Community Networks Working With Groups

Pattern number within this pattern set: 
Peter Royce
Vancouver Community Network
Am Johal

It can be onerous for community networks to directly help multi-barriered individuals access the Internet through free community based training and one-to-one support. Many community networks find it difficult to sustain this level of service provision.


Freenets and community networks emerged in Canada in the 1990s with the goals of providing universal access and creating a vibrant online public sphere. Many made their services available for minimal or no charge to individual users. They have traditionally provided internet access, training and user support directly to individual end users, many of whom experience multiple barriers to using online tools. Building sustainable community networks in Canada has proven to be a formidable task. Many energetic Canadian groups starting in the early 90s have failed to realize their dreams. A significant proportion of these early groups no longer exist. The surviving groups often find themselves managing with a heavy reliance on project funding for their activities rather than on sustainable user-based income.


Multiple barriers to internet access continue to exist for a significant percentage of the Canadian population. While the growth of Internet usage over the previous decade has been astronomical, more recently this rapid growth appears to have leveled off. Young, urban, educated males with plenty of disposable income are well represented amongst regular internet users. While those in rural areas with lower income and seniors with less formal education are not.

Multi-barriered individuals typically require levels of personal support and understanding that are difficult to provide on an ongoing basis. Furthermore, the same individuals are frequently unable to contribute greatly to the ongoing survival of the network. Meanwhile, more skilled users who can bring greater levels of support to the network tend to advance rapidly and move on to other providers. This dynamic presents a challenge for community networks. (Neil Guy '96)

In the past few years Vancouver Community Network (VCN) has attempted to meet its vision for universal access and public space partially through working with community groups. VCN brings its information and communication technology (ICT) focus and blends it with the expertise of community groups who work with disadvantaged populations. VCN hopes that this approach also counters the individualization of problems and solutions with a more collective approach to problem solving. (

The activities of VCN that have a direct bearing on this partnership with community groups towards its goals fall into three broad categories: connectivity, content development and public access.

Before community groups are able to take advantage of any aspects of using the Internet, it is essential that they are able to access it with regularity and reliability. Only after achieving a degree of integration of online activities with their everyday office activities are community organizations able to start developing content of relevance to their goals. Depending on their goals, location and premises they may decide to extend their provision of Internet access to their members and the wider community.

1. Connectivity: VCN has offered a basic connectivity package to community groups to help ease their transition into using online tools to help them meet their goals. The package consists of unlimited 56K dial-up connectivity, subsidized new or refurbished computer, lab-based training for group members, set-up and installation of working terminal and training review at community group location plus ongoing phone, email and walk-in support. This package has been delivered to 460 groups in the Greater Vancouver area during the past three years and has been supported by the Industry Canada VolNet program (

VCN has collaborated with a local college students union to provide dedicated modem pool access to students who register with the union. The students union provides the first level of contact for students and handles registrations and many help requests.

2. Content development: VCN has collaborated with groups to develop content that is driven by group needs and based on current activities. VCN is currently working with user groups at four Vancouver public access sites to pilot the application of online tools being used to support asset based community development processes. The HRDC Office of Learning Technologies is supporting the project. ( Two of the Vancouver Community Learning Network areas of focus are:


VCN has been working with a senior's day centre and residential facility in developing on-line access, user support and other equity issues related to the site. How do you build the capacity for volunteer support for senior's organizations? How do you create community content? How do you extend the information that is produced with those residents who are unable to get access on-line? How can an asset based community development process enhance these activities? At the Lion's Den, information technology has been a catalyst in leading to a monthly newsletter, a weekly lecture series with volunteer professors and a play produced by local high school students based on the seniors oral histories.

Impact of the Olympics on Community Coalition

How can information technology enhance the ability of grassroots community organizations to engage in a public narrative over public spending priorities? In Vancouver, through the use of community alliance building, the public dialogue over spending priorities related to Vancouver's 2010 Olympic bid has included housing, eviction issues, the environment, sustainable transportation, civil liberties issues and extending the economic opportunities to a wider group of people. Information technology and importance of developing relevant community content has been vital in providing important information to the public when the mainstream media have failed to tell the whole story.

Westcoast Child Care Resources Centre

At another access site, content development for the childcare community is being undertaken. Services offered by the centre and prioritized as being widely used are being complemented by the use of online tools. These include a job posting service, extending the reach and readership of an existing newsletter and a collaborative network to support the work of family outreach workers who spend much of their work time on the road. (

3. Public access: From its earliest days VCN has collaborated with community spaces like libraries and day centres to provide public internet access sites. Most recently VCN is collaborating with 32 not-for-profit agencies in the Lower Mainland of British Columbia to make internet access available to their users, members and clients. The public access package generally consists of 2 PCs (though iMac/PC sites have been established) connected via a LAN to a recycled 486 PC Router/firewall/printer server (using the Linux router and terminal server projects) and to the internet via a DSL connection.

VCN is offering "User support" training to staff and volunteers of the host sites in addition to regular training opportunities with the goal of building group technical capacity to support the public access. Industry Canada is supporting the provision of this package for community groups through the Community Access Program.

Vancouver Community Network has established a 10 terminal storefront internet learning lab in partnership with the Humanities 101 Storefront Society in a low income part of the city. The lab uses a Linux based application server and recycled 486 work stations.

There is a well-recognized glut of used 486 and low end Pentiums available for building community based labs. However, the cost of software licenses and the need to upgrade donated computers to run proprietary operating systems and software products can be prohibitively expensive for non-profit groups. A second option is to use open source products that are free to use and can be installed on an application server and shared amongst all the workstations. Since the server is the only significant expense, this solution can be cost effective with installations of as few as 4 workstations but allows for significant savings with larger labs. (Fred Guptill, 2000)


A more robust community network can be developed and sustained by working closely with local community groups. With time the technical capacity of groups is increased to meet the needs of the multi-barriered individuals who associate with these groups.

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