January 23, 2007

UK ISP devotes profits to foster OSS development

Author: Mayank Sharma

In 2003, Jason Clifford started an Internet service provider (ISP) in Hertfordshire, England, called UK Free Software Network. What sets UKFSN apart from other ISPs is the fact that it gives away its profits to fund students working on free and open source software (FOSS) projects.

Clifford has been active in the UK Free Software community for almost 10 years. Until 1999 he released and maintained a distribution called Definite Linux. "What changed in 1999," says Clifford, "was that I discovered how easy it was to run an ISP and that there was a reasonable potential to make a fair bit of money from it without having to do too much hard work."

After losing control of his first ISP company to investors, he launched UKFSN in 2003 -- but it wasn't the cash generator he had hoped for. "The UK market shifted significantly," explains Clifford, "at about the same time I launched UKFSN, with the introduction of broadband services, which are very expensive to offer, so it took a lot longer for UKFSN to break even than I had hoped. The break even point has literally just arrived. Previously UKFSN has not paid me a salary, and I had to factor in that it must do so before I could determine that UKFSN is profitable."

Sharing the profits

Having benefited from the FOSS community, Clifford wanted to contribute to it in a worthwhile manner. "I'm not a great coder, so I looked for other ways to do so." When he started UKFSN, Clifford tied up with the Association for Free Software (AFFS) in the UK to disperse grants. "It was important to have an understanding in place early on, as there was little point saying the money would fund Free Software without being able to answer those who asked how."

Though the AFFS grants program wasn't getting much attention, Clifford wasn't too worried, as UKFSN wasn't yet profitable. "Once the income started to build at UKFSN and I was confident it would continue doing so, my thoughts turned to the issue of profit distribution again, and from late summer I started to wonder whether it would not be better to take a more active role in matters."

After discussing the matter with members of AFFS and with UKFSN users, Clifford in October started working out the details for the profits program. To make best use of the funds, he decided to share it with students, once he realized that many of the best known FOSS contributors, from Richard Stallman and Linus Torvalds, to developers of KDE, GNOME, and other projects, all started out as students. "Students, particularly those in higher education, just seem to be attracted to this kind of activity," he says.

Another reason for deciding on students was to encourage them to complete their education. "Here in the UK we've recently had a change in the way higher education is funded, which is leaving the current generation of students with enormous debts before they even complete their schooling. This is beginning to deter some from pursuing a university education." He reasons that funding students already involved in the community is a good way to tackle two issues at once.

The profits program will start by funding one student this year. "While the amount of money on offer (£4680 or $9,000 per year) is not enormous, it is enough to cover a student's living expenses or to pay their university fees for the year with a fair amount left over." Clifford hopes that this will allow students who receive the money to concentrate on their education and on contributing to FOSS projects rather than having to take a job in a fast food restaurant or bar just to get by. The money will be paid monthly, much like a small salary, and the amount is just below the level at which tax would be payable.

Reaping benefits

Clifford faced some difficulty in getting the word out about his profits program. After working out the details, he started publicizing the program in November with the intention of selecting someone by Christmas. "I submitted a basic press release about the program to the three UK Linux magazines and posted to several relevant mailing lists asking people to spread the word. I suspect I missed the relevant publishing cutoff date for the magazines or it just didn't seem interesting to them."

About two weeks ago, from the small number of relevant applications, Clifford selected Andrew Price to be the first recipient of funds from the program. Price is a second year BSc computer science student at Swansea University in South Wales, an active member of the Ubuntu community in the UK, and the maintainer of pyBackPack, a backup utility.

"Since I started at the university," says Price, "I've been a member of its computer society, for which I was the president and then the treasurer." It was there that he learnt about FOSS. His first contributions to Ubuntu were filing bug reports. Soon after that he started triaging bugs reported by other people. After learning to roll .deb packages, he became interested in helping out the Ubuntu Masters of the Universe team to merge, update, and fix packages. "At the end of last summer, I was awarded Ubuntu membership, which I was very pleased about. At around the same time I took over the reins on a project called pyBackPack, which my friend had started for the Google Summer of Code 2005 but had stopped maintaining."

Price heard about Clifford's program thanks to an alert member of the computer society, who saw Clifford's announcement on the linux-jobs mailing list and posted it on the computer society's forum. It didn't take long to send in his application.

"Thanks to the award I can work on free software in my spare time instead of getting a less fulfilling part-time job," says Price. "It has also boosted my motivation and enthusiasm to contribute to open source. Being a part of the FOSS community is a really satisfying experience. It's not just about coding. Students interested in other aspects of software development, like testing, translating, art and design, documentation, marketing, and such, should also give it a try.

"I think my contributions have been learning experiences so far. I'm not a wonderful programmer and I don't work at the same speed as some of the more experienced members of the community but I'm learning more and improving all the time, so my contributions should increase in quality as well as quantity as time goes on."

Ensuring productivity

Both Clifford and Price have their own plans for the future. Apart from hacking pyBackPack, Price will also be contributing to Ubuntu, since Clifford's program doesn't tie him down to just coding. "I think the award has made me more ambitious," he says. "One idea I want to develop involves a new take on the to-do list program idea. I'm pretty disorganized when it comes to my university work and I've searched for a to-do list program but none of them meets my picky requirements so I'm planning on writing my own."

Making sure that the program's funds are not misused, especially in a situation where no specific output has been defined, may be a challenge, but Clifford believes that by selecting those who are already active in Free Software projects, he'll be able to see progress fairly easily. "I rather suspect that the UK Free Software communities will self-police on this anyway."

Price appreciates that Clifford has said that he won't be looking over his shoulder. Furthermore, he believes that since the UKFSN is targeting students who already contribute to FOSS in their spare time, the issue of misusing funds, is solved preemptively. "We enjoy what we do too much to misuse the opportunity," says Price, "and I also feel that I'd be letting the community down if I didn't put in a sufficient amount of work to justify my receiving the funding."

Clifford on his part has to ensure UKFSN stays profitable to allow him to fund more students. "Only the profits get given away, and they only arise once the business is successful. Rather than spending all the income on building a network I cannot afford, I have partnered with a couple of suitable companies in the UK ISP sector so I don't have to worry about investment costs to keep up with demand. This is particularly essential for broadband, where the costs of providing a good quality service are very high in the UK. The result of this is that UKFSN has low and predictable overhead and a fast-growing income."

He projects that UKFSN will gradually be able to increase the number of students who receive awards under the profits program in the next few years. "Firstly the number will increase to three in September this year and then, over the following three years, the number will increase to 20 students. The amount paid will increase modestly over that period."

But, in the end, it's all about following your passion. "Once you're hooked on FOSS," Price says, "programs like the UKFSN's profits program offer great opportunities to help you along through university while doing what you enjoy. I'd advise my fellow students to take advantage of the many opportunities that the FOSS community offers. The rewards may not be monetary, but they're certainly abundant."


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