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World's local electronic net pioneers discuss successes, frustrations

STANFORD -- In Transylvania, people of a certain age have been waiting for the Americans to come since 1945, according to Romeo Macaria, who was born there shortly after the Communists took over. Last year, the Americans finally arrived, he said, but not the way people imagined ­ with guns and tanks ­ but via the Internet.

The American contingency is dominated by high school students ­ young people with computer network access at home or in school who correct Eastern European students' English papers, sent back and forth through the Internet. The crucial link is a regional computer network that is free to users and that has been set up in four parts of Romania, including Transylvania, by the non-profit Soros Foundation for an Open Society, for which Macaria works.

In San Bernardino County, Calif., a new electronic community also overlaps the loosely organized physical one. The valley's small businesses, scattered over 22,000 square miles, use their net to make on-line bids on $400 million worth of government and business goods and services in the county ­ business that had often gone to larger firms in Los Angeles. The network also recruited high school students to develop La Communidad Electronica, a network of information of special interest to the county's Latino residents.

More than 100 people involved in creating local or regional electronic communities in Asia, Europe and North America met at Stanford University for three days last month to share their successes and frustrations with networking. The global summit was organized by Smart Valley Inc., one of the local electronic networks. Stanford helped host the conference because William Miller, a professor at the Graduate School of Business, is vice chairman of Smart Valley, which was organized in 1993 by Silicon Valley businesses to make better electronic connections between their companies, local government and non-profit institutions. It created CommerceNet, an electronic commerce vehicle; installed free Internet access in public locations; and connected 100 schools.

The electronic communities represented at the conference ranged from tiny, single-purpose systems, such as one promoting health care in isolated parts of China and one promoting environmentalism in the Pacific Northwest, to mammoth government-led projects in Singapore and Sweden. Problems ranged from identifying and paying for the right technical equipment and expertise to overcoming cultural barriers such as "volunteer burn-out," "dual-agenda players" or the absence of a legal infrastructure to make investment less risky. Volunteer burn-out was frequently cited by leaders of U.S. projects, where unpaid volunteers commonly begin networks. Dual-agenda players include business people who have difficulty cooperating with each other or with public agencies when they perceive they are also competing for lucrative business opportunities.

Cultural barriers to networking are not trivial, even in the traditional sense of face-to-face communication, participants heard in a keynote speech by AnnaLee Saxenian, a professor of city and regional planning at the University of California-Berkeley. Saxenian, the author of a 1994 book that compared the Silicon Valley's high-tech economy to that of Route 128 outside Boston, attributed the greater economic success of the California region in recent years to its formal and informal regional networking arrangements.

Many of the networking groups at the conference were formed to spur regional economic growth. Some participants said, however, that their local electronic networks were formed more out of fear of being left behind than because they had a clear idea of how networking would help them.

In Sweden, participants from Stockholm said, interest groups, such as labor unions and farmers, are demanding that the government provide them with fiber-optic infrastructure, in order to protect their self-interest relative to other groups, such as employers and urban dwellers. In Winona, Minn., and Taos, N.M., by contrast, local network pioneers said it is difficult to convince many residents that a local electronic network tied to a global one has great value to them.

Europe ahead

Local governments in Europe are ahead of those in the United States in providing infrastructure to support local networking, European participants said. Of 288 municipalities in Sweden, 100 are involved in providing infrastructure such as fiber-optic cable, 300 communities are investigating it in Germany, and 170 in France, said Anders Comstedt, managing director of Stokab, a project of the city of Stockholm to provide fiber-optic links in Stockholm's central business district.

Singapore recently committed its National Computer Board to spending $1 billion on expanding its network. A large portion of the funds will go to equipping all schools and training 20,000 teachers to make electronic networking integral to the curriculum, said Stephen Yeo of the National Computer Board. In Singapore, people already can apply for building permits and business licenses online.

In Kobe, Japan, the regional network that was created by city officials to help promote tourism to outsiders browsing the World Wide Web has been partly hijacked for local traffic. The devastating 1995 earthquake in Kobe prompted national officials to give the city funding to try using local electronic networking for disaster recovery and public health planning.

In nearly all of Asia, the network projects have been initiated by governments. In the United States, business and private, non-profit institutions, often located in college or university towns, are leading the way. Palo Alto is somewhat unusual because its city council recently voted to build a fiber-optic ring that will provide the business and industrial districts with a high-speed data link. Half the households in Palo Alto already are linked to the Internet, most via modems and regular telephone lines.

"The greatest barrier we face is poverty," said Jeffrey Smith of Bridge to Asia, a network initiated by Chinese agencies and organizations to make European and U.S. doctors available online for consultation with Chinese doctors. Others, however, said that the middle class in wealthy countries may be more difficult to convince of the value of Internet infrastructure.

In Taos, N.M., a town of 10,000, local volunteers have built a non-profit foundation that makes access and training free to everyone who wants it, except rural residents. The community boasts the largest percentage of female Web users in the country. Indian residents of Taos pueblo, the largest existing multi-storied adobe village in the United States, have Web access, even though they have chosen not to have electricity and running water, and the large Latino population in the town uses electronic mail mostly for communicating with family elsewhere, said Paul Cross of La Plaza de Taos Telecommunity. Although a third of the population has access to the Internet, Cross said, only 10 percent use it at least once a month.

No compelling need

"The most frustrating thing about this conference to me is that we haven't come up with a killer application ­ a reason why people need to use this technology now. There is no compelling reason for anybody to use this technology in any of our communities," Cross said.

Marinus Gelijns from RED-Line, a foundation project in Eindhoven, the Netherlands, agreed. "There are nice things on it, but no compelling reasons. This is a bandwagon."

A key obstacle for regional networks is "finding critical applications that justify the cost of expensive data and video capabilities and incorporating the new technology uses into the mainstream of community life," the founders of WinonaNet, a network developed in Winona, Minn., wrote in a profile of their project. With fiber-optic and Internet services provided by U.S. West and Sprint, the 25,000-resident town has a "virtual school" and videoconferencing capabilities well beyond that available in most communities. Yet the founders say that building a revenue stream to support their operations is difficult. "For example, our hospital characterizes telemedicine today as a solution looking for a need," they said.

The most compelling, current uses of networks discussed at the conference were from lesser developed countries. "In a country with terrible barriers and knowledge gaps such as China, this technology sells itself," said Smith of Bridge to Asia. Publicity about the network's ability to save a 14-year-old girl's life, he said he believed, had even influenced Chinese ministry officials to appreciate the potential downside of the government trying to control information flows.

"Countries are interconnecting at a rate somewhat independent of their GNP," said Regis McKenna, chairman of a Silicon Valley consulting firm heavily involved in high-technology management and marketing. This is partly because technology costs are coming down and because the product has more value added in countries that don't already have substantial investment in copper telephone wire, he said. "Half the people in the world haven't made a telephone call," he reminded the conference participants, "but in the next decade, the airwaves will be making [communication] much faster and cheaper."

Information technology is the only way that Nelson Mandela's government can deliver on its promises of more equitable access to basic education and job skills, said Mary Oakes Smith, an Africa division chief of industry and operations for the World Bank. Smith described the excitement of geographically isolated teenagers in South Africa when they communicated electronically with Americans in Ohio and South Carolina. When she returns to her station in Ghana, Smith said, she hopes to install connected computers in several of the new community centers that country is building as part of rural electrification.

Some participants said they worried about a new form of Web-based "cultural imperialism" with massive amounts of information, mostly in English, from Europe and the United States overwhelming other cultures. But others said networks worked both ways, so that local groups, or even scattered people with cultural affinities, could use them to "neutralize" information from wealthier suppliers.

"We have seen that in Taos pueblo, where people are frustrated about how they are perceived in the outside world, either in a romantic or negative way," Cross said. "The pueblo sees the web as a PR pipeline so that others can see a more accurate picture of them."


World Wide Web locations of some of the groups attending the conference are:



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