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COMPUTER-MEDIATED COMMUNICATIONS

By Dean Tudor

 

...or CMC. Big words that mean big stuff for reporters heading into the 21st century. CMC simply means that your computer will do the walking through the classified "pages" of cyberspace. You will converse with people and organizations through the phone lines or through fibre-optic cables-all the while typing (and receiving) text and graphics s, through your computer. Right now there are many venues for exploration.; Some are free, while some others involve a low fee. In every case there is so much information and data to be gained that any charges are only nominal. In a sense, you cannot afford not to be wired up to the planet.

First up, there are the locally run electronic bulletin board systems (BBSs) usually found in every community, often available free. These are put together by hobbyists who get a kick out of running a computer system. They can get software that allows a BBS to be established, for under $100. Many of them are linked together in diverse conference networks that span the planet (e.g., FidoNet, ', RIME, and NaNet). These ', networks will allow email. Thus, by joining a ', local BBS you would have automatic entrance into the Internet's e-mail capacity. You can send messages to anyone with an e-mail address provided you know it.

BBSs also have files of data, text and graphics that you can download: business applications, educational games, computer utilities, word processing enhancements and shareware. They also have conference boards in which you can lurk and gather information posted by others, or you can participate by replying-or posting original messages of your own. You can talk to people in Australia, Germany, Russia or Egypt. They can help you solve problems or gather information. People on the Nets (as all these are affectionately called) are extremely generous with their time and thoughts.

There are also large BBSs, funded by corporate donations and member contributions. An example of this is the Free-Net. Free-Nets are free, public-access community computer systems, offering a wide spectrum of online information services (including community and government databases) and e-mail. Free-Nets exist all over North America; indeed, they even have their own association. There are about two dozen of them: two in Canada (Victoria and Ottawa, with Toronto to launch on March 31, 1994), one in New Zealand, and the balance in the U.S. Planning committees exist in Erlangen and Bayreuth (Germany), Edmonton, Elliot Lake (Ontario), Prince George and Trail (B.C.), Saskatoon, Vancouver, St. Catherines and Helsinki. The first Canadian Free-Net opened in Victoria in November 1992. The National Capital Free-Net opened in Ottawa in February 1993. The first Free-Net ever was in Cleveland. It opened in 1986: it now handles more than 11,000 calls a day from 36,000 registered users through 120 phone lines.

The Free-Net is like a large encyclopedia about a local place. It has all sorts of local data and usages on a large dedicated computer. hooked up to the phone system, and available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. On a Free-Net, you can sign up for recreation classes, renew a business license, register for a library card. or file a consumer complaint. This is what's happening in Santa Monica, with its 25 public access computers located in schools. libraries and community centres. It is truly a Town Hall. Online libraries of data can help you to find pets to adopt, learn recycling regulations. download cultural calendars and city council agendas. In conference boards, you can debate local growth and development with your neighbours. In larger cities, such as Ottawa, you can interface with the federal government. In Toronto, you should also be able to interface with the provincial government. Information providers will furnish data and keep it up-to-date-at no charge to the user. Registration is free, and because of public-access computers you don't need to own a computer and a modem. However, if you do have one, then you can hook up from home.

So: you can e-mail from a local BBS to any Free-Net. This occurs via a switching series of nodes. Messages float through cyberspace where they are coded and sent on their way to the right destination. You can also e-mail to commercial organizations, These companies are in business to make money. They offer services above and beyond the local BBS, and most services are scaled to use. You pay a flat fee (usually about $10 month) that gives you e-mail access plus some time on the system and some downloading volume for moving files onto your own home computer. Local BBSs usually allow thirty minutes to an hour of online use, and 500K of download volume-a day. Primarily, this is because that's all they have of interest each day (and also they've only got one phone line, and they don't want people hogging the line). The commercial systems have enough phone lines to let you be online daily for two hours minimum (with some time banking and some payment for additional minutes) and the downloading of a minimum of 2000K of data. So you get about four times the local BBS allotment for a nominal charge of $10 a month-and there. are many more data on the systems.

There are three services in the Toronto area (long distance charges will apply if you are outside the 416 area) They are:

  • Rose Media (modem: 733-7645) has about 80 gigabytes of files: that's large. It has 55 phone lines, with hookups for Toronto, Hamilton and satellite dishes. Otherwise, it's long distance. A one-year membership (100 minutes and 2000K downloads a day, with banking) costs only $90 a year. That's $7.50 a month (you can buy additional space and time). You get all the Usenet conferences from Internet, plus e-mail. Scores of new files are added daily.
  • Canada Remote Systems (voice: 2136000; modem: 213-6002) offers similar files and conferences as Rose Media but is serviced by 250 phonelines. It also has business news services and gateways to Reuters and UPI. It has its own communications software (called EasyLink) that allows for a smooth interface and lots of colour in the graphics. Like local BBSs, you can upload private files for other people. The Usenet's 6000 conferences are joined by FidoNet, NaNet, RIME etc. The local calling area includes Hamilton, Kitchener-Waterloo, Oshawa, Barrie. The flat fee for two hours and 2000K everyday is $129.95 a year (that's $10.73 a month).
    Again, you can buy more time, including a cheap business rate for 6 hours and 6,OOOK a day. News services include wire news (features, national, local, international), commentary and editorials, lifestyle, farm markets, sports, travel and various advisories. They now offer Internet services such as gopher, finger, telnet ftp (different techniques-commands really-for retrieving information from databanks around the world}-for an added fee entirely dependent on usage.
  • Internex (voice: 363-8676; modem: 363-3783) provides a direct conduit to the world of the Internet. It does not have all the files that CRS or Rose Media have. But it has Internet access for telnet, ftp, gopher and the like. Everything is costed out and kept track of by its computer. For example, each online hour (daily usage) costs $35 a year. Each megabyte of online storage costs $5 a year. The basic yearly cost, then, is $40 (ten cents a day). Addons for file transfers, Internet Relay Chats, telnet-all will drive the price up. But you only pay for what you use-and costs are cheaper during the off hours. Time can be banked, so you don't have to use your daily hour every day. Internex is useful if all you want is access to the Internet.

There are a wide-range of national commercial services-unfortunately, they're all American-owned-and-driven, with few Canadian materials on their systems:

  • Compuserve (voice: 614-457-8650) is the largest, and most visible in Canada. It claims about 1.5-million members throughout 120 countries. The basic monthly subscription is US $8.95 for unlimited connect time to e-mail (60 messages included: fifteen cents extra for each message beyond that) and 47 basic services, plus US $8 an hour for extended services (US $16 an hour for faster modems). Compuserve has lots of support for Macs, far more than other services. It has many "gui" interfaces (stands for graphical user interface i.e. mouse control rather than keyboard), including its own communications software for Windows, called WinCIM. On CompuServe, you can find information on adoption through Geneology Forum. You can get in touch with Hollywood celebrities. You can find international trade data (such as government restrictions, shipping, customs, EC trade, banking and finance). you can get graphics with music and sound effects. You can find medical research, law, art, MENSA, cooking and recipes. You can get reviews of everything: movies, music, books. And Trekkie data plus soap opera summaries. There is an Electronic Mall for shopping, buy and sell and swap forums, various online magazines, lots of files for freeware and shareware plus conference forums for discussion of new versions of programs and technical help supported by major software vendors.

For journalists, there is the Court Reporters forum, the Associated Press online for APstories, Broadcast Professionals forum, Working from Home forum, the Journalism forum (for discussing media issues and industry trends). There is Magazine Database Plus, and the Health Database Plus-all for full-text articles. There are more than 1,700 optional services on a pay-as-you-use basis. The services included in the basic rate include an online encyclopedia, news, medical reference, financial information, travel, restaurant reviews, entertainment and games, plus e-mail. A lot of journalists are members of CompuServe. There are local phone numbers in Canada, but only for the larger cities.

  • GEnie (General Electric Information Services; voice: 1-800-638-9636; modem: 1-800-387-8330) charges Cdn 510.95 for four hours of access. It offers much the same material as CompuServe, but it is smaller in scope. There are local phone numbers in more than 14 cities in Canada, and an 800 number for the rest of the country. At present, GEnie is working on getting Internet access and e-mail. Give GEnie a pass until it gets its e-mail straightened out.
  • Other commercial boards are largely unavailable in Canada unless you want to pay long distance charges to some US border city. There is Prodigy (on which the Times Mirror and Cox chains will be available), America Online (on which the San Jose Mercury News and Time magazine are available), and Delphi (now owned by Rupert Murdoch, and which has full Internet capabilities; Maclean Hunter has signed on with this one). All of them have competitive billing patterns (monthly basic, added hourly charges, off-hour access).

My personal recommendation is to sign on to a local BBS for the experience of discovering and practicing what it is like to seek information through CMC. If you get a board with free e-mail, then you may be quite happy with just that service plus a few conferences for discussion and some files to download. If you want more stuff, then you can pay for it. In larger cities, there will be Free-Nets (again, with no charges) or larger boards such as CompuServe or CRS. In other parts of Canada, you're going to have to rely on 800 numbers-long distance charges can be brutal. Analyze your needs through using the local BBS, and then determine what larger sources of information you need and who will be paying- you or your employer.

 

Published in Sources 33, Winter 1993/1994



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