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Last status of the Cleveland Free-Net


              The Cleveland Free-Net: Status as of June 1995{1}
                        Statement by Raymond K. Neff,
                   Vice President for Information Services
                       Case Western Reserve University


SIX FACTS

    o The Cleveland Free-Net, developed at CWRU, is the pioneering initiative
      in free public computing.
    o Use of the Cleveland Free-Net has grown rapidly: in 1994 there were 6
      million user sessions.
    o CWRU has invested more than $300,000 in grants and other revenue to
      support and improve the Cleveland Free-Net, and continues to spend
      more than $50,000 annually to operate the system.
    o The Cleveland Free-Net has never charged a fee to a user, and it hopes
      never to do so.
    o The Cleveland Free-Net welcomes the arrival of commercial services,
      which have begun to provide features similar to those available to
      Cleveland Free-Net users for years.
    o The Cleveland Free-Net will remain an alternative to commercial
      services, thus supporting open communication in our communities.


BACKGROUND

    The Cleveland Free-Net was born in 1986 as a research project in the
Department of Family Medicine at Case Western Reserve University's School
of Medicine.  Assistant Professor Thomas M. Grundner was the principal
investigator on the project. As is standard operating procedure with
university-based research projects, he had the responsibility to seek
funding for his research. Dr. Grundner wrote proposals and eventually the
University received funds and computing equipment from a variety of sources
to assemble the hardware and software to create the Cleveland Free-Net. This
fund raising effort raised $44,000 from Ohio Bell, and computing equipment
worth $60,000 from AT&T.

    The Cleveland Free-Net system had its operational debut in July 1986.
By summer 1988, the AT&T hardware was overloaded with use (it had an absolute
limit of ten simultaneous users, but it regularly ran with a limit of nine).
By this time, the system had 1,000 registered users.

    During 1987-88, plans were implemented to create a more functional version
of the Cleveland Free-Net software, to be dubbed Version 2. This project was
undertaken outside of CWRU by the newly created Society for Public Access
Computing (SoPAC). Dr. Grundner was the organization's first executive
director.  SoPAC engaged a computer programmer and paid $10,000 to accomplish
this objective, using funds from a grant to SoPAC for this purpose. By summer
1989, no useful software had been developed, and the project was formally
abandoned.

    Because CWRU attached great importance to the evolution of the Cleveland
Free-Net, it was decided that the University's newly created Office of
Information Services should be the home base for the Cleveland Free-Net. The
University Vice President for Information Services, Dr. Raymond K. Neff,
took on the overall responsibility for the operation and development of the
Cleveland Free-Net. As of July 1, 1989, Dr. Grundner and his staff of one
full-time support person became employees of CWRU's Office of Information
Services. The University took on the following objectives for improving the
system:

    (1) Stabilizing the operation of the Cleveland Free-Net (during this
        period, the computer hardware and modems had not had regular
        maintenance for over a year and were unreliable).
    (2) Purchasing a computer which had the capacity to handle sixty
        simultaneous users (the AT&T computer was overloaded).
    (3) Adding more incoming telephone lines.
    (4) Creating the needed Version 2 Cleveland Free-Net software.
    (5) Putting a full complement of computer professionals into the
        operation and maintenance of the system (providing operational
        support to the system and its users 24 hours per day, seven days per
        week, 365 days per year - which is the same basis as the University's
        mainframe computers).
    (6) Adding more services to the Cleveland Free-Net, most notably
        access to the Internet and its vast array of information resources.

    By any measure, this program of improvements was a dramatic and
substantial commitment on the part of Case Western Reserve University to the
still experimental concept of free public computing. 


ACCOMPLISHMENTS

    On August 16, 1989, the CWRU-developed version of the Cleveland Free-Net,
Version 2 went into public use. The six major objectives had been
substantially accomplished. The new Version 2, now registered by CWRU under
the trademark FreePort, had much more functionality than was called for in
the design for the earlier SoPAC-sponsored Version 2. This new system was
based on new IBM hardware which was far more powerful and reliable and had
much more capacity than the older AT&T system. Twenty-four modems were added
to the system, bringing the total capacity in terms of number of simultaneous
dial-in users to 34.

    Usage statistics took off. Within a few months, we had added 10,000
registered users. That early pace has hardly slackened: as of this report,
the number of registered users exceeds 160,000. The operational usage
statistics show absolutely stunning growth factors when usage for calendar
year 1994 is compared to 1988: from 160 to 16,000 individual users on any
given day; 36,000 to nearly 6 million user sessions per year (averaging 28
minutes each); and sustained growth rates of over 10% per month!

    FreePort was the first version of the Cleveland Free-Net software to be
based on a scalable architecture for hardware and software, whereas Cleveland
Free-Net Version 1 had definite limitations on growth. By its very design,
FreePort could grow to handle thousands of simultaneous users, as might be
envisioned in providing `commercial-grade' public access computing. In fact,
the original target for FreePort was 600 simultaneous users, clearly in
another ballpark from Cleveland Free-Net Version 1. Today, the Cleveland
system actually supports 406 simultaneous users, including connections
through all types of Internet service providers and 260 dial-in telephone
lines.

    The FreePort software and the know-how associated with this novel form of
computing were soon offered to other communities who wanted to emulate the
success of the Cleveland Free-Net. CWRU has helped over a dozen other cities
start clones of the Cleveland Free-Net. A grant of the FreePort software and
an IBM computer were given by CWRU to Medina County to start the Medina
Free-Net.  This missionary work looked so promising in early 1990 that Dr.
Grundner started the National Public Telecomputing Network (NPTN) as a
project within the Office for Information Services at CWRU, and after two
years left CWRU to devote full time to this concept. (NPTN has always been a
separately incorporated, not-for-profit entity.) To date, over 70 clones of
the Version 2 Cleveland Free-Net have been started.


FUNDING THE CLEVELAND FREE-NET SERVICE

    To anyone looking at the Cleveland Free-Net from a financial
point-of-view, the service has seemed somewhat magical. How can one offer
millions of hours of computer access time per year to thousands of people
without charging them?

    We have said for years that the service is free to its users, but there
are substantial costs in creating and operating the Cleveland Free-Net. Yes,
the Cleveland Free-Net is absolute free of charges to its end users, but the
annual costs of operating the Cleveland Free-Net are in the neighborhood of
$50,000. Without any external source of support for the system, these costs
have fallen on Case Western Reserve University.  It is still true that,
during the its entire nine-year life, the Cleveland Free-Net has never
charged a single user for its service.

    One of the possible funding models for the Cleveland Free-Net is public
broadcasting, i.e., we could use the fund-raising approach used very
successfully by PBS stations nationwide. After studying what is involved in
using this model, the University found that it did not have the in-house
expertise to carry out this approach. Over the years a few Cleveland Free-Net
users have said that they would volunteer to help raise funds for the
Cleveland Free-Net, but there have never been enough people to make the
effort feasible -- although we deeply appreciate the sincerity and interest
that these volunteers showed in coming forward. A few other users have
voluntarily sent money to the University, but this source has never amounted
to more than $1,000 per year.

    Another possible funding model is the one used by public libraries. Our
excellent public library systems in Cleveland and Cuyahoga County do not
charge users for the general services they provide. They are funded in part
with a portion of the property taxes levied in the region, and they also
receive a share of a State of Ohio appropriation. Public access computing as
practiced by the Cleveland Free-Net is similar to the libraries' practice of
making general information resources available without charge, and it is
interesting that the Cleveland Free-Net model has been widely accepted by
the community of librarians. Perhaps the method that funds these libraries
could be adapted to cover the Cleveland Free-Net. On the other hand, it
should be noted that there have been several levies on area ballots in the
past nine years to support public libraries, and it is not clear that the
voters would be in favor of additional tax payments to support public access
computing.

    Over the past five years, the University has raised some $60,000,
however, by licensing the FreePort software to other communities to start
clones of the Cleveland Free-Net. All of these funds have been used to add
more hardware to the system, especially modems. Even so, growth in usage
continues to outstrip our best efforts.

    One of the ways to offer free services is to control expenses. We have
polished our skills in this respect over the past seven years. In particular,
the hardware manufacturers have continued to give the University deep
discounts on their products, and this is very much appreciated. Even so, the
University has had to spend over $150,000 for computer hardware to implement
three generations of system upgrades, including the present Cleveland
Free-Net service, which involves 18 interconnected microcomputers (16 Intel
Pentiums and 486s and two Sun SparcServers), all running UNIX. Several
thoughtful Cleveland Free-Net users have made donations of used modems to
the University, and these were put into service. As one might expect with
such equipment, it did not have a long life, and the University eventually
had to buy hundreds of replacement modems. When we did make these purchases,
we were careful to acquire `smart' modems which provided superior
reliability, very high speed (from 14400 baud to 38400 baud), and
`intelligent' management. These modems were relatively expensive, but they
have been true workhorses.

    From our usage statistics, we see that the Cleveland Free-Net modems are
in use over 99% of all available time (over 700 hours per month each). It is
no exaggeration to say that we could use double or even triple the number we
presently have.  Lack of funding has been the principal limitation to
continued expansion of the Cleveland Free-Net. 

    It is remarkable that the Cleveland Free-Net service now costs the
University under one penny per user session. Use of the public telephone
system to connect to the Cleveland Free-Net involves costs which add up to
about four cents per user session. Thus the total cost per user session when
a telephone and modem are used is now about five cents.

    Connecting to the Cleveland Free-Net by way of the Internet is another
alternative, however. We started offering this approach in 1989, and now
over 50% of all usage comes through this path. The cost of this linkage is
less than one tenth of a penny per session, so the lesson is clear:
connecting to the Cleveland Free-Net via the Internet is the most
cost-effective method.

    It is worth spending a moment to put these cost figures into perspective.
If the average Cleveland Free-Net user has two sessions per day via an
Internet connection, then our cost is $0.022. If the user does this every day
for a month, then the cost is $0.66 per month, the cost of two first class
postage stamps. On an annual basis, the cost is under $8.00. Given the costs
to prepare and send out invoices, we could not afford to bill our users for
this service -- even if we wished to do so.


LOOKING AHEAD

    The Cleveland Free-Net represents a pioneering effort to provide free
public computing for this community and others nationally and internationally.
Commercial services, with access to risk capital and to fee income from large
numbers of corporate and individual users, are beginning to offer many of the
features that have been available to Free-Net users for years. The Cleveland
Free-Net does not plan to compete with these commercial services, but rather
to continue to offer no-fee public computing as an alternative for those who
cannot or choose not to become customers of commercial services, as well as
for users who choose to gain access to Free-Net through connections provided
by other services. In this respect, the Cleveland Free-Net preserves the
distinctly American tradition of open communication in a new era of
information technology.



CWRU Office of Information Services
June 16, 1995


-----------------------

{1} This summary has been prepared in response to inquiries concerning the
    Cleveland Free-Net's efforts to serve the needs of its steadily increasing
    number of users. It is not intended as an exhaustive or even complete
    history of the Cleveland Free-Net.


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