Having never been to Cleveland, I was firmly convinced that I didn’t want to go. To my surprise, my visit was delightful. My hotel was a 1910 mansion, renovated in 1988 to be warm and to support modems and CNN. Dinner was just a stroll down the block to another renovated mansion, where I made short work of fresh rainbow trout, grilled with a pungent caper and garlic sauce. The conversation around me was, not surprising given the proximity to Case Western Reserve University, full of graduate-student angst and plans for monumental careers in the “real world.”

Image Thursday morning, I met Tom Grundner, the founder of the Cleveland Free-Net and an apostle of populist computing. Grundner became a BBS hacker in 1984 when, as an assistant professor of family medicine, he was looking for a way to deliver community health information to the public. His St. Silicon bulletin board was such a success that, as Tom relates it, “it ate my career.”

St. Silicon blossomed and by 1986 had become the Cleveland Free-Net, a multi-user service running on a UNLY platform with functionality similar to CompuServe. Users could chat with each other, could go through bulletin boards, and send mail.

There were, however, some big differences from CompuServe. For one thing, the service was free to the user. Grundner draws an analogy to television, where commercial networks fill one niche and the Public Broadcasting System (PBS) fills another. Grundner sees the Free-Net movement as the PBS of videotex.

In Cleveland, the network quickly expanded as more and more volunteers agreed to act as moderators for different topic areas. Lawyers, doctors, librarians, veterinarians, and many other professionals quickly joined. Rollerskating and SciFi SIGs came into being, until there were more than 400 different topic areas.

While people were using the system, keeping it going was costing money. It was kind of hard to claim that this was tenure-track research for a professor of family medicine, so Tom looked around for another institutional home.

He struck a deal with Case Western Reserve University’s computer group. They were in the process of spending U.S. $10 million for an all-fiber campus network but, according to Tom, “no one gave a thought what to put on it.” Cleveland Free-Net became a university project that also served the community, running on five Sun servers maintained by the department.

Tom got a salary, a couple of big offices, and a place in the bureaucracy far away from daily control of the Free-Net. Of course, he still had the ultimate control weapon, the ability to cause a loud fuss if things went too far off track.

So what to do? In 1989, he started the National Public Telecomputing Network (NPTN) and started pushing the Free-Net concept in other cities and countries. It was to the offices of the NPTN that Tom had brought me.

Both rooms were jammed with shelves, tables, postage meters, and ratty old couches, making these offices no different from countless public interest groups all over the country. This was obviously the kind of place where lots of volunteers spent their evenings.

It was morning, though, and the place was deserted. I sat down next to a life-size balloon with a skeleton painted on the front.

“Meet my staff,” Tom said wryly, while he flitted around the room checking Macintoshes. He lit a cigarette and sat down in an easy chair to tell me about his populist computing movement.

The model for a Free-Net was based around a local organizing committee. This group of volunteers would organize and run the Free-Net, raising money wherever they could for a multi-user system, a copy of UNIX, and some modems and phone lines. The committee would then get on its collective knees and plead with the nearest college with a router for Internet access.

Software to run the Free-Net comes from Case Western Reserve in Cleveland. Long available for only U.S. $1, the University had gotten stars in its eyes and raised the price to U.S. $850 for nonprofits, and much more to corporations.

In addition to the software, Tom’s NPTN group provides what he had dubbed “cybercasting services.” His first cybercasting success was convincing USA Today to allow him to distribute at low cost an online, electronic version of the newspaper. USA Today got supplemented with a variety of other news feeds.

When the Supreme Court started its Hermes project to distribute opinions electronically, it selected 12 groups ranging from the FreeNet and UUnet to UPI, Reuters, and Mead Data. Other information on current events (“teledemocracy” in Free-Netese) comes from the Congressional Memory Project. Every week, NPTN takes three Senate bills and three House bills and types in a two- to three-paragraph summary of the bill and how officials voted. The database builds every week, allowing people to start scanning the voting record of incumbents during reelection campaigns.

Cleveland Free-Net has grown over the years to 40,000 registered users, with 1,000 to 1,500 unique logins per day. Other FreeNets are operational in Cleveland, Cincinnati, Peoria, and Youngstown. There is even a rural Free-Net in Medina County, southwest of Cleveland. An old, donated IBM RT running AIX is maintained at a 100-bed community hospital in the county seat. The local agricultural agent is on the system, as are librarians and other professionals in town.

Medina County is typical of most Midwestern rural counties. It is perfectly square and the county seat is in the middle of the square. A call from anyplace in the county to the seat is considered a local call. Farmers, practically all of whom have PCs to run their farms, have a strong incentive to avoid long rides into town. Grundner felt that Medina County could serve as a model for the entire Midwest.

Financing Free-Nets is an interesting proposition. In Cincinnati, Cincinnati Bell sponsors the system. Many of the other sites operate on a shoestring. Grundner offers two financing models to the local organizational committees. On the pay-as-you-go model, the local Free-Net pays for services. A USA Today feed, for example, is based on the number of lines and will cost a typical Free-Net U.S. $1,000 to $2,000.

The other model has the Free-Net gather the names and addresses of users and ship them off to Grundner. Grundner, in turn, sends out tear-stained letters pleading for contributions. Of the five existing Free-Nets and the five others about to go into existence, three opted for the pay-as-you-go plan.

Whenever Tom could get a plane ticket abroad, he tried to spread the Free-Net concept to other countries. Often, though, he spreads the Free-Net concept by electronic mail, as in the case with his correspondence to the Helsinki Free-Net or to Richard Naylor in Wellington.

Grundner was even invited to give a seminar in Singapore, sponsored by the National Computer Board. I found this a bit strange as Singapore’s government, and especially the NCB, is pretty much the antithesis of the populist ideas Grundner represents. Interestingly, Grundner was invited back to Singapore, this time not by the NCB but by the Singapore Microcomputer Society.

The aspect of NPTN that was the most fascinating was Academy One, a K-12 computer literacy project based at Cleveland Free-Net that uses the Internet to try and include kids from all over the world.

Academy One sponsors periodic special events, such as the TeleOlympics. Any school with an Apple II (or any other cheap system), a modem, and Telnet prompt could participate in the TeleOlympics.

Four events were picked, including a 50 meter dash, standing and running broadjumps, and a tennis ball throw. The kids went to the school yard and ran the events, then came back in and posted their results.

The day started in New Zealand, then moved on to California, Cleveland, and ended up in Finland. The Free-Net kept a leader board of individual results, class averages, and a running news commentary with late breaking bulletins like “Mrs. Jones and her 4th Grade Class Break into the Lead.”

A more sophisticated event was the space shuttle simulation. University School in Shaker Heights had a full scale mockup of the interior of the space shuttle, courtesy of a NASA program, complete with tape loops of the Earth from space running on TVs located behind the portholes.

With children’s games, the kid with the toy gets to name the game, so University School acted as mission control, running 24-hour simulations of a shuttle run. Other schools got to play other roles.

A school in California was selected as the alternate landing site. An alternate landing site has to furnish weather data to mission control, so the kids would go out and gather data on temperature, humidity, and barometric pressure. The data would go to mission control, which would respond with the current shuttle status. Status information was used to plot the current location on a map.

For all the Academy One events (and for Free-Net as a whole), the focus is on accessibility. This means cheap and easy to use. Tom looks with great skepticism at things like gigabit testbeds, preferring instead to convince a librarian to start an online book club.

I dropped off my rental car and went to the airport restaurant for a nondescript meal, spiced up by an article in the New Yorker about a group of Tibetan refugees in Scotland. In a strange form of cross-cultural exchange, the Scottish haggis would be used as a base for the traditional Tibetan momo dumplings. Poems by Robert Burns and the Dalai Lama were read at these affairs. One of the Tibetans had tactfully suggested to his countrymen that the momos were even more delicious when doused with liberal quantities of hot sauce.