Arid Lands Newsletter--link to home pageNo. 39, Spring/Summer 1996

Inventing the Sonoran Bioregion Network

by David J.M. Fuller

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.
-- James Madison

A revolution continues in the world of communication. Such comfortably distinct entities as books, television, radio, video, and computer files are merging into a multimedia pandemonium.

This process of unification was, of course, begun by the computer and its once-radical treatment of all information as digits. The confirming phenomenon, though, has been the rise of networks of computers, both local and global, exchanging information of all kinds across copper telephone lines, fiber optic cable, and satellites, by acoustic, laser, and radio links. It is this emerging, biomorphic character of the global network that makes its evolution so intriguing and so powerful.

Technology is one piece of the puzzle, but meaningful progress toward a dynamic, adaptive, and intelligent global network is dependent on many factors, not the least of which are economic, geographic and political; these are the variables that control access.

The nature of the information exchanged over networks is as varied as the peoples and communities using the networks; the environments in which information exchnagers live shape the nature of that information, as do the future thinking and scenario planning embedded within the development process. Research data and discussion groups of all kinds share the systems, together with electronic mail, international trade, global libraries, small businesses and local communities. The Net is growing exponentially, and out of this data cloud are emerging the local networks that are the key to the preservation of the unique values and concerns of individual bioregions and their inhabitants.

The Internet and the World Wide Web have emerged from the academic and institutional world into the glare of the popular press; their fifteen minutes of fame have arrived. But something profound is going on, and when the hoopla has died down and the confusion between means and ends has been resolved, that something may just turn out to be the arrival of universal access to the global networks. What makes this so important to residents of the Sonoran Bioregion is that systems once the preserve of academic institutions and corporate users are opening up, accelerating the development of local community and regional networks that reflect distinctive cultural values and environments, such as those that characterize the Sonoran Desert.

The diversity and the space cherished by so many who live in this bioregion are blessings, but they also present a challenge to communication on many levels. The Sonoran Bioregion lies across national borders, is described in several languages, contains communities of very different economic status and culture separated by considerable distance, and is administered by a bewildering array of official agencies. The notion that a communication web would operate seamlessly in such an environment without reflecting some of these attributes is probably misplaced, and perhaps undesirable.

A Sonoran Bioregion Network

Given that our goal is to create a network linking diverse peoples in diverse communities widely scattered over some pretty rugged terrain, several questions arise: What is the network we are attempting to create and what is it we wish to communicate with each other that cannot be achieved by other means? Does communication mean the same thing to everyone? Will the potentially bland culture of computer nets cause a blurring of distinctive communities? Or can the immediacy and global nature of the network actively promote a celebration of diversity by overcoming isolation?

The...semantic aspects of communication are irrelevant to the engineering problem.

The quotation is from C. E. Shannon (The Bell System Technical Journal, 1948), the father of the information age and the inventor of the ubiquitous "bit." It is at once a succinct observation and a caveat. Bigger information superhighways may simply mean bigger traffic jams, with useful and semantically rich traffic snarled in a welter of advertising and dubious discussion groups -- a kind of cyber-cable. The high-tech and usually expensive engineering solution is not necessarily an index of the richness of the message. As Clifford Stoll suggests in his recent book, Silicon Snake Oil, we may be heading toward an electronic "tragedy of the commons" where data-rich, information-poor material begins to crowd the nets. Bigger and faster therefore, in this context, is not always better.

Border Country Challenges

The development of a Sonoran Bioregion Network is contingent upon defining and overcoming a number of obstacles that, while not individually formidable, in combination allow no single, simple solution. While this may seem to be a negative statement, the integration of an appropriate combination of network models and communication methods will add strength and self-sufficiency to a system that must, for the near future, be defined by technical, geographic, cultural, and economic factors. The region encompasses nearly 50,000 square miles, from Tucson and Mexicali in the northeast and northwest to Caborca and San Felipe in the southeast and southwest, respectively.

Remoteness of communities. Simple physical distance between communities makes communication difficult, disproportionately expensive, and, to some extent, more dangerous in this region. The logistics of human transportation can be overcome to a large degree by the adoption of electronic conferencing, e-mail, distance education, and remote health consultation.

Terrain. Sites in this region are separated by mountains and water (the Upper Gulf of California), compounding the problems of distance by forcing land lines to go long distances around natural features and interfering with line-of-sight packet radio transmissions. This additionally makes the reception of broadcast radio stations patchy. These problems can be addressed by the use of packet radio repeaters, satellites (SatelLife or VitaSat systems) or other wireless modem technologies. These factors may also make the development of local, low-power microbroadcasting community radio stations attractive as an adjunct to computer networking, with on-air discussion of regional issues forming the basis for online inter-community discussion.

Political/national/administrative borders. Geopolitical factors will influence development of a regional communications web for reasons that have to do not only with the difference in radio licensing and frequency allocation between Mexico and the U.S., but also with the problems inherent in attempting to develop common strategies that are acceptable to the multiple agencies administering computer resources, telephones, and the activities of those that use them. Additionally, toll-free numbers in the U.S. that allow access to computer accounts and e-mail providers are not typically accessible to communities residing in Mexico, just across the border.

Obvious pricing structure differences between the telephone companies of the U.S. and Mexico, coupled with cost differences exacerbated by changing exchange rates make the development of a networking system that is accessible to all a challenge.

Telephone lines and power supply. Some of the more remote population centers of the region, such as those of the O'odham and Cucupa communities and of field research stations like El Pinacate, may lack telephone lines or even constant power supplies.

Computers and small electrical devices such as radios can very adequately be run from a solar-powered battery supply with a small minimum of maintenance and, given the number of cloudless days in the Sonoran Bioregion, a high degree of reliability.

The lack of telephone lines at some sites may at first seem to be more daunting. In fact, this problem is not insurmountable and can be developed as an opportunity to prototype what will in the next few years become the standard for telecommunications: wireless digital access. For some years, packet radio has been a viable option for wireless access. Radio amateurs operate computer Bulletin Board Systems that users log into by means of a standard computer, a radio transmitter, and an inexpensive piece of equipment, called a Terminal Node Controller, that takes the place of a modem. Depending on the frequencies and systems used, communication between remote sites such as El Pinacate or Cucupa or O'odham communities and a base with access to a phone line gateway to the networks is feasible and economical.

The Sonoran Bioregion Network Project has received funding from the Man and the Biosphere Program (MAB) to set up a packet radio modem system between the Pinacate Biosphere Reserve, just south of the border, and Organ Pipe National Monument in the U.S. This will provide for the transfer of computer files and e-mail, and will be a prototype for linking the remote sites of the Northern Gulf region that are involved in scientific research but remain without telephone access.

Radio links can be line-of-sight, depending on the terrain, or can travel through a repeater placed on a mountain. An alternative, especially developed for remote health consultation, is the SatelLife system, which employs a low-orbiting satellite to store and forward e-mail and files to ground stations that transfer the traffic to telephone lines.

All these systems are operating now and can be quickly set up for our region. The great advantage in moving quickly to develop these networks is that the experience gained and the networking possibilities explored will position the Sonoran Bioregion Network to take advantage of emerging technologies that will rapidly provide multimedia access for the smallest of rural communities.

Access: networking nodes/servers. The major reason that communities not associated with a center of learning and outside the larger urban areas do not have access to the net is economic. Faced with long-distance telephone tolls to either an academic institution for remote entry to the Internet or to a commercial access provider, which charges a monthly fee of about $20 for an account, most people cannot afford access to a communications network on a regular and useful basis. A large institutional budget and/or access to a corporate e-mail system can make long-distance computing feasible, but for small and not very affluent communities other strategies have to be sought.

A model systen appropriate for this purpose is FidoNet. Developed in the early eighties by Tom Jennings, this system now has over 20,000 nodes worldwide. Known as the "The People's Net," it allows for the transfer of e-mail and conference files on a semi-automated basis, uses simple PC computers, requires no institutional support, uses regular phone lines and volunteer operators, and has been custom-developed to meet the requirements of widely separated communities that can afford only limited long-distance telephone charges. FidoNet can operate locally, among a small number of user groups, or globally, using gateways and mail addresses that are recognized by the Internet and other networks. Although now being supplanted by direct internet access, such systems still find use in areas where infrastructure is limiting.

Economics. The great advantage of systems such as FidoNet is that they will operate on simple, cheap computers. Computers that are regarded as disposable by more affluent communities can be the key to network access and communication. The operational mix of technologies is to a large extent more important than the level of technology. Such a network certainly does not need the sophistication of Windows 95 or Power Macintosh; in fact, real benefits accrue indirectly from the latest (very expensive) developments in computer technology, which have the positive side-effect of driving prices of used and older models rapidly downward.

In the longer view, it should be borne in mind that the costs of initiating and maintaining local networks may be amortized by the development of online economic and commercial entities such as electronic brokering, network advertising for small businesses, micro-enterprise incubators, and corporate mentoring, among other projects. Together with new developments in secure electronic cash (e-cash) exchanges and signature agreements, there is emerging a real potential for matching jobs with seekers, vendors with purchasers, and service providers with clients.

With the exception of the wireless sites that will be able to use packet radio, telephone charges are a given for as long as the wire networks of the telecoms hold sway. These charges can be minimized, however, by the use of a store-and-forward system like FidoNet. This simple e-mail and conference system is set up to automatically send messages over the telephone system at times of lowest toll charge. Additionally, on both sides of the U,S.-Mexico border, node sites can be strategically selected that can make use of the most geographically favorable telephone tariffs.

A multilingual region. This is a region of many languages that must somehow all be useable on a network. Large commercial networks such as PeaceNet have shown that languages (most often Spanish and English in this hemisphere) coexist quite happily. The reason seems to be that when an issue is important enough, someone translates the document for the benefit of the other participants in a conference or discussion on the network and re-posts it. This rather anarchic system works well in a larger net, in which many people might be expected to be bilingual, but a smaller system may have to rely more heavily on the good nature of the participants. For a predominantly e-mail-based network, the language barrier usually is greatly lowered by virtue of the user's ability to read at leisure, edit online, and append translations that will make an unambiguous exchange more likely.

Cultural isolation/attitude to technology. There is a widespread resistance to the idea of electronic or computer-mediated communication (CMC). Cyberphobes exist in every culture. It is a challenge to structure training and outreach in such a way that people not only are neither intimidated nor irritated by the idea of computer networking, but are actively encouraged to explore the system and take part in its development.

Networks, in many cases, have helped overcome cultural isolation by allowing groups with similar interests to share their histories and concerns and to begin a collaborative process toward resolution of issues that may be common to all and at the same time underscore the individual cultural identities within this region.

Technical skills and computer literacy. In this region there is a great disparity in computer literacy, for historical and economic reasons. The system envisioned here is designed and developed for rural areas that have not typically enjoyed the resources taken for granted in more urban centers. The software is effective because it is simple and accessible and runs on machines that do not need to be state of the art.

And because technical literacy tends to be a function of exposure and relevancy to daily life, users who perceive a useful and interesting function for a network can quickly overcome computer illiteracy. Pew advisor Charlie Clements has observed from his experiences in Africa that it takes about two hours to introduce a user to the computer and the user to send and receive a first e-mail.

A multicultural region. Ours is a multicultural region. Those who have been involved in intercultural process are aware of the differences in communication patterns that can sometimes cause difficulty in meetings. North Americans tend to be task-focused; other cultures, such as Native American and Japanese, are thought of as being relationship-focused. Not waiting for a person to finish speaking before interrupting with a point of one's own, for example, is cross-cultural exchange that can cause considerable friction in some circumstances, even with the best will in the world.

Computer communication, however, is asynchronous; that is, the parties need not be sending e-mail at the same time. It is impossible, therefore, to interrupt the other "speaker," responses can be considered and thoughtful if necessary, and meaning is clearer for participants whose native languages are not the same. In many respects, the interchange resembles more a facilitated meeting in which interpretation is sequential rather than simultaneous.

In short, e-mail discussions and conferencing have some of the aspects of task-focus, in the sense that there may be a specific goal of the discussion group, but they also allow a more relationship-focused process, thus forming a 'metacultural' common ground.

Political/administrative structures. Every culture has its bureaucracies. In a bioregion as culturally diverse as this, there is certainly no shortage of what John Perry Barlow of the Electronic Frontier Foundation refers to as "heavily vertical" organizations that regard grassroots networking with varying degrees of suspicion. These attitudes are beginning to fade as the realization spreads that, far from being threatening, exchanges in the form of conferences, e-mail or database research make their jobs easier.

The ability to formulate public management policies is greatly streamlined by dealing with informed communities that have researched and discussed the issues at a local, regional, and even global level by communicating with others who share their concerns and have answered similar questions. Public land management and the development of policies of concern to those who live within Biosphere Reserves should, as Barry Lopez comments in The Rediscovery of North America, be a process of proposition rather than of imposition. It is that process that a regional network such as the SBN can help to facilitate.

Education and opportunity. There is a tendency among those who have access to high-level telecommunications to discount poorer communities that have had little opportunity to avail themselves of telenetworking skills or the electronic means to express them. This tendency occasionally approaches an implicit paternalism that is given expression by the observation that "their priorities are different" or "they need other things before computers." This sort of simplistic analysis ignores the fact that, today more than ever before, information and access to it is a currency of high value.


The kind of process envisioned here will make basic computer and information networking skills available to remote communities in a way that its sponsors hope will accelerate the full expression of their aspirations. It also will provide the seeds for more elaborate systems embracing distance learning, remote health consulting, teleconferencing, global database research, culture-based mapping, and remote access to historical archives -- plus others as yet unimagined that will be invented by the people of the region.

Some of the advantages offered by networking systems started in other regions have been listed by the Morino Institute, which is dedicated to the common goals of accessibility, communication, and interactivity:

  • On line inter-community discussion of public policy
  • More accountability and accessibility in government
  • Remote health consultation and community support (telemedicine)
  • Distance learning and K-12 computing projects
  • Development of on-line marketplaces and electronic brokerages matching services with provider, vendor with purchaser and job with applicant
  • Micro-enterprise incubators
  • Increased communication between NGO's and institutional entities and the public
  • Library access
  • Global communication with others of shared interests
  • Interactive networking and telecommunications (electronic mail, file exchange)

Historically, many of the reasons that networks have been regarded as inaccessible is that the largest of them, the Internet, has its origins in the defense research community and later became disseminated into the academic world. Not only did this have a top-down and somewhat elitist cachet, but access remained restricted and the system retained the arcane flavor of obscure Unix commands and university computer terminals. The World Wide Web changed all that. The Internet escaped and took up residence in the personal computers and living rooms of the 30 million or so human beings who are beginning to realize what an enormous resource it is -- and how much fun it can be.

What is needed, therefore, are strategies for linking rural areas and small communities to the net in ways that fit their lifestyles and culture. This process must come from the bottom up. The Web will continue to grow exponentially and reach downwards, but it is up to us, the inhabitants of regions like the Sonoran Desert, to develop models for Public Access Networks, Community FreeNets, and regional nodes that can communicate horizontally within the region through teleconferencing, distance learning, e-mail, and discussion groups, in the radio spectrum or over the telephone, and thaty can begin the task of reaching reach up and out to the global networks.

The Internet and its associated networks are growing at an exponential rate, nearly doubling every year. Coupled with this huge growth rate and the increasing accessibility of the Web through commercial providers and improved graphical browsers for home computers is an explosive growth in business-related activities on the net. Much of this energy is what is driving the rapid development of access technology -- the means by which the full spectrum of Internet resources can be brought to public spaces such as libraries and museums, K-12 schools, and community centers.

The final tether to break is the telephone wire that connects the user to the global networks. The replacement is wireless technology and the almost unlimited possibilities offered by the electromagnetic spectrum.

Free access to information is the principle that has led Apple Computer to petition the FCC to set aside radio frequencies to be be made available license-free for wireless access to the Internet as a component of the National Information Infrastructure effort. This would echo the European HIPERLAN (High Performance Radio Local Area Network) networking project and "ensure that no segment of society will be excluded from tomorrow's information-based world."

Commercial access providers like Tetherless Access and Metricom are already opening up the marketplace to short and medium range wireless modems, and the FCC recently announced the deregulation of frequencies allowing license-free access to low power radio systems suitable for schools, large buildings, and small communities.

Ironically, as the Sonoran Bioregion Network seeks to interconnect itself through long-distance telephone lines, satellites, and packet radios, technology driven by the sheer pressure of information and the millions of people connected to the net may provide our region with the answers we need. But as Shannon reminds us, technology is irrelevant to the content and meaning of the network and the task of the SBN and its users is to choose the correct interactive networking models for our communities -- those which allow people and their aspirations to drive the technology, not the other way around.

A Sonoran Bioregion Network development plan that considers both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border as a single regional economic, cultural, and environmental entity will offer many benefits in terms of regional cohesion and cooperation. Whether the network's expression is in e-mail messages to the International Sonoran Desert Alliance, satellite downlinks to a research station in the Pinacate, or Internet postings from the Tohono O'odham Nation to other First Nations, the technologies are here and we must choose the combination that matches the singular nature of our bioregion and the needs of its peoples.

bar denoting end of article text

Internet Resources Cited In This Article

[Ed. note: Links last checked March 2000]





bar denoting end of article text

David Fuller is a communication and development consultant. His company, Venture Catalyst, develops biological system models to help organizations design for sustainability. This article is based on work carried out in collaboration with The Sonoran Institute of Tucson.

About the Arid Lands Newsletter

Link to ALN home page Link to index page for back web issues Link to index page for pre-web issue archive Link to this issue's table of contents