A century after Andrew Carnegie ignited a building boom of American public libraries, a few farsighted communities are building the electronic equivalent. These systems are called free-nets.
Communities build these local electronic networks to give their residents computer access to electronic postings from cultural groups, local government, and city schools. Free-nets often provide residents and schools their first link to the broader world of the Internet.
Such systems are a good way to try out the Internet. Free-nets are usually cheaper than commercial on-line services - and many communities offer access at the local library for free.
''This is real grass-rootsy, '60s stuff,'' says Gail Featheringham of the National Public Telecomputing Network (NPTN) in Solon, Ohio. And ''it's really accelerating.''
Of the 70 free-nets in existence today, 30 have come on-line in the past year, according to NPTN. The group says another 115 free-nets are being organized in the United States and 10 other countries.
Free-nets keep costs low by relying on volunteers and by getting financial support from local government and business. When they work, they work well. ''We're more popular than we can deal with,'' says Steven Gordon, director of the Greater Columbus Free-Net. Less than two years old, it is the second-largest free-net in the world, with 18,000 members and an annual donation of $25.
Another reason free-nets are popular is that they offer electronic access in small communities that commercial providers have not yet entered. ''We wanted Internet access without long-distance charges,'' says Tom Pieratt, co-coordinator of the free-net in Washington Courthouse, Ohio, which came on-line a couple of weeks ago.
But these are short-term advantages. Competition eventually will force Internet providers to cut prices and move into towns that so far have gone unserved. Moreover, free-nets are not for everybody. Because they are small operations staffed largely by volunteers, they don't offer all the amenities of commercial Internet providers. They have fewer telephone lines, less modern equipment, and more-haphazard support. ''We're probably on the trailing edge of technology,'' Mr. Gordon quips.
Thus, free-net lines are often jammed, especially in the evening. And many of them don't have the capacity to offer access to the World Wide Web, the fast-growing graphic part of the Internet that's very demanding electronically.
Some skeptics think free-nets will have to evolve to survive. ''The major switch will be from accessing [information on the Internet] to providing information,'' says Wendell Klingensmith, assistant vice president of information services for Case Western Reserve University, which runs the 10-year-old Cleveland Free-Net, which is the world's oldest and largest.
The problem with this thinking is that it would eliminate the most important benefit of free-nets, which is to offer Internet access to those who couldn't normally afford it. They allow even the homeless to get an Internet address and to send and receive electronic mail. With free public-access terminals in libraries, unemployment agencies, and drop-in centers, free-nets can reach people who would otherwise be left behind in the information age.
If we support public libraries for such reasons, it's high time we consider making on-line access a public right. Free-nets are not the only way to do this. But they're the first broad-based, grass roots movement to push the idea.
* To find out more about free-nets, contact NPTN via its Web page (http://www.nptn.org) or phone (216-498-4050). To reach me, write via Internet to email@example.com.