Paved Road to the Infobahn?
By Greg Easley
An earlier version of this article was published in the C-Ville Weekly, April 4-10, 1995, pp. 7-9.
Thomas Jefferson's spirit pervades so many discourses that it's difficult to determine which one he influences the most -- architecture, politics, horticulture, education, computer science. I'm merely half joking about the last one. In any discussion of the Internet, the information superhighway, the infobahn, or whatever you choose to call it, only one name is dropped more often: Bill Gates. (This is can be documented. I searched the online Catalog of the Internet for entries containing their names. The Microsoft monarch edged out Thomas Jefferson 4018 to 3905.)
The Library of Congress, for example, recently named its new online legislation archive "Thomas" in a nod to the democratic paterfamilias. Closer to home, Charlottesville is now developing a public access point to the Internet called the Monticello Area Virtual Village, or simply Monticello Avenue. Like Thomas, Monticello Avenue claims to be inspired by Jeffersonian ideals. This project, sponsored by the Jefferson-Madison Regional Library, U.Va., Sprint-Centel, and Adelphia, will provide all comers with access to the Internet's global resources. And local ones to boot. Starting this summer, you can step into the Central Library on East Market Street for a dose of digitized democracy.
Some Background for the Baffled
The Monticello Avenue computers will link to an online community bulletin board featuring information on area schools, the local government, non-profit ventures, job listings, upcoming cultural events, and, of course, library reference. The Central Library staff will be trained to transform greenhorns into nimble explorers of the Internet's sprawl. In addition, a limited number of dial-in lines will be open to those with proper setups at home or in the office. These people will simply use their modems to call the library; their computers can then connect to the community bulletin board, but not to the entire Internet.
Charlottesville residents not affiliated with the University of Virginia will have to pay a commercial provider for full Internet access; since the area lacks a local provider, each modem connection will have to be a long-distance (or toll-free) call. At least for a while -- the "wiring" of Charlottesville is inevitable. Unfortunately, those who don't have their own computers won't be able to rely on the public library for all their Internet needs. Access there will only allow one-way communication; it will be possible to receive information, but not to send any out. One consequence is that e-mail won't be an option on the Monticello Avenue machines. You'll have to open an account somewhere else.
Presently, there are two main reasons why the semi-savvy computer user would want to get "online," that is, connect a computer to the Internet. First, the Internet links together millions of computers worldwide, and these computers -- at least in theory -- store useful information. When you find what you want, the Internet allows the host computer -- the one storing the information -- to send encoded "packets" of data to your machine. With the right software, you can then decode this data; you end up with text, pictures, sounds, and even video images. Transfer time varies, but a fast modem lets you receive text almost instantly. Image and sound files are significantly slower. And what does the Internet offer? From the comfort of home you can now access, say, a catalog of U.Va.'s entire library holdings, NASA photographs of the Shoemaker-Levy Comet impacting Jupiter, music samples of the band Hole, and a short of video of Stephanie Seymour doing her thing for a fashion photographer.
Second, the Internet is the medium of electronic mail. People with e-mail accounts can use the global network to send each other anything they've typed into their computers. No stamps are needed, and e-mail won't molder for months in D.C. -- it's delivered around the clock in seconds. With a laptop and modem you can even access your account on the road. The ultra-busy often consider e-mail to be more efficient than either the phone or paper mail. Think of it as a synthesis of the two, a text-based answering machine. The sender knows you'll receive messages while they're still hot, but you can read them and reply at your leisure. And you can skip the small talk. There is, however, a dark cloud on the horizon: junk e-mail is only a matter of time.
The Birth of Monticello Avenue
Once upon a time local computer enthusiasts with no ties to U.Va. could simply dial into the school's network for full Internet access. Actually, this didn't happen so long ago, and the man behind it, Jon Gefaell, is now pulling behind-the-curtain levers at Monticello Avenue; his employer, the University's Information Technology & Communication division (I.T.C.), has loaned his systems engineering services to the project pro bono. In other words U.Va. pays him to work for Monticello Avenue. Right now he's the project's only full- time employee.
Jon moved here 10 years ago from California and set up an online community bulletin board, which he called "A Nickel's Worth." In early 1989 he designed a new project for the Internet. Turing, as it became known, was one of the first public-access Internet systems. Jon ran this not-for-profit service by himself, making substantial investments of time and money to keep local hacker-types happy. In early 1993 the University, recognizing Turing's benefit to the community, agreed to provide the hardware to host it. The new project was called Hopper.
At its inception Hopper, which Jon continued to maintain in his spare time, was open to anyone who filled out the necessary paperwork; once connected, people were free to surf the net. Chip German, Director of Policy and Planning for I.T.C. and member of Monticello Avenue's executive committee, says that Hopper eventually "was buried by its own success." As local Internet use mushroomed, Jon found it increasingly difficult to manage all the accounts. Further, it came to light that the University could no longer provide full Internet access to non-affiliated users. The solution was to set up a "firewall" that prevented everyone except U.Va. students and staff from leaving the school network. Thereafter, those lacking University-assigned passwords had to find their own connections to the net. "Something had to happen to Hopper," German explains. "Jon and the community network committee decided to rebuild Hopper as a public access system. So non-University people lost their free access to the Internet in Charlottesville." This transpired last fall.
Today, some of the disenfranchised net surfers are still rankled, as evidenced by a flyer now making its way around town: "Mont-AVV Goes Down (No 'Net for Charlottesville)." One hears a resonance of the 104th Congress in Jon's response -- "Nothing is free." To this one might add, "Just because we paid for it once doesn't mean we're obliged to continue." Jon believes that Monticello Avenue will work best if it finds a way to pay for itself. To Jon and almost everyone else involved in the project, providing free Internet access to every computer owner in town is simply unrealistic. "You pay for your telephone," Jon says, "and you'll eventually pay for this service."
The Internet does owe its existence to government funding. Its forbear, called the ARPAnet, was developed by the Defense Department 25 years ago in the interest of national security. In the late '80s the National Science Foundation -- another government agency -- connected its five supercomputer centers with a new network based on ARPAnet technology. Regional networks were then built to link universities with the centers, and the Internet as we know it gradually opened up to the public. University people were the first to catch on; home users and businesses are now following. Jon views this transition as a compelling reason for privatizing the net -- it no longer serves the government exclusively. And would we even trust the government to run the Internet? Jon thinks not: "Private companies can provide greater access at higher speeds. That's the way it works here. "
Contrary to popular perception (or wishful thinking), the objective of Monticello Avenue is not to wire Charlottesville with free Internet connections for all citizens. Rather, by demonstrating just how useful the Internet can be -- by turning citizens on to it -- the project hopes to attract area businesses. Here Chip German concurs with Jon Gefaell: "If Monticello Avenue could demonstrate strong community interest, Sprint-Centel and Adelphia might be piqued. We don't want to do what commercial companies can do better." The operative principle here is that a bigger pool of users will result in a lower price for each connection. Acknowledging that they can't give away Internet access, the leaders of Monticello Avenue emphasize that they will provide a safety net -- public terminals in the library -- for those who can't afford home connections. After all, what good is a community bulletin board if the community can't access it?
This is not to say that plans for Monticello Avenue were always so modest. In fall of '93 I.T.C. was informed that the Department of Commerce was awarding grant money to communities seeking to build their own networks. A consortium of local government officials, library leaders, and University staff wrote a proposal, which was submitted last May. Support for the project had begun to crystallize: U.Va. sent Jon Gefaell and a $30,000 computer to the Central Library; Sprint-Centel and Adelphia both provided free services. Volunteers were called for. And they came.
Unfortunately, the volunteers' vision of the project was at odds with what its founders had in mind. As it turns out, some of these volunteers were disenfranchised Hopper users with an interest in reconnecting themselves to the Internet -- for free. And they lobbied for a sophisticated system that the Monticello Avenue leaders believed would baffle newcomers to the net. But the volunteers say they were misled from the beginning.
According to Chip German, a shakedown was inevitable. But he is quick to accept some of the blame: "This may have been the leadership's fault, since we didn't make our intentions clear at first." To Jon Gefaell this skirmish drove home the fact that Monticello Avenue should serve as a gateway to community information open to all, as opposed to a backdoor for Internet cognoscenti. The end result was that the backdoor was nailed shut.
Meanwhile, despite several informed hints to the contrary, Monticello Avenue's grant proposal was rejected. Though this blow has slowed the project, it is by no means mortal. Launch dates were postponed, but Monticello Avenue has retained its shape. And even with the grant, getting the service up and running would have taken more time than originally expected. In order to house the hardware, the century-old library building needs new electrical wiring, air conditioning, fiber-optic connections, and several other infrastructure improvements. (When I first stepped into Gefaell's office, a portion of his waterlogged ceiling lay freshly heaped on the floor.)
Perhaps no one is in a better position to assess Monticello Avenue's frustrated progress than Library Director Donna Selle. Although she now has funding for all the necessary equipment, she is still waiting for it to be installed. According to the revised schedule, the library should have the public terminals in place this summer; limited dial-in access will also be available then. And a year from now, if everything goes as planned, the city and county governments, the libraries, area public schools, and the University will all be linked on the Internet.
What Are We Waiting For?
Monticello Avenue leaders are understandably reluctant to admit that they found inspiration close to home. The "Electronic Village" now online in Blacksburg has already gained the kind of critical mass that Monticello Avenue eventually hopes to build for itself.
The Blacksburg project demonstrates how a network can prosper in nearly ideal conditions. Consider Blacksburg itself. The Internet, of course, is useless if you can't plug a computer into it. But more than half the residents of this geographically compact town of 34,000 own their own machines. The reason: Virginia Tech. When you discover that full-time students make up nearly two-thirds of Blacksburg's population, you begin to see why this town has such a high technological literacy rate. For example, all the engineering students -- and there are plenty of them at Tech -- are required to buy their own computers. They tend to know how to use them.
To supplement Virginia Tech's existing campus-wide computer network, Bell Atlantic invested more than $6 million to wire local residences. To date five apartment buildings and over 1,000 homes have direct Internet access through Blacksburg's program. And the majority of these users are on what's called the Ethernet, a special connection that transfers data at a rate about 100 times faster than a standard modem connection (the latter is the only option for people living off-grounds in Charlottesville). All told, over one-third of Blacksburg's residents -- 12,000 people -- have signed up for the service so far.
Cutting-edge technology does cost. But not as much as you might think. A modem connection to the home or office costs $8.60 a month, and an Ethernet connection costs $30 a month, unless you live in one of the apartment buildings that includes the service in the rent. So in Blacksburg full Internet access is comparable in cost to cable. But what do you get?
Now that Blacksburg Electronic Village has reached an advanced stage of development, local merchants and service providers are quickly adapting to the technology. In addition to the Internet's international offerings, Blacksburg residents can access copious information of local interest: fretting parents can consult the medical database maintained by a local doctor; shoppers can check the inventory and sale prices at Wade's Grocery; movie goers can read the schedules and synopses of all the films in town; lovers can order flowers. In the future locals will be able to pay their utility bills with a few clicks of the mouse and order their groceries with e- mail.
Whither Monticello Avenue?
It will be a while, in Charlottesville at least, before the hassles of paying bills and shopping are relegated to the realm of virtual reality. But we do have some developments to look forward to. For non-utopian, nut-and-bolt specifics we turn to the project's technical leaders. Polly McClure, U.Va.'s Vice President of Information Technology, envisions a streamlining of government bureaucracy. Instead of driving during business hours to pick up forms or documents, people will find them online. Building codes, driving records, chamber of commerce information, tax forms -- all of this could be posted on the Internet for instant access.
Ms. McClure mentions one project already online that will interest anyone who's watched a Charlottesville stoplight turn green several times before making it through. Southern California has developed an Internet service that helps drivers thread through the area's famously congested highway system. Get this: an automated program processes data registered by thousands of traffic sensors built into the region's freeways. Click on the map of San Diego and you get real-time information about the number of cars and speed in each freeway lane. The maps are updated each minute, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It doesn't take much to imagine a similar system designed around the traffic sensors now imbedded in many of Charlottesville's intersections.
From Polly McClure's perspective the payoffs resulting from successful manipulations of what she calls "the barriers of time-space separation" are close at hand indeed. Glen Bull, a professor at U.Va's Curry School of Education, can corroborate. His networking expertise can be traced back to the Curry School's role in pioneering the nation's first K-12 Internet link, known as the Virginia Public Education Network. One program now available on P.E.N. and soon to be available on Monticello Avenue is called "T.J. Online." Here students anywhere in the state can e-mail questions to Thomas Jefferson and receive responses the same day. This isn't necromancy on the net, but almost -- answers are provided by the bona fide research team based at Monticello (the actual place). Only the man himself could provide a better answer.
If you're looking for Jefferson, you'll find him on the Internet. He's alive and well. Virtually, that is.