and what it does is no longer the task it once was. Currently the focus of CAP is on ensuring that urban populations as well have net access with income or circumstance no barrier to accessibility. Some 5,000 urban based CAP sites have been budgeted for over the next two years.
A CAP site is a community based resource. The government does not swoop in bearing computer equipment. The original impetus for a new site comes from the community itself with volunteers meeting and deciding what the local need is, what resources are at hand and what public space is available for the Public Access Terminals. Local governments and businesses are solicited for donations of equipment and funds. A business plan is set out detailing the costs of setup and operation of the CAP site and listing all donated material. Estimates of volunteer time are drawn up, the benefits to the community assessed and the application to the CAP National Advisory Committee is made. There the viability of the new site is considered and weighed against other applications from other communities for the available funds. Volunteers are trained and strategies for training others are worked out.
The story does not stop there with some Public Access Terminals sitting in a library somewhere inviting use; volunteers and young persons hired under the Youth Employment Strategy fan out into the community forming partnerships with local community groups and businesses. They offer technical support and assistance in setting up local networks and web sites, and coordinate business product and services listings on the web in the Canadian Company Capabilities database while garnering invaluable experience for themselves. Programs and services relevant to local community needs are developed and their effectiveness appraised. A CAP site is more than just another place to check your email. The local economy of the region can benefit from the ability of its small and medium sized businesses to offer their goods and services to a wider market than previously possible and indeed to create new businesses based on or supported by these new markets. Since the majority of new economic growth and new jobs comes from small and medium sized businesses in the present global economy, it does not take a rocket scientist to connect the dots here.
Of course CAP is only one part of the Connecting Canadians initiative, which has the stated goal of making Canada the most connected country in the world by the year 2000. It has been called by Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, "a new National Dream for a new millennium". The analogy is an apt one: like the building of the nation-spanning railway, this new link of copper, glass and light is also here to bring Canadians together and convey our goods and services and our image of ourselves to a waiting world. SchoolNet has connected 13,378 of 16,500 schools and 1,944 of 3,400 public libraries to the net as of June 1998 with programs specially designed by and for students including the 366 of 460 First Nations schools that are now online with total coverage expected by the end of fiscal 1998-1999. VolNet, the Voluntary Sector Network Support Program launched June 1998, seeks to connect 10,000 charitable and non-profit organizations with net access and technological education and support over the next three years. As well there is the Community Storefronts program to help facilitate small and medium sized businesses and charities' entry into the world of electronic commerce.
The growing electronic economy, an economy of ideas as well as the more traditional business items, is more of a grass-roots entity than any previous system and has already begun to impact the way we live and think. Where do you go for the latest information on anything? Where can you find out more? The same place everybody else does, the internet. Where is the best place to bring people with common interests or mutual concerns together? To stay in contact with people over wide distances? To stay in touch? The information economy and the whole process of life long learning, the very notion of what a community is and what it is for are being transformed while we watch and the fact that anybody, everybody can access it is absolutely essential to all of our continued well being. What is being built is nothing less than the foundations of a new world.
The twenty first century is upon us and if we can be certain of nothing else we can be certain of this: it will be a very different place than the world we are all familiar with and what is today called the internet will be right at the heart of it, as essential as air and as readily available.
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