Access for All FAQ

Written for Interstanding - Understanding INteractivity conference, Tallinn, Estonia November 23-25, 1995 - RFC Draft 1.1

Q1: Access for All sounds great. What is it all about?
Q2: What are the concrete targets?
Q3: Why is it so important that everybody be on the Net?
Q4: What's the time frame?
Q5: Microsoft, Burda, Time-Warner, German Telekom, and all these other big companies also want access for all. What's the difference?
Q6: Are there already examples of Acces for All?
Q7: If all these people come online, won't the lines be overloaded?
Q8: So the issue is first of all one of pricing and regulation, i.e. telecommunications policy. What models are there?
Q9: Access to the pipes is great, but what good is it if all the useful stuff I find there has a price tag attached? How about Access to Information?
Q10: What other problems are there to be solved?
Q11: Where does the Access for All movement start? What's the context?

Q1: Access for All sounds great. What is it all about?

A1: The Matrix has inherent potentials for empowerment of individuals and small groups. Historically it was invented by its users, as a huge experiment in ongoing collaboration in an open, distributed, non-hierarchical environment. It was an economy-free enclave based on non-proprietary technology where advertisements were prohibited by the Acceptable Use Policy and despised by its inhabitants.
Now, these Old Internet cultures are becoming marginal, while infrastructure-building capital takes over. An economy of desire meets money economy.
Technically the potentials for open information exchange and debate, shared creation and decision making, for an equality of voices are still there, but they will not manifest themselves automatically. Like anywhere else we will have to fight for our right to be on the Net, and to be there in a way we choose.
Access for All is a grassroots movement for bottom-up infrastructure building - technically, politically, artistically, socially.

Q2: What are the concrete targets?

1.) an open, distributed, heterogenous, packet-switched, two-way, many-to-many network in which everybody can write as well as read.
2.) ubiquitous, 24-hour, flat-rate access to the pipes at the fastest available speeds and at rates affordable to all.
3.) free access to all public information (analogous to the public library in the Gutenberg Age), freedom of speech and assembly, privacy and anonymity.
-- We want it all, and we want it now!

Q3: Why is it so important that everybody be on the Net?

A3: The matrix is turning into an educational, economic, political, social infrastructure; a communicational place where jobs are offered, civic and citizens' action is taken, kids do their class projects, government information on equitable opportunity programs is published, and public debate is conducted on just about anything somebody deems relevant. In such a world, anybody who is not present on the Net will be seriously disadvantaged.
In his keynote speech at the Telecom 95 in Geneva, Nelson Mandela argued that if the right to communications is understood as a basic human right, then the difference between the information saturated countries and the information have-nots has to be abolished.
Human rights are not granted, but have to be fought for. Also at Telecom '95, Peking correspondent Francis Deron pointed out how access restrictions are turning the Internet in China into another tool of the power elite. In capitalist countries, the danger is more one of trivializing the Matrix into a medium for tele-shopping and video-on-demand.
Understood as a public sphere, the Matrix is not an issue of industrial policy, but of democracy. Not everybody has to be on the Net, but everybody, regardless of location, know-how, and income, has to have the opportunity to be there. We're all stakeholders.

Q4: What's the time frame?

A4: This new platform for social intercourse is still in the process of formation. Within the next year or two many decisions will be taken that set the technical, economic, political, legal constraints within which the network cultures will grow.
In order not to leave these decisions to experts lobbied by commercial interests, alternative, critical, artistic circles have to be made aware of these issues. Precondition for opinion- forming and participation is access to the Net. Solutions will be negotiated inside and around the Net. The most urgent issue today is to get the widest possible manyfold of perspectives to participate in this process, i.e. Access for All.

Q5: Microsoft, Burda, Time-Warner, German Telekom, and all these other big companies also want access for all. What's the difference?

A5: Those enterprises are, by nature, interested in their own and not in public benefit. The conglomerates of telephone, cable, publishing, broadcasting, entertainment, merchandising, and retail companies produce a particular vision of what the Net is, thereby marginalizing alternative usages. Their idea is one of TV with a minimal back-channel for polling and ordering.

"For example, executives from Time-Warner, Inc. are proudly showing a video about the "Full Service Network" currently being tested in Orlando, Florida. The video shows happy suburban families using their set-top boxes to play games, watch movies, browse electronic magazines, and order pizzas and bedroom sets. This supposed "Full Service Network" does not provide e-mail, bulletin-boards, or person-to-person communication of any kind.... without e-mail, discussion groups, or a means of entering text, the Time-Warner "Full-Service Network" can't possibly support participatory democracy.... the dominant component on the Information Highway will be a highly commercial, top-down, "pay-per" system for delivering infotainment to consumers, and, of course, taking their product orders. Most people won't even *know* about alternative components, e.g., civic networks operated by non-profit organizations, much less subscribe to them." [Jeff Johnson (Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility)]

What the Fortune 500 want is a controlable, centrally planned and operated, unified network. They want set-top boxes as terminals not computers, closed front-end networks to the Internet (MSN, Europe Online) not straight Internet access. (not decided yet: Springer)
In contrast, the Internet as it evolved so far is a patchwork of heterogenous islands internetworked through the regional cooperation of the various operators, all with their own plant structures, clientele, funding, organization, philosophies, and cultures. Access for All builds on this diversity.
Another essential criterion for an open network that connects us rather than targeting us is that of "reciprocity of voices": in whichever format you can read information, you should also be able to create and provide your own. Therefore, tendecies that increase the division between professional information providers and a receive-only general audience have to be counteracted.
One way to do this is to put as much effort into advancing tools for social intercourse (newsgroups, mailinglists, IRC, MUDs) as we see being put into tools for information navigation (ftp, Gopher, WAIS, WWW). [Sproull & Faraj]
Access for All wants to do two things: First develop grassroots efforts for access that demonstrate that we do not depend on corporate offerings. And second, it wants to start a public debate about the significance of the Matrix as a public sphere, and about counteracting, e.g. by regulation, the additional empowerment of the corporations.

Q6: Are there already examples of Acces for All?

A6: Yes, during the time when access to the Internet proper was still largely reserved for the academic world, BBSs provided community networking. Places like The WELL in San Francisco, the Cleveland Freenet, or Coara in a small town on Japan's southern main island of Kyushu grew into geographically and thematically focused digital public spheres. They spawned similar networks in other cities, and were finally gatewayed to the Internet at large.
Today, even in the tightly regulated telecom landscape of Germany, alternative access models are coming up. The rooms in some student dormatories are connected to the university LAN directly. An apartment block in the federal state of Turinga uses the existing CATV system to run IP. The city council of M|nster decided to bring the town online, offering free dial-in points and terminals at cafes and libraries. A final example is Prenzelnet. The name is derived from Prenzlauer Berg, the squatters', students', and artists' ward in Berlin. Here a house will be wired with an Ethernet from the cafe on the ground floor up to the last bathroom where people might want to read online magazines. It will be a model house with a cheap and dirty, but scalable network that can be expanded to the whole neigborhood.
The main cost advantage of these models lies in circumventing the monopoly-priced Telekom lines, in doing local access not over phone lines but own lines. The other main point of local initiatives taking networking in their own hands is that the systems grow out of the needs of a community, not out of commercial considerations.
Local online communities provide a sense of affiliation, a shared history. They turn information into meaning by placing it into a social context. They allow for face-to-face checks, local sharing of resources (scanners, printers, CD-ROM burners), and encourage self-help. Local islands serve as ideal community front-ends to the Matrix at large, following the WELL's motto "Think global, act local."

Q7: If all these people come online, won't the lines be overloaded?

A7: New technologies are becoming available for digital transmission on any channel and any part of the electromagnetic spectrum. Even good old copper wire, the most extensive existing network on the planet, can now be turned in a broadband infrastructure. Recently, there was a report that 52 Mbps communications will be possible using copper wire. [GLOCOM] ATM over copper wires provides hundreds of leased-line quality virtual channels.
Also current CATV, with minimal capital investment for changing broadcast architectures into two-way systems, can be turned into a cheap, high-speed local loop. Continental Cablevision and PSI offer 24-hour high-speed Internet access at $125/m. In Tokyo, three CATV companies announced telephony inside their cable islands at a flat rate of $20/m.
Once deregulation makes it possible, extensive optical fiber lines installed for internal use by local administrations, by railway and electricity companies and the like will become generally available.
A wide range of wireless technologies from packet radio to microwave links, from infrared to laser are becoming technically feasable. These are especially attractive where there is no wire plant in place.
A more exotic technology is the modulation of electricity lines (Baby Phone).
One does not have to be a utopian to envision a time when bandwidth is abundant, and connectivity is ubiquitous and cheap, just like electricity and water today.
Technically, there are no problems, only a wealth of solutions.

Q8: So the issue is first of all one of pricing and regulation, i.e. telecommunications policy. What models are there?

A8: There is a range of models from grassroots cooperatives (Prenzelnet), via funding by sponsorship and donations (dds), to government subsidies (M|nster), and regular for-profit companies (The WELL).
Networks afford immense economies of scale. For example, in 1993 the NSF financed its backbone at 1$ per user per year [MacKie-Mason & Varian, 273]. On the local level, Harvard University with 12,000 users pays $4 per user per year for its connectivity. [Kahin, 12] The same advantage of large institutions can also be achieved by buyers cooperatives of individual users that purchase bulk connectivity at favorable conditions (like Individual Networks).
Public ownership, subsidies, and tax incentives should be part of the access structure, at the very least to assist disadvantaged sectors of the population, providing access through institutions such as libraries, schools, and town halls. In the US, the National Telecommunications and Information Infrastructure Assistance Program offered $64 million in FY 95 in matching funds for projects in education, community networking, health care, and public libraries. [Kahin, 15] Some US states linked the deregulation of telecommunications to the establishment of a universal service fund into which the commercial service providers have to pay contributions. [Civille, 196]
Finally we could imagine a radical departure from the American market model. Today, former telecommunications monopolies are faced with two incongruous demands. On the one hand, they have to compete in certain areas like any other profit-making corporation. On the other, they are still legally obliged to provide universal service. The struggles between the New Common Carriers and NTT in Japan, and the German Telekom's decision to raise local call rates are resulting from this contradictory situation. The latter is, in fact, a way to have German Telekom's competitiveness subsidized by customers who were no asked and do not have a choice.
An obvious solution would be to split the telco into a truely competitive company and a nonprofit organization. The latter could be based on a common pool of resources and funds. The former public telco brings in its physical plant, the NCCs their backbones. Operating and investment funds would come from contributions of the value-added carriers, the commercial content providers and network marketeers, and the public hand. Mainly those who profit from the Net financially would bear the cost. This could also be achieved by a tax on monetary transactions over the Net. The pipes would be considered common good and provided for free.
Economically, one could argue that as a precondition of any online market, connectivity itself should be excluded from market forces.
Politcally, one could draw an analogy to other common goods. In order to vote, to go to school or a library, to go window shopping, or meet friends at a public square I do not have to pay.
Socially, a truly universal, equal and equitable access for all requires a national and international metastructure that addresses the disparity between metropolitan centers and rural areas, and between rich and poor countries.
In an interpretation of Nelson Mandela's right to communications, societies could proclaim a basic human right to be online.

Q9: Access to the pipes is great, but what good is it if all the useful stuff I find there has a price tag attached? How about Access to Information?

A9: This is the crucial question to be addressed after access to the pipes. An obvious model here is the public library. In the spirit of the Enlightenment, nations have taken the decision that all published information should be accessible to everybody at no cost - a very radical decision indeed. A debate should be started on how this value of access to information translates into the Matrix.

Q10: What other problems are there to be solved?

A10: Lots. As a continuum from private sphere to public sphere, the Matrix has a range of requirements from privacy, security, and anonymity, to freedom of speech and - since the Matrix is a Third Place where people can actually meet - also freedom of assembly. Related issues concern censorship, access by minors, intellectual property rights, fair use, and non-representational models of democratic decision making.
A current problem that we heard about yesterday from Marleen Sticker is the attempt to hold access providers liable for the content of their customers. The concept of "common carriage," wherein transporters have no control over - and no stake in - what is transmitted to whom is endangered.
Answers to these questions will emerge from debates in the old media, and through established societal channels like NGO's lobbying activities (EFF). But the discussions can only be substantial if they are based on first-hand experience, i.e. if they are also led on the Net. Therefore the primary meta-goal is Access for All.

Q11: Where does the Access for All movement start? What's the context?

A11: Access for All starts from existing crystallization points (dds, is, Prenzelnet, Zamir Network and Electronic Witches in former Yugoslawia). By simply pooling these models, presenting them together, and forgrounding Access for All, the issue will become visible for the first time.
The result could be a collection of pointers to Access for All projects, of fact-sheets about the different approaches and technical implementations, diary-style scenes from the local online cultures, policy statements of these communities. Furthermore, forces can be joined to help bootstrap other projects by sharing experiences, software, know-how, and money (like the International City Federation). Operating projects could adopt sister communities in other countries.
As a movement Access for All could be a contribution to the Internet World Expo 1996, initated by Carl Malamud after the example of 19th century industrial world fairs. Among many fancy, advanced projects showcased there, Access for All could be a bottom-up, trans-European counterpoint.


GLOCOM: Information Technology and Communications Policy Forum of Japan, Proposal on the Reform of the Information and Communications Industry,

Jeff Johnson (Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility),
The Information Hypeway: A Worst-Case Scenario,


Sproull & Faraj, in: Brian Kahin & James Keller (eds), Public Access to the Internet, MIT Press 1995

MacKie-Mason & Varian, in Kahin, op.cit.

Kahin, in Kahin, op.cit.

Civille, in Kahin, op.cit.


Thanks to Sabine Helmers, Koji Ando, Ilona Marenbach, Frank Holzkamp, Joachim Blank, Barbara Aselmeier.