National Capital Freenet
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Founded in September 1992 by people affiliated with Carleton University, National Capital Freenet (NCF) (French: Libertel de la Capitale Nationale), is a non-profit community organization internet service provider, with the goal of linking people in Canada's capital of Ottawa.
NCF was the second free-net set up worldwide and was patterned after the Cleveland Free-Net that had been established at Case Western Reserve University in 1984. Within a year of its establishment NCF had over 10,000 members.
NCF was started to ensure that no one in Ottawa would be excluded from internet access.
The stated mission of NCF is:
|“||The National Capital FreeNet is a free, computer-based information sharing network. It links the people and organizations of this region, provides useful information, and enables an open exchange of ideas with the world. Community involvement makes FreeNet an important and accessible meeting place, and prepares people for full participation in a rapidly changing communications environment."||”|
|“||The National Capital FreeNet (NCF) in Ottawa is considered to be a Canadian model of successful community networking. It was established in 1992 as a non-commercial, co-operative, community project with the active participation of volunteers, Carleton University, and private industry (which donated modems and the communications equipment for connecting the FreeNet to the local public library). - Leslie Reagan Shade||”|
In many ways the history of NCF parallels that of the internet itself. In the early 1990s NCF was the region's only service provider and members flocked to it to take advantage of the new technology. Due to its volunteer and donation-based model the organization failed to keep up with the rapid technological changes that occurred in the 1995-2000 period and lost most of its membership to commercial ISPs as a result. Later it floundered trying to make ends meet and finally established itself in the niche market of providing services to disadvantaged segments of the community. As NCF board member Jim Elder explained:
|“||NCF had 'caught the wave' as an exciting though primitive local internet, before the global internet started; 'surfed' with great panache for several years with little or no competition; then 'wiped out' (lost the wave) and [ended up] 'treading water'.||”|
The early days of this free-net featured dial up service and web access using the Lynx browser. Members typically used the system to access usenet, telnet, e-mail and Gopher. As the web became popular many new internet users became NCF members before they went to a PPP provider for graphic access to the web. As the web evolved NCF began offering dial up PPP access.
National Capital FreeNet was started at luncheon held in October 1991. Jay Weston of the Carleton University Department of Mass Communications and George Frajkor of the School of Journalism and Television Programming invited Dave Sutherland, the director of the university's Computing and Communication Services Department, to have lunch and discuss the concept of establishing a free-net based on the concept of the Cleveland Free-Net.
In typical university fashion a committee was formed under Sutherland's leadership and started meeting weekly that same month to lay the groundwork for the free-net. A decision was made to make the endeavour community-based and not part of the university, an approach supported by the university president.
In the summer of 1992 the free-net was activated as a pilot project, using university computer resources that were underutilized over the summer. With help from Industry Canada Sun MicroSystems was persuaded to donate a computer and Gandalf Technologies provided the first modems.
In September an article appeared on the front page of the Ottawa Citizen by Dominic Lacasse describing the new pilot free-net project. The article includied the dial-in phone number and as a result twenty people per day started signing up as members.
The first NCF board meeting was held on 10 December 1992 with Sutherland as Chairman. At that point the organization had a total of 4 dial-up lines, a logo custom design by a graphic artist and Cdn$2120. The start-up funding was made up of Cdn$1000 dollars from the City of Ottawa Community Health, Cdn$1000 dollars from the Carleton School Board, a private donation of Cdn$50 and Cdn$70 in cash on hand. The board indicated that the "correct spelling for FreeNet was confirmed at this time as " FreeNet ", with both the "F" and "N" capitalized."
National Capital FreeNet had its official public launch on 1 February 1993.
In April 1993 Julie Chahal, head of the NCF's Public Access Committee presented a public access policy that was accepted by the board. This policy set free public access as a priority for the organization:
|“||Public access terminals are a key element to meeting the National Capital FreeNet's objective to meet the present information needs of the people and public agencies in the region, and to prepare the community for full and broadly based participation in rapidly changing communication environments. They ensure that the Freenet is available to anyone interested, including those who may not own a home computer with a modem. - Julie Chahal||”|
In the summer of 1993 the organization had its application for charitable status turned down by Revenue Canada, as did another early freenet in Victoria, BC. NCF spent much of the year in fundraising activities to meet its mandate in the face of rapidly rising demands for service and the need to purchase new hardware on an ongoing basis. The organization hired its first Office Manager, Kyla Huckerby and committed to hiring a System Administrator as well.
The success of the free public terminals at the Ottawa Library was identified as problematic in a survey of users at that facility. The survey showed that some users were dominating the computers and this made it hard for others to access them. NCF dealt with this through a technological solution of limiting sign-in time on the public computers to one hour and one log-in per day.
1994 also saw NCF make French language access a priority, forming a committee to make recommendations on ensuring that Francophone users in the nation's capital had equal access to NCF and registering the name Libertel as the French equivalent to FreeNet. By the end of June 1994 NCF had 97 dial-up phone lines expanding to a total of 120.
By the end of 1994 NCF had published an Internet Survival Guide aimed at both members and the general public. The publication was free to members on the internet and sold on paper to non-members. NCF activities had attracted the notice of CBC-TV who completed a news program on the association. Telephone help services were provided at the NCF offices by unpaid volunteers, a practice that continues today. NCF finished the year with 160 dial-up phone lines operational.
Lisa Donnelly became the organization's first Executive Director.
At the start of the year members were limited to two hours internet usage per day with a one hour time limit per log-in.
In an attempt to raise funds NCF published a paper cookbook under the title From the Kitchens of the National Capital FreeNet. The project was headed by NCG member Andre Ouellette and came off the presses in May.
In June 1995 the organization adopted a Statement of Values that was based on free and equal access and specifically that there would be no charges for membership or internet use, that the same services be available to all people of the region, unfettered communication and respect for the rights of others. The organization continued to fund its operations primarily from sponsorships, government grants and donations.
The organization had struggled with the need for and drafting of an Acceptable Use Policy (AUP) since its inception and in September 1995 finally adopted one. The AUP made individuals, and not NCF, responsible for their content posted on newsgroups and the web, banned spamming and provided guidance on offensive material and personal attacks. On offensive material it stated:
|“|| NCF has something to offend everyone. It isn't IF something will offend you but HOW SOON you find something offensive. You always have the choice not to read anything you find offensive.
NCF believes strongly in Intellectual Freedom. But this freedom requires that everyone learn to be tolerant. Generally the best way to handle offensive material is to ignore it. Commenting on the post may be giving the authors the attention they are seeking.
By the end of the year it was becoming obvious that use of the World Wide Web was where the future lay and not in newsgroups and that the organization was at risk of being left behind and "of becoming a ghetto for the information-poor instead of helping all members of our community participate equally and fully in future information networks." This challenged the organization to provide ever newer hardware and software while maintaining free community access. These challenges lead to a debate as to whether NCF should be an up-to-date internet service provider for the whole community in competition with the new commercial internet providers or focus on ensuring that the "novice, computer illiterate, and less-well-off segments" have internet access.
In January 1996 NCF began experimenting with using Solaris to run the news servers, as the organization began the transition from the NCF-developed text-based FreePort based system to the World Wide Web.
The organization also formally adopted a Freedom of Expression Policy that acknowledged the Fundamental Freedoms of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the legal limitations on free speech in Canada and that individuals were responsible for their posted material and not NCF. The policy stated that "however, NCF will cooperate with Canadian legal authorities to identify the person responsible for questionable material. NCF will only remove illegal material when directed to by Canadian legal authorities."
Hardware was upgraded in 1996 with the addition of Sparc-10 and a Sparc-20 computers. The transitions were complicated by the fact that the new computers ran Solaris, which did not support the existing FreePort, but were necessary to make the transition to the World Wide Web.
The organization had been using a set of rooms at Carleton University since its inception, but the addition of ever more equipment and four staff members put pressure on NCF to find new accommodation. The organization considered offers of space at the university, public libraries and high schools. It became clear that a move would have to happen in the future, but for now additional space was found at the university.
The middle of 1996 saw NCF facing a cash flow shortage. The organization had budgeted on the basis of past levels of donations from individuals and corporate sponsorships and was in a period where new hardware was required while donations dropped off precipitously. In response, the board considered whether to cease expansion plans or move to a new funding model. They considered all options including voluntary contributions, corporate sponsorships, government or foundation sponsorship, advertising, selling products and membership fees. The last option was noted "Some other Freenets do charge a small membership fee. To date, the NCF Board has opposed having any fees. However, given a choice between continuing to operate with a fee or not continuing to operate, we may want to change our minds."
The organization decided initially to address funding with a multi-faceted approach that included approaching Mitel and the Royal Bank of Canada for cash sponsorships, approaching several partners for hardware donations, setting up a sponsor database, applying for municipal grants, recognizing donors on-line, updating on-line donation information and creating a webpage on activities and auctioning off fifty-eight pieces of Microsoft software and five pieces of Corel Corporation software.
One aspect of its operations in 1996 that set NCF apart from commercial ISPs was its community outreach in that year. NCF not only established free-use computers in public places, such as libraries, but also made use of volunteers to teach classes, run drop-ins and act as speakers to other organizations. NCF established a formal Electronic Resource and Access Centre staffed by volunteers at the main branch of the Ottawa Public Library.
Early in December the three people who made up the full-time NCF staff moved into a new office, Dunton Tower at Carleton University. This was the first time that all had been located in the same place. Previously only the office manager had an actual office and the remaining staff and volunteers worked from home.
In January the NCF board voted to reduce the size of the board from 15 to 11 members. This move was suggested by Executive Director Lisa Donnelly with the aim of increasing board effectiveness while requiring less support from the Executive Director.
1997 marked the earliest indication of a spam problem on NCF newsgroups with some members being identified as having cross-posted messages on multiple groups and again over consecutive days. This resulted in a policy to warn and then suspend accounts involved for a minimum of 30 days.
The year also saw many of the earliest complaints by members about spam e-mail. The Executive Director responded saying:
|“|| Many NCF members, and users of the Internet around the world, are becoming frustrated by the increase in commercial e-mail over the last three months. This is a global phenomena and large ISPs and freenets alike are looking at solutions.
If you post to newsgroups outside NCF or surf the web, you are a target for a variety of commercial mailers. The best thing to do is just hit the delete button when you get commercial mail. It is just like those annoying pizza flyers that keep arriving in our mail box and go straight to the recycle bin...Developing solutions will take a little time.
The organization's financial picture stabilized as members responded well to the requests for donations combined with some austerity measures, such as not replacing one staff person.
In May, Chris Cope was hired as the organization's second Executive Director, replacing Lisa Donnelly who had resigned after two years in the position.
In June the incoming and outgoing Executive Directors collaborated on project planning for the near future and identified that the organization needed to focus on reliability and network upgrading, improving online service versatility and NCF's financial picture. Most of the reliability focus centered on the growing problem of spam e-mails. Incoming spam was addressed by blocking spamming domains, a strategy that did reduce the amount of spam being received.
NCF was able to count amongst its key partners, providing hardware, software and financial support: Fulcrum Technologies, Ingenia Corporation, Gandalf Canada, Dantek Computers, Ottawa Public Library, Oracle Corporation, Sun Microsystems, Microsoft, Hardware Canada Computing, Loran Technologies, Netscape and Carleton University.
In August the organization reported that it had issued 63,785 validated user accounts of which 35,505 were in active use. NCF was providing access via 169 telephone dial-up modems, most of which were operating at 14.4 kbit/s. Towards the end of the year data indicated that of the people in the Ottawa area who used the internet about 13-14% were connecting through NCF.
On 4 February 1998, NCF completed its Extended Access Project, adding 32 more dial-up PPP telephone lines at Mitel. The project resulted in a total of 201 dial-up lines and modems available for use.
By March 1998 NCF was running 13 computers of various models and a range of operating systems, including Solaris 2.5 and 2.6, SunOS 4.1.2 and 4.1.4, Linux 2.0 and 2.0.33 and Windows 95. The office administration was using a similar range of computers, including a Macintosh and various IBM machines.
25 March saw a major hardware upgrade as one server was changed to a twin hyperSparc 90 MHz donated by Hardware Canada Computing, which replaced a twin SuperSparc 50 MHz processor. The computer also had its operating system changed from SunOS 4.1.3-U1 to Solaris 2.6. The machine also received a new FastEthernet card connected to a 100 Mbit/s port. The result was described as a "dramatic performance increase". NCF continued to move away from older operating systems to Solaris, with web server experiments carried out on Apache 1.2.6 and Netscape Enterprise Server 3.5.1.
As part of the migration to using the World Wide Web, NCF fielded its first homepage in mid-1998, the result of a design competition amongst members.
Throughout 1998 the organization continued to suffer from declining membership and shrinking donations. Due to being turned down for a number of government grants, NCF was at this time relying almost exclusively on donations to cover expenses. As a result the board considered cutting the number of modems and lines with a view to saving money.
Late in the year NCF started installing new 28.8 kbit/s modems to upgrade the connection speeds available. The board decided not to cut modems as it was felt that better service would attract more members and donations. Long-serving NCF system administrator Andre Dalle was hired on 9 November 1998.
In checking the server system in November 1998 it was discovered that more than half the servers were not Y2K compliant, in particular the ones running SunOS 4.1.4. This required upgrades and patching to be ready for the roll-over to the 21st century.
In March NCF had 14,517 active member accounts. As a volunteer community organization NCF continued to be well supported by the IT industry with hardware and software donations of older used equipment, often as companies upgraded to newer hardware. For example, in March 1999, Hardware Canada Computing donated a Horizon UltraSparc III UNIX Workstation valued at more than Cdn$8,500. This new computer offered more capabilities than any other the organization had at the time and was employed as a server to consolidate mail, webserver and web-mail services. Other examples include Newbridge Networks donating two Sparc10 workstations, a 20-port Xyplex MX-1620 terminal server and some GeoRim/Es 8-port 10/100 high-speed ethernet switches while Netscape Communications donated the latest version of their Suite-Spot server software. Nevertheless, the organization's equipment was aging faster than it was being replaced. One report noted that "Three of our four terminal servers were built when 9,600 baud modems were considered "fast"."
In getting ready for Y2K NCF decided to upgrade all its older servers still running SunOS to Solaris 7. This move required porting the still-popular FreePort text software to the newer UNIX-based system.
Because founding president Dave Sutherland was unable to attend NCF board meetings due to other commitments, the other board members decided to appoint him as "Chairman Emeritus", to allow him to continue to participate. In his place Michael Mason was elected by the board as acting president and CEO.
NCF started the year with 10,325 members, the organization having lost many members over the previous two years due to the emergence of commercial ISPs. All servers had been updated to run Solaris 7 as part of Y2K preparations and this greatly simplified system administration and updating. Web hosting moved to a server running Apache 1.3.12 with PHP4 and MySQL.
The new state of the art in dial-up access at this time was 56 kbit/s and NCF struggled with whether they should take the step or not. The largest impediment was the cost of upgrading telephone lines from analog to digital.
In a presentation in July, Executive Director Chris Cope emphasized that NCF must phase out text based services and move everything to web-based services instead. Despite the level of comfort some members had with the text-based FreePort system, it was identified as being unsupportable in the future and that NCF members would be left on the wrong side of the growing digital divide. Cope also emphasized that he thought much of the loss of members to commercial ISPs was due to their desire for web access, not realizing that NCF offered that alongside text-only access. Cope emphasized that NCF had developed a niche market in service provision - low income citizens who were at risk of being left out of the internet and all its benefits. He indicated that these people were in need of training and assistance and that NCF was well placed to provide that to them. He concluded:
|“||By focusing our attention on those who would otherwise be left out, we differentiate ourselves from commercial service providers and capitalize on our strengths. By understanding our niche, and providing reliable basic Internet services to those who need it most, we make the planning process easy.||”|
In late summer NCF purchased three new 3Com RAS1500 servers to the existing stacks and also received a large quantity of scrapped servers, switches and other equipment from Alcatel, including four 3-slot Tigris access servers. NCF continued to benefit from corporate donations to provide service to its members. The RAS1500 servers proved unreliable and 3Com ended up providing a full refund for them.
Pressed by a continually shrinking membership which then stood at 7,972 members, a drop of 25% over a year earlier, the NCF board voted on 21 November 2000 to terminate the Executive Director's position due to financial constraints and end Chris Cope's employment in that position. At the next board meeting the board voted to retain an Executive Director "if it can be afforded".
At the end of the year the organization set its priorities for the future, deciding that: "NCF's focus in 2001 is to provide its members with low-cost reliable dialup access to basic internet services, and to organize help for people new to using the internet."
NCF ended the year with 7590 members.
NCF hired Ian MacEachern as the new Executive Director starting on 9 April and, following his successful run for the board, elected Chris Cope as President.
- "Remain a donation-based organization"
- "Establish NCF as a 'brand,' giving it an identity outside the membership"
- "Develop strong and reliable basic services (including spam-reduction)"
- "Streamline registration and donation methods"
- "Make more use of volunteers"
NCF ended the year with 6,774 members.
With the troublesome 3com RAS1500 servers returned, the refund was used to purchase two refurbished Total Control servers instead. The pool of 14.4 and 28.8 modems was replaced with 33.6 kbit/s modems. SpamAssassin and blacklisting was rolled out to combat the increasing spam problems on the internet with these measures resulting in a dramatic decrease in spam.
To provide more technical assistance with the server upgrades and other issues NCF hired former Nortel employee Glenn Jackman as a second sysadmin in July. Glenn served NCF until late 2005. Executive Director Ian MacEachern, resigned effective 30 November and was replaced by John Selwyn.
Selwyn quickly prepared an ambitious action plan for NCF that included moving to 56 kbit/s digital lines.
Selwyn stated the priorities and the board accepted them as:
|“||NCF's focus in 2003 it to provide its members with reliable low-cost dialup access to basic internet services, extend the range of NCF's services to members and the community, and to organize help for people new to using the internet. NCF will: provide internet access; help improve internet literacy; operate an internet 'public common'; for residents of the National Capital region."||”|
NCF membership finished the year at 6,618 members.
In 2003, under the new Executive Director, the organization received a new streamlined website that included e-commerce capabilities. For the first time new members could sign-up securely online, pay by credit card and complete their inputs to the SQL database directly.
NCF had been located at Carleton University since its inception, but by 2003, due to the double cohort, the university was becoming pressed for space and NCF was forced to look for a new home for its offices. As a temporary measure over the summer the NCF staff worked from home. In the fall office space was found on campus once again.
By July NCF had entirely switched to 56 kbit/s modems and had 184 digital lines available with a total of 276 planned along with V.92 capability, upgraded from V.90. Executive Director John Selwyn said "Modem capacity is critical in member perception of value and quality."
NCF finished the year with a number of accomplishments completed, including:
- all-digital 56K v.92 modems and additional phone lines and modem-sharing software to allow fair access for everyone during peak times
- on-line database that allowed member processing in minutes
- upgrading and retention of the legacy FreePort text-based system
- in-house development of a custom SpamFilter
- introduction of personalized website members homepage
As a result NCF membership grew to 8,357 by year end, a 26% increase.
Executive Director John Selwyn started the year with a statement:
|“||I sense a real change in the tone of a lot of communications from the membership. People are upbeat, enjoying the NCF as it is today as well as looking forward to future improvements. We still have a lot of work to do to ensuring that all members understand that it is important for them to donate to cover their costs. We also need to keep raising the awareness of local residents to the services that the NCF offers.||”|
Early in the year NCF introduced its own discussion group software that allows members to set up groups and communicate with each other through "threaded" conversations.
A mid-year shortage of donations lead to a "universal participation" expectation, asking all members either provide volunteer time or a cash donation, based on which services they use. All members were expected to participate, unless unable due to "exigent financial circumstances". A small number of members vocally disagreed with the policy, but the majority supported it and the organization ended the year with donations up 34% in the last quarter over the same period in the previous year and membership up 10% over 2003.
In March NCF began examining the possibility of offering broadband service to members. Executive Director John Selwyn said:
|“||We're finding that NCF is not on the radar screen of most mainstream families in the Ottawa area. NCF is viewed as internet by those that cannot afford internet, and as such a lower-quality service. That NCF offers only dial-up service reinforces this impression. Higher-speed access (such as DSL or cable) has been offered by Ottawa ISPs for several years and has become commonplace-- many members have been asking if NCF could provide it. Offering broadband access along with dial-up would help NCF to remain relevant to a broader range of local, helping NCF better accomplish its purpose.||”|
In August 2005, NCF introduced DSL service for members. The fees from DSL access, set at $29.95 per month, are used to help subsidize the dial-up service for less advantaged residents. DSL technician Daniel Brousseau was hired to provide support to members using DSL.
Throughout the year NCF continued to struggle financially and focused on donation levels and membership campaigns. The bottom line was assisted by the Executive Director not drawing his salary through much of the year and volunteering instead. NCF's child poverty access and members helping members funds were used to help local citizens in need access the internet. The number of members joining to use the new DSL service was steady and finished the year with about 100 signed up. NCF finished the year with about 8000 members.
The NCF financial picture started to improve early in the year with more members making donations, plus 235 DSL subscribers signed up. Hardware sales of DSL modems added revenue as well.
In May 2006 the ongoing problems of space constraints at Carleton University forced NCF to seek new office space off-campus. Over the summer the organization located and moved into Suite 302 in the Trailhead building at 1960 Scott Street in the Westboro district of Ottawa. Given the organization's focus on serving the lower-income residents of the city, the location's excellent transit connections were a factor in choosing this location.
There was enough migration of members from dial-up to DSL that in March the board approved the reduction in the number of dial-up lines by 23. NCF also started offering organizational internet domain names for both websites and e-mail.
NCF finished the year with 1300 DSL members and 8000 members overall.
In early May 2008 NCF had a major loss of e-mail when the RAID array suffered a catastrophic failure. E-Mail service was restored within days but most of the stored e-mail was lost, despite extensive recovery efforts. The array was replaced and a back-up array was purchased as well. On 27 May 2008 NCF staff and members attended the Net Neutrality rally on Parliament Hill, John Selwyn spoke at the rally and NCF made a submission to the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission opposing Bell Canada's bandwidth throttling of DSL service, including NCF's.
NCF finished 2008 with 2000 members using DSL service.
Over the years 75,000 people have been NCF members, although many have moved out of the area or moved up from NCF's original dial-up only service to commercial providers. The organization had about 8000 current and active members as of 2009.
Many NCF members have gone on to careers in the Ottawa hi-tech industry after beginning with NCF dial-up access.
|File:Commons-logo.svg||Wikimedia Commons has media related to: National Capital Freenet|
- Patrick, A.S. (1997). Media lessons from the National Capital FreeNet. Communications of the ACM, 40(7), 74-80.
- Patrick, A.S., & Black, A. (1997). Who is going online? Results from the National Capital FreeNet. Internet Research, 7(4), 305-319.
- Patrick, A.S., Black, A., & Whalen, T.E. (1995). Rich, young, male, dissatisfied computer geeks? Demographics and satisfaction from the National Capital FreeNet. In D. Godfrey & M. Levy (Eds.), Proceedings of Telecommunities 95: The International Community Networking Conference (pp. 83-107). Victoria, British Columbia, Canada: Telecommunities Canada.