Tom Grundner, Director of the National Public Telecomputing Network (NPTN)

Free-Nets represent the most widespread model for connecting the public via computer networks. At the center of this model is Dr. Tom Grundner, who started the Free-Net concept with a medical project in 1984. Grundner remains at the head of the national organization that guides the creation of new Free-Nets.

Grundner’s first network project was a system that handled medical questions from the public and got responses from doctors within 24 hours. He established the project in Cleveland, Ohio at the Department of Family Medicine, Case Western Reserve University. When this project became popular and widely admired, he started a general-purpose public network. The Cleveland Free-Net currently averages over 10,000 logins a day from users eager to access its publicly available information, e-mail, and newsgroups.

Grundner started the National Public Telecomputing Network (NPTN) to actively help organizations develop Free-Nets in other cities. By the autumn of 1993 there will be some 20 Free-Nets in operation, and another 45 committees to organize new ones. Three Free-Nets are in foreign countries. While the Free-Net concept appears most frequently in cities, it has recently begun an outreach program for rural areas.

Go to the Web page for NPTN.

One of the central goals of NPTN is to see how this medium can be used to bring people closer to the democratic process. Users can read documents from American political history, selected congressional bills, and Supreme Court decisions. In 1990, Free-Nets in Ohio posted biographical information and position papers for numerous candidates. Similar services were provided nationwide for the 1992 Presidential campaigns. In the future, NPTN hopes to get the elected officials and candidates to talk to the public online, directly.


Following is Tom Grundner’s statement about government policy and community networks.

An NREN That Includes Everyone by Tom Grundner

James Madison perhaps said it best when he wrote: A popular government without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy, or perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance, and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.

While Madison was a master of the print medium, he could not have envisioned the development of computerized information and communications systems. Instead it is left to each succeeding generation to examine the current technologies of their day and to use them in spreading knowledge.

At the moment, for example, we are considering the development of an NREN—a National Research and Education Network. Yet, to me, the NREN makes no sense in the absence of the parallel development of free, public access, community computer systems—systems which would be to computerized information as the free public library was to the printed word. Indeed, perhaps it is time for us to re-think Madison’s words.

Perhaps what is needed is not an NREN, but an NCON—a National COmmunity Network. This network would need enough conceptual bandwidth to include the university researchers, but also recognize that a parent seeking information on the latest flu bug is a researcher too. An NCON would think in terms of K—100, not just K—12 or K—16.

Whether we are going to enter the Information Age is no longer at issue—we are. The only question that remains is whether we are going to harness this technology to provide …the power which knowledge gives and to provide it with equity.

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