On November 17th the Victoria Telecommunity Network passed another milestone - our fourth anniversary. We are the oldest Canadian Community Network.
As you can see from examining the financial information posted on our opening screen and elsewhere, we are still not taking in nearly enough in donations most months to meet our ongoing expenses, so we are left with a very serious and persistent funding shortfall.
This is obviously not a situation that can continue in the long term. In the short term we have managed to supplement our donation income with various service contracts. Despite occasional rumours to the contrary, the Victoria Telecommunity Network has never received grants from any level of government. Our users must understand that we require a minimum income of $4,000 a month for phone lines, rent and supplies. If we don't manage to get our income up to that level, we will have to reduce the number of phone lines we support until we can use black ink instead of red. The 40 phone lines that we now have are very busy and we should be adding more not taking any away. We cannot even consider doing this without a matching increase in income. The reality is that each phone line costs us over $70 a month just for the BC Tel portion.
To underline the seriousness of the situation, it should be noted that the Montreal Free-Net has failed and the Toronto Free-Net is in serious financial trouble. The Board is committed to keeping the Victoria Telecommunity network viable and will reduce services if necessary.
A few individuals are still spending multiple hours on the system in any one 24 hour period. We have been contacting the worst offenders, but we may have to automate connect time limits by the day as well as by the hour. A number of community networks have already taken this step.
Casino funds are an excellent source of revenue for capital expenditures and special projects, but the Gaming Commission rules preclude using these funds for ongoing operating expenses.
Our Board, at their most recent meeting, decided to institute the following actions among others:
1. Solicit corporate telephone line sponsors. Firms that donate the full cost of one of our public dial lines for one year will be publicly acknowledged every time that line is used.
2. Recommend to the incoming Board that a policy requiring that all VIFA accounts must be renewed annually in writing be instituted. Personal visit or postal mail only, no faxes or e-mails. There would continue to be no charge levied for an account, but the annual renewal would weed out unused accounts and serve as a reminder of the need for donations. This policy has recently been instituted by the Chebucto Community Network in Halifax and has been quite successful. New account validations will also not be accepted by fax.
Our AGM will be held at 7:30 PM on Monday, January 27th (note date change) in the multi purpose room of the Greater Victoria Public Library, 735 Broughton Street. Everyone is welcome to attend, but only members may vote. Do you have your membership in the association? Send your $25 for a one year membership to the office.
Despite our continuing concerns about the long term sustainability of this system, the next few months will be momentous times for our community network.
As many of you know, we have outgrown our main computer, a Sun Sparc 2. For some time we have recognized the need for a more powerful system. For the last six months we have been fund raising to purchase such a machine. Although many of you have been generous with your donations, we have not been able to raise enough money to purchase our first choice of system, a Sun Sparc 20 or equivalent.
When it became evident that we were not going to be successful in raising the approximately $20,000 needed for our first choice of computer, we examined the alternatives. By combining the funds that had been donated for the machine with the money raised by our most recent casino night, we found that we could afford to purchase a Sun Ultrasparc unit. This machine is not as expandable as the Sparc 20, but is much faster and more powerful than our old Sparc 2.
Our new machine has now arrived and is currently being configured for our use. Shortly, some of our volunteers will start testing the new system in preparation for transferring all our menus and information.
As part of the changeover, we will be moving to a new menu system, the Chebucto Suite, developed at Dalhousie University in Halifax. Thus we will replace the old, unsupported, expensive, American program (FreePort) with a new, well supported, free, Canadian one (Chebucto).
The Chebucto Suite is a collection of public domain programs that have been tailored to inter-operate and function as the front end for a community network. It is based on the "Lynx" Web browser and includes the "Pine" mail program and the "Tin" Usenet News reader.
Our existing menu structure will be converted to the new system as much as possible. Inevitably, however, there will be glitches and rough spots as we work through this major change. There are bound to be problems as you all adapt to the new system and we will assist you as much as we can. Watch for announcements of special help sessions and seminars. Our popular manual will be rewritten, but this may take some time to complete.
When will all this take place? We are not in a position yet to announce a final date for the change over as much will depend on how smoothly the testing and data conversion process proceeds. It is some weeks away yet, we will give you as much warning as possible.
In the meantime, if you wish to get some idea of where we are headed, I suggest you link to Halifax's Chebucto Community Net via our other Free-Nets menus and log in to their system as a guest.
The Chebucto Suite is Web based, so all our menus and data files will become HTML documents. This does not mean that you will suddenly be able to use Netscape or any other graphical browser to link to the Free-Net unless you have an account with a commercial provider. At present, we do not provide this type of connection, although we will be reviewing our service offerings once the new system is in place. What you will see will be similar to what you see now if you use our existing Lynx Web browser, which we have had available for some time.
Another benefit from our move to Chebucto will be that all account holders will be able to construct their own Web pages on the system. How much disk space will be available for this purpose has yet to be determined.
If you are still reading your mail and News with the original programs that were part of FreePort, I urge you to become familiar with Pine and Tin. This will make the transition to the new system less traumatic.
From the very start of our community network back in November of 1992 we have urged local organizations to make their information available to the public in electronic format. We have always been willing to host this information on our system, but have pointed out that a better approach is for the organization itself to make a connection to the Internet and maintain its own information on one computer instead of two and allow us to make the link available from our public menus. With the explosion of interest in the World Wide Web, this is starting to happen more and more frequently. This approach is, of course, not yet feasible for many organizations, particularly smaller non-profits.
The Victoria Telecommunity Network will provide disk space to any organization that wishes to make its information available in electronic format. All information not already in html format will be converted. For commercial and government organizations this can be done on a contractual basis, current examples are the BC Ministry of Forests and the Public Utilities Commission, both of which have supported us for several years. Non-profits can arrange for this service by donation, of which there are a number of current examples such as the Better Breathers' Club of Victoria.
Since late Spring we have been fortunate to receive youth employee funding from Industry Canada. This is a minimum wage program to provide training and skill development for youth between the ages of 15 and 30. We had two young people working with us this Summer. We were able to continue the employment of one of them until the middle of December. The individuals who were hired have been a great help to us. They assisted around the office, answering the phones and helping some of our users in person. They also prepared a database for the Industry Canada Community Access Program project and built Web pages for non profit groups. We should soon know if we are going to be eligible to hire more young people in the new year.
We have also been working on a contract with the British Columbia Community Networks Association to manage their Provincial office and community network Web resource site.
The Victoria Telecommunity Network's mandate is to provide electronic public space to the citizens of Victoria and the capital region. We cannot continue this venture without the on going support of our volunteers and financial support from the rest of the community. We have received donations from many locations around the world in Japanese Yen, British Pounds, Swiss Francs and Canadian and American dollars. We have been told many times that in to-day's difficult economy we have made a real difference to many people, particularly by providing extremely low cost communications with family and friends. We have received generous repeat donations from a number of users. We need the support of everyone who can donate even a small amount, although we realize that there are some who cannot afford to do so.
Gareth R. Shearman
Victoria Free-Net Association
(Victoria Telecommunity Network)