Antenna: Networking for Progress

The article below is a translation by Patrice Riemens of a chapter from the 1994 publication ‘From Bulwarks to Networks’ (in dutch):  ‘Van Bolwerken Tot Netwerken’. Michael Polman, Peter van der Pouw Kraan, 1995, uitgeverij Ravijn, Amsterdam ISBN 90 72768 38 8. 

The Chapter below is written by Peter van der Pouw Kraan.

The book can still be read on-line via this link.

Antenna: Networking for Progress

Antenna is a foundation based in Nijmegen (Netherlands), which successfully provides to about 500 different, and well known, or lesser-well known organisations the opportunity to engage in data communication. These organisations are active in the field of development aid, the environment, refugees, health and education. Antenna has also been active for years running telematica projects on behalf of non-profits, mostly outside of the Netherlands. Due to this profusion of diverse network activities, Antenna ended up, according to O’Reilly’s Directory of E-mail Services, as the Netherlands’ third Internet Service Providers, just after Surfnet and NLnet. 

This is quite remarkable, given the fact that our small outfit, with barely three full time employees and ten freelancers, is not really an ‘Internet provider’ with an own Internet link to the outside world ?}. Nonetheless did the Internet Society – the Internet’s founders’ platform – invite Antenna to coordinate and organize the workshops on how to establish and co-ordinate Internet dial-ups at the yearly Internet Conference in Prague, 1994.

Whereas SURFnet focuses on larger institutions in higher education and NLnet mostly operates for business clients, Antenna is more specifically active in connecting social organisations to the Internet. This entails a different approach and is much more than establishing a connection to a computer network, an electronic post office, a kiosk, or a entrance lane to the digital superhighway. Antenna provides connectivity on its own network to organisation, just like SURFnet and NLnet do. But the latter two providers offer a technology and services at a scale and for prices which are beyond the means of societal organisations wanting to implement networking in stages and do not have the resources to go at once for a leased line access to the Internet. Moreover, small organisation need just as much support as larger ones, but cannot afford to pay as much.

On the other hand, smaller organisations tend to move and innovate faster than larger ones and very much wish to let their networking capacities grow as fast as their enthousiasm and their experience allow. This process has become an Antenna speciality, and we really enjoy to transform a years-long interactive login relationship with us into a full-fledged Internet participation through a permanent internet connection over SURFnet or NLnet. These two official Internet Service Providers are not at all miffed by our existence, on the contrary, Antenna has become a kind of anteroom to the Internet.

The Right to Technology

The role of traditional political organisations has dwindled and been partly replaced in the nineteen-seventies by the emergence of ever more new, issue-based social movements. Electronic networks fit in this pattern as they increasingly provide open platforms for all those who want to participate actively in social change from out their respective visions and positions. Antenna’s motivation resonates with this approach: Antenna wants to bring people together through communication and hopes to contribute with its work to the cooperation among societal organisations.

Antenna collaborators translate he Right to Information and Communication, laid down in article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, into a right to access the technical expertise that is necessary to communicate and spread information on the electronic networks. Antenna’s twin focus on both the social aspects of networking and the dissemination of the needed skills and technique makes it a broad spectrum organisation whose activities are not limited to setting up electronic networks. Its activities also include the building of users platform and helping social organisation start their own network.

Although Antenna had been active since 1986 in assisting educational and societal organisations to establish networks by way of telematics, it was only in 1993 that it became better known among a larger public, when it became the Dutch representative of the worldwide Association for Progressive Communication (APC). Yet, and despite the important role it played in the development of APC, Antenna remained for a long time hesitant to join it as a full-fledged member. Antenna collaborators were harbouring reservations about joining a closed-shop professional organisation because it might interfere with the aim to maintain a broad-based collaboration with other networking services such as Geonet or the French-language Rionet. Additionally, a closed professional organisation was seen as potentially not compatible with a thoughtful support of the networking activities of third parties. But as often happens, things turned out to be less black-and-white in practice. The fact that Antenna was already closely cooperating with APC member Greennet was a crucial factor in making us join APC in the end.

Computers for Social Action

Antenna’s history goes back to the mid seventies (of the last century), when the Basta foundation, a research group on big economic interests group such as multinational corporations, started making use of computers and propagate their use as tools for social action. When Basta pitched “the emancipatory potential of the use of information technology”, as it was called then, most reactions were negative. It was even unthinkable for many social organisations to use computers. Computers were seen as instruments in the hand of governments and businesses, for the sole purpose of domination and commerce. This explains why, when Basta put the idea forward to ‘go on line’, that is to exchange research data with computers over phone, the suggestion was derided by many research groups.

Already in the end of the nineteen-seventies the Basta foundation was able to gain access to one of the computers of the University of Nijmegen. Basta collaborators showed almost every evening a fresh disk in and out of the system. But time came for Basta to look out for its own computer system when, on a late evening, someone forgot to remove the disk: next morning university staff saw to their amazement not their own research data on screens, but Basta’s ones on various multinational enterprises. So, after some soul-searching, a Tandy Model I computer was purchased as one could connect it to a standard cassette-recorder for programs and data storage. However, it soon became evident that the sixteen kilobytes memory was too small and and the tape-storage too slow – never mind the 1MHz processing speed. Expansions were not readily available, so Michael Polman, one of the founders of Basta, cobbled a new system together using various kits and DIY techniques. Now there were two 80 kilobytes disk-drives attached and the working memory had been upgraded to 64 kilobytes, for the time, a very honorable size. Using a self-assembled modem Basta started to access Viditel, the Dutch Post Office’s videotext service assiduously. The research group even maintained an own Viditel information page. At the same time, a lot of experience was gained in dialing up into other computer systems. In these days, such systems were rather rare on the ground, and mostly owned by multinationals – but given Basta’s research interests, this was not really a problem.

The Basta foundation also developed its own programs for data storage, word processing, and administrative tasks, for the simple reason that these did not exist at the time. By then Michael Polman got more and more frequently invited to give talks to social organisations on the various options offered by information technology. Basta got also into the custom of introducing ‘our computer’ as its third or fourth employee, beside its two part-timers which caused some surprise]. Then, in 1983, Michael Polman decided to turn his computer-related activities (installation, programming and training) into a business venture, but only for non-profits clients.

That December 1983 saw also the yearly Transnational Information Exchange (TIE) convention taking place in Amsterdam, Basta being also part of that network. A few TIE members, like the Manchester-based International Labour Reports (ILR) and Idoc Internazionale in Rome were also already working with computers and enthusiastically adhered to the Nijmegen proposals about data-communication. The next year (1984), these proposals were put forward again during the founding conference of Interdoc in Rome, whereupon a small set of organisations in Chile, Brazil, Hong Kong and Italy started seriously experimenting. This resulted in Michael Polman’s motion for generalised adoption of electronic networks to be approved at the follow-up conference (in 1986).

In 1986 Michael Polman also established a new organisation, with the name Antenna, with as aims network promotion and support for Interdoc and related social organisations’ structures. Antenna did already exist as a Geneva-based international umbrella organisation advocating universal human rights in the sphere of communication and information, with a number of (sister) organisations in different countries and with different activities under its remit. While the Nijmegen Antenna and the Bogota (Colombia) one were active in the domain of ICT, other Antennas, in India, the Soviet Union, the United States, Switzerland and France handled other aspects of technology in the sphere of the environment, agriculture, and nutrition. But what unites all Antennas is the aim to manage technology without a profit motive and without subsidies, by way of affordable self-help applications run by local social bodies, public and private.

In this article, references to Antenna are about the Nijmegen-based organisation – unless mentioned otherwise.

A large number of social networks – related to consumers rights, women issues, labour, pharmaceuticals, refugees and human rights – started to approach Antenna in order to have the models developed for Interdoc implemented in their own organisation. Antenna’s work for Interdoc also grew substantially. When the Interdoc network was established in 1984, it had been agreed that all members would share their access to the new electronic media, and more specially, their access to electronic mail and data-bases, with social organisations in their vicinity. This role quickly evolved into a specific task. This resulted in ever more Interdoc members requesting Antenna to help them set up a national information platform in their own country. Among them were networks in Zimbabwe, South Africa,

Nicaragua, Cambodia, Brazil, Peru, and India. The majority of these platforms spawned in their turn separate social networks, often with their own electronic network component. In many countries these services became member of what now is the APC network, and also, in a number of case, they became the national node or even the access- and service provider to the Internet.


Networking starts with commitment, not with a screen prompt. And collaboration and commitment to each other also often only arise once people have met in person. Real networking takes place in pubs, restaurants, hotel lobbies and the corridors of conference venues more and better than in front of computer screens. This is the reason why Antenna organised many workshops and seminars in the above-mentioned countries in the Global South so that people got in touch personally. In 1989 Antenna also organised, together with Interdoc, a technical seminar in Epe, Netherlands, for electronically networking organisations from all over the world. In the meanwhile electronic networking had been adopted by tenths of thousands, mostly societal, organisations on account of its horizontal and de-centralised character. The 1989 seminar was the first occasion where social organisations which had started computer-networking

platforms had the opportunity to get to know each other. During the second (Interdoc) conference, again in Epe and organised by Antenna, a closer collaboration between network service providers within APC looked like the logical outcome as these organisations had a preference for an own umbrella organisation: Interdoc being seen as a network of technology users rather than a providers’ one.

A nice side effect of this sort of conferences is the opportunity to discover and swap programs. For instance, during the Galactic Hacker Party in the Amsterdam Paradiso (Summer 1989), Antenna was handed a copy of the Waffle software by Matthew Lewis, who worked as system administrator with the Andragology department of the University of Amsterdam. Waffle enables ‘small’ system to hook up into ‘big’ ones, and during the Epe seminar, this shareware program found many a taker among the organisations of the Global South. Initially, ‘big’ systems were not exactly pleased with this dilution of their technological primacy. ‘Big’ systems all work with Unix and exchange messages through UUCP, or Unix-to-Unix Protocol, enabling Unix system to mutually communicate. Smaller system use DOS and Fido programs, which are entirely separate from Unix, and are therefore considered as somehow second-rate, even today, despite the fact that they operate on a world-wide Fido-software.

Waffle is the first program that allows a DOS-machine run BBS (Bulletin Board System) to swap messages with a Unix system. So just as big systems outside of the USA started to connect with the Internet could smaller BBSs also make a seamless connection with it, swaping messages with an Internet-connected Unix system. Hooking up a BBS in Montevideo to the Internet became possible – on the same day. After a short introduction by Antenna and a local dial-up connection interaction with the whole Internet became a reality. Many smaller system substituted at that stage their Fido system for a Waffle ‘UUCP link’, e.g. India-link in Delhi, Worknet in Johannesburg, and Colnodo in Bogota. Over the past years, Antenna has developed and made available for free many help-programs enabling smaller system to ‘go on’ the Internet in an ever more innovative fashion.

The Netherlands, former Yugoslavia, and the rest of the world

From the nineteen nineties onwards, Antenna started, within the Netherlands, to focus on societal networking by participating in various platforms and collaborating with the networks coming up such as HIVNET and GreenNet. Antenna tries to actively help extending the reach and possibilities of networks within the educational system and development agencies and organisations through two Dutch platforms established for that purpose: The Platform for Telematics Applications in Education (Dutch acronym PETTO), and the Association for Informatics and International Development (Dutch acronym VIIO). Many members of these platforms make use of Antenna’s services.

Antenna: Networking for Progress