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MAIN's TIIAP Project Accomplishments:
The foremost accomplishment of the Mountain Area Information Network (MAIN) was the establishment of a sustainable and scaleable community network over 12 mountain counties and 11 different local-dialing areas. The sustainability of this model is based on the emergence of MAIN as a "nonprofit Internet cooperative" in the tradition of nonprofit, rural telephone or electric cooperatives. At the end of the grant period, this model had produced approximately 3,000 subscribers paying $150 a year for local dial-up Internet access.
This growing body of committed subscribers is generating the core revenue to ensure MAIN's financial sustainability beyond the grant period. MAIN's success as a nonprofit Internet cooperative ensures that the project met its key goal of overcoming "disparities in access" among at-risk populations. Though commercial Internet is more widely available than at the beginning of the grant period, many rural residents still cannot afford commercial rates. Meanwhile, MAIN is the only Internet service provider -- via a local phone call -- in two of our 12 counties.
MAIN also met and exceeded its goal of overcoming "disparities in access" via its highly successful Public Access Terminal (PAT) program. This effort placed PATs in rural libraries and community centers throughout the mountain region. By the end of the grant period, MAIN had placed 35 PATs at these locations. In addition, MAIN provides free Internet access to 20 more PATs not purchased by our TIIAP grant. For example, the Golden Age Senior Centers of Jackson County had five PATs which they wanted to connect to the Internet. Since these sites met our criteria for "public access," MAIN provides free Internet access to these sites.
Unfortunately, one key goal of our original PAT plan was not met. We had planned to place many of our PATs at community centers participating in the N.C. Cooperative Extension Service and WNC Development Association's "Community Club" program. However, many of the community clubs interested in hosting a PAT did not meet our public-access criteria for several reasons:
1. Many of the clubs wanted to use the PATs for non-Internet functions such as word processing, data management, and desktop publishing. MAIN's technical staff and technical advisory committee strongly opposed these alternative uses due to the potential for compromising the integrity of the PAT hard-drive configuration, which would require an unacceptable level of maintenance and troubleshooting.
2. Many of the potential sites could not guarantee regular hours of public access.
3. Many of the sites could not assume the cost of the phone line once the TIIAP grant expired.
4. By the end of the grant period, the following Extension-related PAT sites were established: Cowee Community Center (Macon County), Snowbird Community Center (Graham County), Nantahala Community Center (Macon County), Swain County Extension Center, and Buladean School (Mitchell County). Despite the fact that fewer "community club" sites received PATs, we were able to place PATs at seven other non-library sites such as Family Resource Centers. In addition, as noted earlier, MAIN supported other PATs owned by libraries and community centers (such as the Golden Age Senior Centers) with free dial-up Internet access.
Overall, our PAT program exceeded our goal of "reducing disparities in access." Administrators at our PAT sites consistently report "very heavy" usage of our PATs. This program has been extremely important for citizens who cannot afford their own computers and Internet service.
Another key goal was the creation of a network architecture that is scaleable and sustainable. This goal was definitely met, but not as we had originally proposed. We had hoped to build our network around connectivity available through an arm of the North Carolina Information Highway called the State Information Processing Service (SIPS). This option would have held our connectivity costs down. However, concerns over a 60-year old law called the Umstead Act, which prohibits state agencies from competing with the private sector, torpedoed this option. Because our two-year grant "clock" was ticking away, we opted to construct our network with connectivity from private vendors, most notably BellSouth and MCI, though this approach increased our costs 30-50 percent over our original projections.
Once we gave up on the SIPS option, we moved quickly to build our network around the BellSouth connectionless data switch (CDS) in Asheville. In the long run this was a fortuitous decision, as we were able to move faster with BellSouth than we could have via a state agency.
Another fortuitous decision was our choice of Linux as our network operating system (OS), though we had started our network with a donated Sun Microsystems server and had developed a relationship with this company based on a Sun engineer with family ties to our region. The "open architecture" of Linux seemed a better fit with our role as a non-profit, volunteer-driven, community network. Of all the technical decisions we've made related to our network architecture, choosing Linux was by far the most critical.
Each of these choices (building our network on private-sector connectivity and choosing Linux as our OS) enhanced our independence, both in terms of governance and financial sustainability. These choices also made us more nimble and flexible as an evolving and growing organization.
Another key decision enhancing our independence and flexibility was our choice of Land of Sky Regional Council as fiscal agent for our TIIAP grant.
Though this decision was made before we submitted our TIIAP grant proposal, it deserves discussion here because we believe it is a valuable lesson for other projects which strive for political independence and self-governance.
Land of Sky Regional Council is a local "council of governments" (COG) serving four mountain counties. Because COGs are "umbrella" organizations designed to assist local governments in collaborative problem-solving, they transcend shifting local political climates and local turf battles. Indeed, COGs often serve as conduits for federal grant monies and as "incubators" for regional collaborations. With this historic facilitator role, COGs are less likely to try to own or capture federally-funded projects once the funding has run out. We have heard of other TIIAP projects in which a single dominant partner of a collaborative effort, such as a local government, has absorbed the project post-TIIAP and narrowed the project's scope and independence.
In addition to tackling the network access problem, MAIN attempted several "local content" goals with mixed success. Our goal of providing free webhosting for local non-profit organizations was an unequivocal success. By the end of the grant period, we were hosting more than 200 nonprofit websites in all 12 counties. We achieved this goal by adapting our computer-literacy training workshops to focus on recruiting and training website volunteers. While these "how to build a website" workshops were open to the general public at no charge, we gave preference to those citizens who were willing to volunteer their skills with local non-profits by helping these organizations build and maintain a website. This approach has produced a corps of website volunteers who continue to assist local nonprofits. Moreover, some of these volunteers have used the skills acquired assisting local non-profits to start their own web-design businesses.
Overall, training became problematic as our network grew. The day-to-day demands of serving a growing user-base forced us to scale back our computer-literacy training workshops for new users. We therefore had to rely more and more on volunteers to provide in-the-field technical assistance for new users. Another obstacle to conducting computer-literacy workshops was increasingly limited access to local computer labs, especially at community colleges, which viewed our free workshops as competition for their revenue-producing contining education classes. As a result, we began referring new users to the community college classes.
Other local content goals, such as the Mountain Micro-Climate Weather Map, never got off the ground for various reasons, the foremost being that -- due to the fast growth in our dial-up user base -- our staff was focused less on content-development and more on assisting the many first-time Internet users attracted to MAIN. However, by the project's end, two proposed local-content areas -- the WNC Virtual Farmer's Market and the Mountain Microenterprise Project -- were combined into a single Blue Ridge Web Market. BRWM has since become the "e-commerce" home for about 100 local small businesses and microenterprises. (Meanwhile, we are currently co-hosting a series of workshops with the National Weather Service to train MAIN users to become local "weather spotters," especially in times of severe weather. We hope this collaboration will eventually fulfill our goal of creating a Micro-Climate Weather Map.)
Our local-content strategy also expanded with the availability of web-based public forum software. Our text-based "news-groups" never achieved a critical mass of users. With the availability of web-based forum software, we moved our Mountain Voices forums to the web and several forums gained critical mass. By the end of the grant period, we had five popular web-forums: the Mountain Voices general-discussion forum, Y2K in Western North Carolina, Swap and Shop, Computers and the Internet, and the Madison County forum.
Other county forums never achieved the critical mass of the Madison County forum. The popularity of the forum for Madison County, which is known for its rough-and-tumble political culture, may be due to the high-degree of anonymous rumor and innuendo which characterized the forum. Unfortunately, some of this content bordered on the libelous and slanderous. By the end of the grant period, we were making plans to switch to a different forum software to require forum-users to register for a user-name and password. This mechanism gives us the ability to block access to chronic abusers of the forum and thereby institute some degree of accountability. In taking this step, we have been very careful to consider, and to articulate, the need to balance free speech and privacy rights with the need for greater accountability.
The critical goal of financial sustainability was met via our development of the non-profit Internet cooperative, modeled after the historic non-profit rural electric and telephone cooperatives of the 1920s and 1930s. By aggregating demand over our 12-county service area (comprised of 11 different local-dialing areas), we can cover the high-cost of delivering bandwidth and Internet access to the most remote and telecom-infrastructure poor areas. For example, the large number of users in the more populous and accessible Asheville-area subsidizes the extremely high costs of local dial-up access in Graham County, one of the most remote and impoverished counties in North Carolina.
Our strategic planning also recognized the inextricable linkage of Internet access and local content. Some community networks have focused solely on training users and building local content, leaving the access part of the equation to market forces and the private sector. MAIN believes this strategy is fatally-flawed for two reasons
1. It robs the community network of the Internet dollars that local folks are willing to pay for an ISP that supports local nonprofit content and other civic-improvement and community-building efforts.
2. It robs the community network of an opportunity to become a local Internet "portal." The portal concept describes an Internet site that attracts a high degree of traffic, thereby ensuring an audience for the website's content. By combining content with access (ISP services), the community network ensures a viable audience for its civic content.
By contrast, simply focusing on building a top-flight local-information website, without guaranteeing local traffic, would be like building a beautiful public park off the beaten track, while all the main thoroughfares and bus routes go to the local shopping mall and amusement park. Some folks may make the extra effort to seek out the public park, but most folks will be drawn to the more accessible and familiar shopping mall/amusement park.
In summary, eschewing the access part of the equation would rob MAIN of the essential revenue to sustain the local content part of our community network. Access and content, therefore, are synergistic, as demonstrated at the macro-economic level with mergers between access companies like AOL and content companies like Time-Warner.
A final project achievement worth mentioning is MAIN's development of a strong privacy-protection policy for our dial-up users. The policy simply says that MAIN will not share user-information with any third parties, nor will we employ any type of "consumer-preference" tracking software or otherwise monitor how our users navigate the Internet.
The importance of our partnership with Land of Sky Regional Council has been discussed in the Project Accomplishments section, but it bears further discussion. In addition to helping ensure MAIN's independence and financial sustainability, Land of Sky's support also enhanced MAIN's credibility and legitimacy, especially in the early month's of MAIN's existence. LOS was also instrumental in securing supplemental funding from the Appalachian Regional Commission and the North Carolina Governor's "Connect NC" program to jump-start the Blue Ridge WebMarket, MAIN's grassroots "e-commerce" effort. This leadership included assistance in meeting complex ARC grant requirements and accounting procedures, and in helping establish a steering committee of local small business development leaders. LOS leadership also resulted in Connect NC funding for a partnership between MAIN and the Madison County Public Library for an "Internet lab" and web-page making workshops.
Two of our key partners in our original grant proposal, public libraries and community colleges, had a role-reversal of sorts. Originally, the community colleges were supposed to house our server hardware, as they were tied into state network connectivity and typically had a network administrator on staff to assist in hardware maintenance and technical support. Meanwhile, the libraries were to host our public access terminals and serve as one of our primary means of contact with the public.
However, several community colleges became alarmed when the state connectivity office expressed concern over MAIN's proposed use of state resources. The ensuing hesitation and delay forced us to approach the libraries as sites for hosting our server hardware and modem banks. The libraries benefited by having their public access terminals tied directly into our high-speed lines, rather than dialing into a remote modem-bank over a 28.8 or 33.6 kbps connection. The host libraries also gained valuable experience in local-area networking. Only two of the original five community colleges maintained their partnership with MAIN. (Since the end of our grant period, a new community college has partnered with MAIN to bring affordable bandwidth to remote Polk County. This development is discussed later in this report.)
One of the two community colleges needed MAIN for Internet access to its distance-learning facility in a remote county. The partnership, therefore, was mutually beneficial. The other community college continued the partnership because its leadership had a strong commitment to technology and community outreach, even though their own bandwidth needs were being met by the state network. For their part, libraries were stronger partners because their needs were greater and because they had no ties to the state bureaucracy.
Public libraries probably represented our strongest partnership. Their need for Internet access in 1996, when our project began, and beyond has been acute. By providing both a public access terminal and free Internet access, our project enabled them to meet the widespread public expectation for Internet access. Another key aspect of this strong partnership is that MAIN did not attempt to impose a usage-policy on the PATs because of our high-level of trust in the libraries' core mission of free and open access to information.
We had two "surprise" partners emerge during our grant-period: Mars Hill College and Pathways for Independent Living. Mars Hill College is an independent Baptist liberal arts college about 30 minutes north of Asheville in rural, mountainous Madison County. A year before MAIN received its TIIAP grant, Mars Hill began offering Internet access accounts to Madison County non-profit agencies and organizations. With excess capacity on its T-1 line, which was leased from the North Carolina Research and Education Network (NC-REN), Mars Hill attempted to fill the void caused by the absence of a local Internet service provider.
However, the college soon began limiting non-profit access when the demand exceeded the college's ability to fund additional dial-in lines. Upon learning that MAIN was planning to bring local dial-up Internet access to Madison County, the college offered MAIN space for its server and modem bank, and even allowed our traffic to run over its existing T-1 line, thereby eliminating the need for MAIN to lease a high-speed line for Madison County.
This arrangement, however, was eventually challenged by mid-level staff at NC-REN, the non-profit agency supplying connectivity to the 16-campus University of North Carolina system and to some rural independent colleges like Mars Hill. This challenge was successfully blunted when Mars Hill argued that MAIN's presence helped the college fulfill its community-outreach mission. In effect, the partnership was "grandfathered" and allowed to remain. However, an attempt by Lees-McRae College and MAIN to replicate the MHC-MAIN partnership in remote Avery County was turned down.
Another key partnership occurred with a local commercial firm called New Era Technologies. With a strong commitment to civic involvement, New Era provided invaluable technical guidance and assistance in the early months of MAIN's evolution, including the critical choice of the Linux operating system. This partnership also helped New Era gain valuable experience in spread- spectrum wireless technology, which continues to benefit MAIN in Graham and Buncombe counties. The partnership included a cost-sharing arrangement for MAIN's first T-1 line to the Internet. More recently, MAIN has begun a T-1 cost-sharing arrangement with another private firm, SysAdmin Services. SAS has also helped MAIN purchase new network hardware at wholesale prices.
A second "surprise" partnership occurred with Pathways for the Future, an independent-living agency serving severely disabled citizens in six rural counties served by MAIN. By the end of the grant period, more than 200 disabled citizens had received recycled computers and free Internet access via the partnership. A third agency, CyberPals, provides in-home computer and Internet training and technical assistance. MAIN also provides an independent-living listserve for Pathways clients and staff. This partnership has given many home-bound, disabled citizens the opportunity to live more productive and involved lives.
Other, more modest partnerships included the Western Regional Education Services Alliance (WRESA), the Golden Age Senior Centers in Jackson County, and the Buncombe County Information Partnership.
WRESA is a non-profit agency in Haywood County created by the N.C. Department of Public Instruction to provide technology training and technical assistance to public school systems in the 23-county mountain region. WRESA has a 16-station computer lab for training public-school teachers how to use the Internet, but they had little funding for Internet access. MAIN worked with WRESA to link a dial-up account to the lab, which was adequate as long as students viewed cached websites. However, once students started visiting different websites on the Internet simultaneously, the Internet access slowed to a standstill.
During the final year of the project, the growth in MAIN's user-base in Haywood County required more bandwidth. MAIN partnered with WRESA to lease a fractional T-1 and split the cost 50-50. WRESA gave MAIN secure space for its server and modem bank, plus easy after-hours access. The partnership has been a superb "win-win" for both organizations. WRESA now has a computer classroom linked to a fractional T-1, and MAIN has its server in an excellent location with a trained network administrator on hand. Both organizations now have adequate bandwidth that, individually, neither could afford.
The Golden Age Senior Centers, run by MAIN volunteer Al Bouchard, received a grant for five public-access terminals (PATs) in 1997. Al's grant proposal was strengthened by the fact that MAIN was willing to provide free dial-up Internet access for the GASC PATs. With Al and other MAIN volunteers at each GASC site providing hands-on instruction for Internet newcomers, the proposal was a perfect match for MAIN's goal of "reducing disparities in access" in rural communities.
In 1997, MAIN was approached by the Buncombe County Childcare Services agency and a local non-profit called the Community Resource Network. BCCS and CRN wanted to build a website for citizen-access to locally-available childcare and parenting services. They also wanted to create a network of PATs in rural locations throughout Buncombe County to reach at-risk families not inclined to "come to town" for help from social service agencies. MAIN provided the "technology piece" of the grant proposal to the N.C. Governor's early childhood "Smart Start" program by pledging website development support and hosting, recycled computers for the PATs, and training assistance for PAT site volunteers. The grant was successful and the project was implemented in 1997-98 under the title of Buncombe County Information Partnership (BCIP). The BCIP website now resides on MAIN, and a dozen new PATs were added to MAIN's public-access arsenal.
It is safe to say that MAIN's community impact has been both broad and deep. MAIN has succeeded in demonstrating that "rural Internet cooperatives" are viable models for providing affordable Internet access in rural, economically disadvantaged regions of the country, despite the absence of advanced telecom infrastructure.
Overcoming the challenges of building a viable network architecture over 12 counties, 11 different local-dialing areas, and across two different ILEC (Incumbent Local Exchange Carrier) territories has positioned MAIN to envision and advocate a comprehensive "backbone" solution to the region's lack of advanced telecommunications infrastructure. The direct, day-to-day experience of managing and funding a complex ISP network has garnered MAIN a seat at the table for regional and statewide telecom-infrastructure planning and policymaking.
MAIN has used this opportunity to put forth a telecom "backbone" proposal based on the Berkshire Connect effort in western Massachusetts. MAIN's efforts have included organizing three visits by BC's chief engineer, Walter Cooper, resulting in endorsements of our proposal by Advantage West, the regional economic development commission; U.S. Congressman Charles Taylor, Land of Sky Regional Council, a public-private, regional planning group called the Knowledge Coalition, and the N.C. Rural Prosperity Task Force. (Indeed, the blue-ribbon Rural Prosperity Task Force recently proposed changes to the Umstead Act to enable rural ISPs to connect to the North Carolina Information Highway in order to offer broadband services to rural citizens and businesses. MAIN's experience, we believe, was a major influence on this proposal.)
Community impact also occurred in the arena of grassroots economic development. Our region's potential for "e-commerce" has been demonstrated by the development of our Blue Ridge Web Market (described in the Project Achievement section). Even before BRWM was launched, MAIN helped numerous small businesses and microenterprises supplement their commercial activities via affordable access to email and webhosting. For many of these small entrepreneurs, Internet access was not available with a local phone call until MAIN came along.
Diana Schommer runs a small "mom and pop" real estate firm in rural, mountainous Madison County. Before MAIN came along, residents of Madison County could not reach the Internet with a local phone call. Diana quickly signed on with MAIN, and soon became one of the first realtors in western North Carolina to develop a website. She is now widely acknowledged as an Internet pioneer in the region's real estate establishment. While the Internet was not on the radar screen of larger real estate firms in the region, this rural entrepreneur was able to demonstrate the Internet's potential for her colleagues because she had the opportunity, thanks to MAIN.
Similar stories come from small business folk like Tom Herman of Yancey County in the shadow of Mount Mitchell about 50 miles northwest of Asheville. "I'm in the two-way radio business," writes Tom. "Access to the Internet via MAIN has given me the opportunity to access a huge source of buyers and sellers for my goods and services. Specifically, I'm able to buy radios and pagers outside of the local area at better prices, and get a more steady flow of needed items. Also, I am able to sell items that there is no local demand for, allowing me to `recycle' used radio equipment, and get money for them, as opposed to just scrapping them and adding to the waste stream."
Murtis Carver is a hand-weaver in remote Mitchell County who rents a small mountain cabin to supplement her craft income. Until MAIN came along, Murtis could not access the Internet with a local phone call. "MAIN opened up a whole new world for me! MAIN has allowed me to link up with numerous vacation rental websites, and now I am booked solid through the summer months and into October! People have come here from Israel, Hawaii, western Canada and all over the U.S. And as a weaver, I can now communicate with other weavers that sell weaving equipment, buy hard to find books, and have instant contact with people through email. It is wonderful to sit in this remote location on the mountain and be in touch with all that MAIN has provided!"
Another area of signficant community impact has been our demonstration of how non-profit organizations and agencies can benefit from Internet access and a web presence. The Old Buncombe County Genealogical Society is a good example. This local non-profit moved quickly to establish a free website on MAIN in 1996. That website soon contributed to a striking rise in volunteer support and fundraising for OBCGS. For example, the organization's web-presence led to the recruitment of a Buncombe County native who now resides in Seattle. The volunteer is now one of the society's top genealogical researchers, and she delivers all her text and documentation over the Internet, according to Hank Muller, a retired school-teacher and volunteer OBCGS webmaster. (Hank learned how to create and maintain websites in one of MAIN's first website workshops for volunteers. In addition to maintaining the OBCGS website, he now teaches free webpage workshops for other MAIN volunteers.)
Of course, there's no way of knowing how many fewer non-profits would be on the web were it not for MAIN, but it's safe to say that many of the 250 non-profit websites we now host would not be on the web today without MAIN.
We have collected numerous non-profit testimonials similar to this one from Gordon Becker, a board member of Buncombe County Friends for Animals: "Our online access through MAIN has been a godsend in the capability that is provided to communicate with fellow board members of BCFFA. The board is composed of volunteers, most with full-time jobs, and this capability allows us to communicate with each other regarding committee assignments, meetings and BCFFA related activities without having to play phone tag." Though this may seem like a commonplace use of the Internet, it is not uncommon for organizations and volunteers in rural areas to dismiss the Internet as a luxury available only to their big-city counterparts. MAIN has succeeded in helping raise awareness in the non-profit community that the Internet is affordable and within their grasp.
Another substantial community impact has been our commitment to encouraging and providing local content and local discussion forums via our website. The Internet is an ideal tool for helping to create and sustain civic participation and the collective "community memory." However, without a local non-profit community network like MAIN to do this work, this responsibility is typically left in the hands of the private-sector. Too often, the commercial, local-information websites focus primarily on revenue-producing content such as restaurant listings and tourism-related content. Even the most civic-minded commercial websites are questionable repositories for the collective community memory, given the relative instability of the web-hosting business, where local ventures are eventually bought-out by larger firms with greater economies of scale and lesser commitment to the local community.
The future of local information is even more uncertain given the merger trends marked by the AOL/Time-Warner buyout. We predict that the consolidation of Internet companies will increasingly reduce the audiences for local information, as Internet subscribers are herded into content-areas supported by national advertising and marketing dollars.
There is historic precedent for this trend. The broadcast industry's merger-mania in the 1980s led to a huge reduction in local broadcast news, especially radio news. In many communities, local radio news simply disappeared, while local TV stations cut back on news staff. Local news-gathering has always been expensive and rarely a profit-center. By eliminating local news staffs, broadcast companies greatly reduced their operating costs. Not surprisingly, profitability soared. This trend was enabled, in part, by the Reagan-FCC's elimination of the Fairness Doctrine and the consequent weakening of the "public service" obligation for broadcast license-holders. With little or no public-service requirements, media companies simply replaced their local news operations with syndicated services or "rip and read" recitations of the AP wire or local newspaper headlines.
It's hard to imagine how local news and information-gathering and dissemination, or local discussion forums, could be profitable for the emerging media conglomerates such as AOL/Time-Warner. If this assessment is true, where will local news and information come from? And how will it find an audience? One of MAIN's most lasting achievements may be our efforts to encourage and enable civic participation and to grow and preserve the local community memory.
The demonstration of another major community impact occurred in November of 1997, just a few days before Thanksgiving. Using MAIN, local activists were able to demonstrate how a community network website could be used to quickly mobilize citizens on matters of public policy. The catalyst for this demonstration of civic participation was a lame-duck Asheville City Council poised to approve a cable TV franchise that failed to address a number of community concerns, including sufficient funding and commitment to establish a public-access TV channel where citizens could produce and air programming on local topics and issues. With only two days notice, we were able to mobilize local citizens to email the City Council members about the lack of public input and oversight on the new contract, which, if approved, would have run for 17 years.
We were also able to research the web and construct a webpage showing how other communities had recently negotiated more favorable contracts with the cable company in question. This background info was immediately available to local news reporters. Not only did this web-based background information strengthen the news coverage, it also bolstered our citizens-group's credibility in the face of "expert" testimony from the city's staff and hired consultant.
The upshot of this effort is that mobilized citizens were able to block this effort by a lame-duck mayor and city council to slip a cable TV contract past the news media and citizenry just a few days before the Thanksgiving holiday. Though the mayor had the necessary votes lined up, at the crucial moment one council member abstained, effectively tabling the contract until the new council and mayor took office. Eight months later, and after considerable public debate, the council approved a more favorable contract for 12 years (instead of 17), with $340,000 set aside for public-access production equipment.
One of the most salient lessons we learned is that sustainability requires ongoing operating revenue. Community network projects like MAIN cannot survive by lurching from grant to grant, or by relying on local government support. Like government support for the arts, government support for community networking is too easily viewed as a "luxury we cannot afford" if budgets get tight. Nor can projects like MAIN rely on the kindness and largess of the private-sector for long-term sustainability, given the fact that private ownership and priorities will inevitably change over time.
There may be many ways to generate sufficient revenue for long-term sustainability. But for our needs and situation, operating as a non-profit ISP -- and giving local citizens the option of using their Internet dollars to support local access and content -- is the only solution at this time.
Similarly, we learned that access and content are inextricably linked. Unless your local-content website is a "portal" or is linked to a portal, it will have difficulty finding an audience. For our purposes and for our situation, operating as a non-profit ISP greatly improved our chances of becoming a "portal," as our dial-up subscribers guaranteed a potential audience to know, appreciate and contribute to our community network content.
We also learned that initial resistance from commercial ISPs to creating a non-profit ISP will evaporate in an area where so much room for growth exists, and where affordable options for Internet access are virtually non-existent. It is our experience that the dial-up, consumer ISP business can only be profitable, as a core business, in very large-scale enterprises such as EarthLink and MindSpring, where profitablity comes from aggregating and selling audiences to advertisers. Smaller ISPs, on the other hand, derive their profitability from a variety of webhosting, web-design, network administration and high-speed, dedicated access offerings. The dial-up access business is so labor intensive, given the high level of tech support and "hand-holding" required, that smaller ISPs cannot depend on it as their core business.
We believe the existence of a non-profit ISP can produce several advantages for private-sector ISPs and web-related businesses. First and foremost, we are "growing a market" for these businesses as we reach folks who otherwise could not afford to enter the world of the Internet, and who may someday "graduate" to online services we do not provide. For example, we do not offer website construction for non-profits or commercial ventures, though we do train and match volunteers with non-profit organizations. We refer all commercial users, and some larger non-profits, to local, private-sector web-designers. Indeed, several microenterprise web-design businesses have been started by former MAIN volunteers, who honed their skills assisting non-profits with their websites. We also refer heavy users (such as online day-traders) to commercial ISPs.
Another advantage is that a non-profit ISP can take the pressure off of local commercial ISPs who are constantly bombarded with requests from local non-profits (the churches, Kiwanis Club, etc) for free websites or discount dial-up access.
Finally, our most outspoken critic, the owner of Internet of Asheville and the largest local ISP in western North Carolina, has sold his business to a larger ISP firm based in Florida. Obviously, he was able to grow a business that became attractive to a larger firm, despite his claims that MAIN was "unfair competition." As we routinely get calls from "mergers and acquisition" firms specializing in identifying attractive takeover targets, we believe a signficant ISP- concentration trend has begun. This trend will mean increased absentee ownership of ISPs, especially in rural America, with a commensurate de-emphasis on serving the needs of a specific locale. But there's a silver-lining in this for non-profit ISPs like MAIN: first, this trend ensures a disappearance of local opposition to non-profit ISPs, which aren't likely to be on the radar screen of national or multi-state ISPs; second, this loss of localism increases the need for a local, non-profit ISP which has permanent roots in the community and will not be subject to future absentee-ownership.
We also learned that our capacity to deliver training was outstripped by the demand, especially after our network growth took off. Instead of conducting workshops in various locations among the 12 counties in our service area, we began concentrating on recruiting and training a corps of volunteers to provide the extensive hand-holding required by the many newcomers to the Internet we attracted. Our training efforts were also impeded by increasingly limited access to local computer labs. This limitation was two-fold: the community colleges and 4-year colleges whose labs we used increased their course-offerings, thereby making the labs less available; in addition, our community college partners became increasingly concerned that our free workshops might impact their revenue-producing, continuing education classes.
In general, the various client-side operating systems (Mac OS, Win3.1, Win95, Win98), plus the wide variety of personal computers and communications software, requires extensive staff resources devoted to technical support. This demand for individual instruction and troubleshooting contributed to our cutback in offering formal, training workshops.
Anecdotally, we had strong evidence of rapacious demand for training, both for basic Internet usage as well as webpage construction. This unmet demand suggests that increased community college offerings are insufficient. It may also suggest that some folks are not comfortable attending workshops in the more "formal" setting of a community college classroom. In any event, our experience suggests a virtually unlimited demand for basic and advanced Internet training.
Another major lesson we learned is about the availability and cost of bandwidth. This awareness was achieved by our efforts to construct and maintain a 12-county network architecture with three difference telecom companies: BellSouth, GTE and MCI (later ITC-Deltacom). We learned, in effect, that Internet bandwidth is "long-hauled" into our region from larger urban areas with more substantial "backbone" infrastructure. As the bandwidth pricing is distance-sensitive, our connectivity costs are substantially higher than if we operated in an urban area.
To our knowledge, MAIN was the first non-profit organization or governmental agency to attempt to build such an intra-regional network in western North Carolina. Since we began operations, the largest hospital system in the region, Mission-St. Joseph's, has attempted to construct an intra-regional telemedicine network and has encountered similar high costs and technical challenges associated with crossing ILEC boundaries. MAIN and the hospital system together have been instrumental in raising the awareness of regional policymakers about the region's infrastructure weaknesses.
Another lesson learned occurred in our attempt to create online public discussion forums. We have been disappointed by how little participation these forums have attracted, though there are exceptions: our Y2K Forum, Computers and the Internet, and Swap and Shop had strong participation. However, the general discussion forums, where one would expect folks to discuss local policy issues and other local concerns have been less successful.
The lack of participation is due in part to the fact that we never sufficiently promoted these discussion forums. It should be noted that these forums included Mountain Voices, a general-interest forum for the entire community network, as well as forums dedicated to the counties of Haywood, Madison and Graham. The choice of these three counties was based on staff's perception of where there was sufficient user-interest. The Haywood County forum never got off the ground, while the Graham County forum was moderately successful. However, the Madison County forum, which had a high volume of postings, was characterized by a sometimes alarming amount of anonymous rumors and innuendo that occasionally bordered on slander and libel. Postings even came from participants posing as someone else.
When we first launched the forums, we acknowledged that some participants, perhaps fearing for their jobs, might have to use pseudonyms and post anonymously. We never dreamed that this form of anonymous posting would become the rule rather than the exception.
Concern over this content created a tension between our commitment to First Amendment values and the need for forum participants to take responsibility for their words. This concern has led us to obtain new web-forum software which requires forum participants to register to use the forums. This registration feature allows us to ban any participant who repeatedly posts potentially libelous and slanderous content, or poses as someone else. So far, we have not had to ban anyone. A most interesting aspect of this software is a feature which allows forum participants to rate the quality of an individual posting. The ratings run from 1 ("skip it") to 10 ("must read"). Early indications are that participants are giving low ratings to posts laden with rumor and gossip. We are hopeful that this "self-governance" trend continues, thereby obviating the need for editorial oversight by MAIN staff.
MAIN's future plans include a growing emphasis on developing local content that continues to help make our community network website a portal, or Internet crossroads, to ensure a critical-mass of local traffic for information exchange, public discussion, civic participation, and collaborative community-building. This website will include automated features that will allow local citizens to link their business or non-profit websites in online directories such as Community Links and Business Links, with minimal staff oversight. Similarly, automated features allow citizens to post classified ads and create booths in the Blue Ridge Web Market. These automated features are essential given our modest staff resources.
This emphasis on developing local content will include state-of-the-art "web-casting" of a low-power FM radio station, the license for which MAIN will be submitting an application to the FCC. MAIN's founding organization, Citizens for Media Literacy, has been focused for nearly a decade on promoting citizen-access to the media via public-access cable TV, the Internet, and low-power FM radio. MAIN hopes to bring these three "citizen-access" media together in a mutally-supportive and synergistic manner, not unlike the highly publicized "convergence" sought after by multinational media conglomerates. Doing so will ensure that citizens of western North Carolina have a rich and diverse electronic "public space" in which to engage in free speech, civic particpation, government accountability, grassroots economic development, and collaborative community-building.
MAIN will also continue its efforts to ensure the construction of broadband "backbone" telecommunications infrastructure for western North Carolina. This effort was recently boosted by the N.C. Rural Prosperity Task Force, whose report to the Governor stated: "The availability and affordability of high speed information technology, and the ability to use it, will make it possible for rural North Carolina to compete with the rest of the country and the world in the next century."
The report set the following goal: "Provide, at affordable rates, high-speed (128K residential; 256K business) reliable Internet access to the homes and businesses of rural North Carolina." . . . and these steps to meet that goal: "1. Pursue regulatory and statutory changes to promote affordable and reliable broadband connectivity statewide by:
a. Amend the Umstead Act and related statutes, permitting the Office of Information Technology Services (ITS) of the Department of Commerce to allow Internet service providers to share the state government's statewide high-speed communications network, and
b. Petition the Federal Communications Commission and State Utilities Commission to mandate that local telephone companies provide space in their end offices and wire centers at reasonable costs for state government and other telecommunications carriers to install equipment that connects to local phone companies' equipment."
The Task Force has also recommended the creation of a "Rural Broadband Access Fund to encourage private sector investment in providing high-speed information services in rural areas where it is not affordable." The recommendation notes that this policy . . . "would not favor one technology over another; our goal would be to use the private sector to ensure affordable access for users throughout our state. If private sector sources are unable to provide services, the state would provide them as a last resort. This would ensure access for people in all rural counties in need."
Technology-savvy nonprofits are increasingly using websites to strengthen their organizations, recruit volunteers, and raise money online. However, MAIN lacks infrastructure for these nonprofits to manage their websites independent of MAIN staff, and to accept online, credit-card donations. Recently, we applied for a Community Foundation grant to provide a "secure server" for credit-card transactions online. The secure server would also benefit MAIN's grassroots, economic development inititative -- the Blue Ridge Web Market -- by allowing microenterprises to conduct credit-card transactions online. Nonprofit participants in BRWM include Handmade in America and the Mountain Wildlife Center. The grant would also enable nonprofit clients to . . .
* designate and change which staff members receive email from the website.
* implement email "auto-responders" which, for example, would send an automatic "out of town" message for staff members not reading email due to travel.
* do Common Gateway Interface (CGI) programming for website guestbooks and forms, such as online surveys.
* generate website "traffic reports" on the number of website visitors and which pages they're visiting.
More nonprofits are requesting this website management capability. Similarly, our microenterprise participants -- many of whom are low-income and/or startup businesses -- have repeatedly requested a "secure server" for online credit-card transactions.
Meanwhile, a community foundation grant we received last year allowed us to add our first new county and to launch an innovative public-private partnership based on wireless, spread-spectrum technology. Polk County is a rural, mountainous county 45 miles south of Asheville on the South Carolina border. Because of the rugged terrain in the northern end of Polk, the county has historically looked to South Carolina for its telephone service. Today, the southern two-thirds of the county, home to the bulk of the county's townships and population, is in the South Carolina LATA, making the cost of high-speed bandwidth very expensive.
Upon hearing about MAIN, community leaders in Polk approached us about assisting them with their bandwidth problem. They were also concerned about a lack of affordable dial-up Internet access. In addition, the Polk campus of Isothermal Community College has a 16-seat computer lab but could not afford sufficient bandwidth for adequate Internet access. Together with the Polk County Library, we formed a partnership to lease a T-1 line (at $1,800 a month) to the ICC-Polk campus. We then installed spread-spectrum wireless hardware to shoot bandwith up to a communications tower on Tryon Peak owned by the township of Tryon. A repeater on this tower allows us to send high-speed bandwidth to the Polk County Library for its public-access terminals. MAIN, the college, and the library split the cost of the T-1 line three ways, giving each organization bandwidth that, alone, none could afford.
In addition, we have contracted with a local wireless firm, NewEra.Com, to install and maintain the wireless network in Polk County. New Era will also deliver commercial wireless Internet access to the local business community, thereby contributing to local economic development. In turn, MAIN gets a percentage of the New Era revenue to offset operating costs. And Polk County gets MAIN's full array of community network benefits (free webhosting for non-profits, etc). We are hoping this wireless public-private partnership model can be replicated in other counties to increase local high-speed bandwidth and contribute to economic growth, while spreading the cost of the bandwidth among several partners.
Finally, MAIN is increasingly sought out by local community-development efforts to provide online services for specific projects. For example, we will be providing low-cost Internet access to local school teachers participating in the "Adventure of the Mind" online training program sponsored by the Library of Congress. Though MAIN was approached primarily for low-cost Internet access, we explained that we could also provide free webhosting, a listserve for participants, plus a web-based discussion forum for guest speakers and ongoing dialogue among participants and instructors. The project director did not realize that such online tools were locally available when the project was first envisioned. He has now decided to incorporate these tools into the project.
In summary, MAIN has been discovered by area local governments and non-profit agencies as a potential "Internet partner." We feel certain that MAIN's services will be increasingly viewed as an important complement to local community and economic development efforts. We envision a future in which MAIN will become increasingly integrated into the community as a source of local news, information and community-builidng resources.
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