THE CUTTING EDGE: COMPUTING / TECHNOLOGY / INNOVATION : GUIDE TO INTERNET ACCESS : Internet for the Masses : Free-Net Offers Low-Cost Connection to Cyberspace

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Since being diagnosed as a manic depressive, Mike Zachary has had to forfeit his job as a computer technician and now lives on disability income of $1,125 per month. A car has become a luxury he can no longer afford, so it is difficult for him to get around.

But with his low-cost connection to the Los Angeles Free-Net, Zachary has tapped into computers at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore to learn more about the genes that cause him to swing between manic and depressive behavior. Through the Free-Net, he has also read Mayor Richard Riordan's city budget, researched companies he may invest in and sent electronic mail to the likes of Vice President Al Gore and House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

"I think the Los Angeles Free-Net is fantastic," said Zachary, a 47-year-old Van Nuys resident. "It's affordable, so I don't have to be an information have-not."

As subscriptions to on-line services and commercial Internet access providers multiply, so does concern that millions of people of modest means like Zachary will be left out of the information revolution. Even President Clinton voiced his concern last week when he called on high-tech companies to connect California's 12,000 elementary and secondary schools to the Internet by the end of the school year.

And nonprofit, community-oriented Free-Net systems figure to play an important role in bringing the Internet to the masses. With more than 480,000 registered users on 65 networks around the world--and another 20 scheduled to come on-line by year's end--Free-Nets weigh in as the fourth-largest consumer on-line service in the world, said Thomas Grundner, who founded the world's first Free-Net in Cleveland in 1986.

"Our mission is to spread the joys of community networking," said Phil Mittelman, a retired nuclear physicist who devotes about 30 hours a week to the Los Angeles Free-Net as its executive director. "Just because you don't have a lot of money doesn't mean you can't get into the Internet."

More than 6,000 people are registered users of the 17-month-old L.A. Free-Net, which welcomes 3,000 visitors a day and is adding about 500 new users a month. For $15 a year, they get access to news, bulletin boards, education programs and the Internet. (Commercial on-line service, by comparison, charge nearly that much per month .)

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So far, the Free-Net's clientele look a lot like that of a commercial on-line service--technology-savvy consumers who have computers in their homes. The typical L.A. Free-Net user is a white man with a post-graduate education who earns more than $75,000 a year. But as the Free-Net expands around the county and the number of registered users climbs into the tens of thousands, that profile will change to better reflect the diversity of the community, said Free-Net President Avrum Bluming, a practicing oncologist.

Users who can't afford the $15 annual fee can apply for a waiver and access their accounts free of charge through terminals set up in the county's public libraries, Mittelman said. More terminals are planned for schools and community centers, including hospitals and churches.

Once logged into the Free-Net, users can access more than 2,600 newsgroups on topics ranging from weather forecasts to career counseling to popular television shows like the "X-Files." Also accessible is a wide range of medical information, including a bulletin board where users can post anonymous questions that will be answered by Bluming and other medical doctors.

Although Canada and some countries in Europe and the Pacific Rim can boast of a few Free-Nets, most of the community computer networks have taken root in the United States, especially in small towns, Grundner said.

"Rural America wasn't being served by anybody," he said. "CompuServe, AOL and so forth weren't putting [local access points] in rural areas because there were not enough potential customers to justify the expense."

Even in big cities like Los Angeles, Free-Nets try to bring a small-town feel to computer networks, Grundner said.

"We really see our strength more as a community resource than as an Internet service provider," said Bluming, who spent eight years rounding up the people and the funds for the L.A. Free-Net.

The L.A. Free-Net is powered by a Sun SPARC computer crammed into a tiny room at the Tarzana Regional Medical Center, along with 60 modems and some network equipment. Other Free-Net nodes--which consist of a communications server, a router and additional modems--are installed throughout the county.

So far, some 80% of the county can dial in to the Los Angeles Free-Net free of charge on the system's 85 phone lines. Mittelman is looking to install two additional nodes so that the Free-Net will be a toll-free call away from anywhere in the county.

Mittelman is also working to install wide-band phone lines so that Free-Net users can experience the graphics that make the World Wide Web portion of the Internet so attractive. Full-color Web access will cost users an additional $15 a year and will come on-line by the end of the month, he said.

To keep costs down, the L.A. Free-Net relies heavily on volunteers. Neither Mittelman nor Bluming receives payment for the time they devote to the network. Only a private company charged with administrating the computer system earns an annual fee of $40,000, Mittelman said.

Free-Net users also volunteer their time and effort to improve the computer network. For example:

* Gladys and Mel Roseman, a pair of retired teachers and enthusiastic Free-Net volunteers, have started a rash of special interest groups, or SIGs, on topics ranging from gardening to nutrition to politics. Free-Net members use SIGs to share information and opinions, much like the "chat rooms" of America Online.

* Linda Zimring, a college counselor at Taft High School in Woodland Hills, put her school on the Free-Net so that students could use it to get information about higher education. A student interested in attending UC Berkeley, for example, could use a database to find a Taft alum enrolled there and ask questions about the university via e-mail.

* Russell Snyder uses the L.A. Free-Net to disseminate information about Caltrans, where he works as a public information officer. In addition to reading news and announcements, Free-Net users can post questions--such as "Why is there a pothole in the middle of my street?"--and Snyder will track down an answer and post a reply.

"I worry that a whole segment of the non-computer literate and the ones who can't afford a computer will be left behind, and that's why I think the Free-Net is an important effort to try to broaden the reach of cyberspace," Snyder said. "It is incumbent upon us to do what we can to make information available to anyone who wants it, regardless of income level."

Running the Free-Net isn't cheap. The biggest expense is the phone lines, which cost $10 apiece to install and roughly $15 a month to maintain. Annual fees to maintain access the Internet run at $10,000, but will rise to $15,000 a year beginning in October as the network expands to handle more traffic.

The Free-Net also pays $1,200 in yearly dues to the National Public Telecomputing Network in Cleveland, the organization that supports Free-Nets around the world. Add in the cost of new equipment--each Free-Net node costs about $10,000 to install--and costs mount quickly in a hurry.

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For now, the annual user fees cover a portion of the network's operating expenses: The balance has been funded by nearly $300,000 in grants from the federal government, the Tarzana medical center, the HOPE Unit Foundation, and others. But Bluming expects the system to become self-sufficient over the next two to three years as the initial investment in hardware is absorbed and the pool of billable users grows.

Grundner, the Cleveland Free-Net founder who is also president of the National Public Telecomputing Network, likens Free-Nets to public libraries, which multiplied as publishers mass-produced books and dropped prices. With computer hardware so inexpensive and computer literacy on the rise, Grundner says the parallels are compelling.

"Community computer systems are going to have as great an impact on the 21st Century as public libraries had on our century," he said.

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