Mountain Area Information Network

TIIAP project narrative

The problem Mountain Area Information Network (MAIN) will address

Western North Carolina is one of the most isolated regions of the United States. This 22- county region of 9,081 square miles (roughly the size of Vermont) forms the southern terminus of the Appalachian mountain chain.

Known for its rugged and beautiful mountains (which include the highest peaks east of the Mississippi), Western North Carolina is a coherent geographical and cultural region bound by a common social and political heritage. The population of the 22 counties is 814,036 (1992 U.S. Census Data).

Unfortunately, the mountains' beauty hides a grim reality: generation after generation of isolation and chronic poverty have produced the highest illiteracy and unemployment rates, and the lowest per capita income and overall standard of living, in all of North Carolina.

The difficulty in building transportation and communication infrastructure lies at the heart of this isolation and chronic poverty. Not until the 1880s did the railroad link WNC to the outside world. Not until 1968 did the Interstate Highway provide an east-west route through the region.

Until the mid-1970s, Interstate 26 from South Carolina stopped at the North Carolina border. The northern I-26 corridor into Tennessee will not be completed until the end of the century.

This pattern continues with the Information Highway. Only 2 of the region's 22 counties have local dial-up Internet access via a commercial provider. Even more disturbing is that the acclaimed North Carolina Information Highway has virtually by-passed the region.

Mountain Area Information Network (MAIN) is designed to confront and help overcome this isolation by leveraging existing resources to bring the National Information Infrastructure to the region.

In doing so, MAIN will serve as a demonstration model for cross-jurisdictional collaboration and cost-sharing. It will also demonstrate the use of the NII for creating cross-generational and cross-cultural "bridges" and for stimulating microenterprise economic development.

By-passing the Mountains: The Sunbelt Economic Boom

The much-publicized Sunbelt economic boom has largely by-passed WNC's native mountain families. While other similarly impoverished regions of the South have prospered with Sunbelt growth, our mountainous terrain continues to be a barrier to sustainable economic development.

The exclusion of WNC from these economic benefits is also tied to the region's historic isolation from North Carolina's "power centers" of commerce, capital, government, and health/education/cultural resources. This reality is often glossed over in the celebration of the Sunbelt boom.

For example, on March 27, 1995, the Christian Science Monitor reported unemployment rates below 3 percent for the cities of Charlotte and Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill. Completely ignored was the fact that this sparkling employment picture rapidly fades as the N.C. Piedmont gives way to the WNC mountains, where the region's eight most depressed counties struggle with an unemployment rate double the state average of 5.8 percent.

One vivid example of this isolation is Cherokee County, the region's westernmost county. Its county seat, Murphy, is closer to six state capitals (Atlanta, Ga. Nashville, Columbia, S.C., Frankfurt, Ky., Montgomery, Al., Charleston, W.Va.) than it is to Raleigh, the capital of North Carolina, some 308 miles distant.

Isolation from the state's "power centers" is aggravated by an "interior isolation" among the communities of WNC. For example -- due to the rugged terrain and size of the region -- it takes five hours to drive from Alleghany County in the northeast corner of Western North Carolina to Cherokee County in the far west.

Here's further testimony to the effects of this isolation. On March 10, 1995, Jackson County principal Ann Melton wrote the following to the MAIN board of directors:

Blue Ridge School is a PK-12 school in an isolated rural area of Jackson County. The elevation of this community is 4000 feet and the closest incorporated town in our county is 30 miles away. The highways in and out of this community are winding steep two-lane roads. Our students are not only isolated from the rest of the world but from each other as the students live in coves and hollows on large and small farms. Because the school is really the only show in town we serve as the hub of the community. . . .

[MAIN] could link the members of this community to each other and to other communities, our students to other schools and universities, our classrooms to our library and those in other schools and universities, as well as many other educational resources. . . . Because of our geographic location we are at risk of being by-passed by advanced technology. As the rest of the world moves into a high-tech future, this community is being left behind.

By-passing the Mountains: The N.C. Information Highway

The deployment of the much-publicized North Carolina Information Highway is disturbing confirmation of the plight of Western North Carolina. This new technology could greatly benefit the region, but our meager and widely dispersed economic resources have prevented most WNC communities from qualifying for the program.

Only 6 of the 123 N.C. Information Highway sites under development, or in operation, are located in Western North Carolina. Of the 51 public school sites statewide, none is in WNC. The reason? Few WNC communities could raise the matching funds and pledge the ongoing operational costs required by this full-motion video (ATM) state initiative.

That's why TIIAP -- with its emphasis on scalability, interoperability, and reliance on existing resources -- fits so neatly the needs and pocketbooks of WNC communities.

The Quilting Bee: A Mountain Tradition

During the 18 months we have been planning the Mountain Area Information Network (MAIN), some of our volunteers have remarked on how our effort resembles the Appalachian mountain tradition of the "quilting bee."

In today's language, the quilting bee can be described as a "cooperative development model" in which individual participants bring scarce resources to the table to create a "value-added" community asset. This is the modus operandi for MAIN.

MAIN's two-year "demonstration" phase will create partnerships between key WNC institutions (mainly community colleges and public libraries) to create a string of UNIX-based "hubs" from Watauga County in the northeast to Cherokee County in the far west.

Using appropriate and affordable technology, this MAIN "backbone" will leverage existing resources to create a "first-phase" public infrastructure that can organically grow to include other WNC communities.

Most significantly, this first-phase TIIAP project would reach WNC's seven most remote and depressed counties (Cherokee, Graham, Clay, Swain, Madison, McDowell, Mitchell). Graham County, for example, struggles with the state's highest unemployment (25.7 percent) and lowest per capita income ($8,877).

Adding insult to injury, Graham County residents must call long-distance to communicate with their local community college, Tri-County CC. If awarded a TIIAP grant, MAIN's highest priority will be the linking of Graham County's high school and public library with a high-speed connection to Tri- County Community College.

Graham County's dilemma is just one vivid example of how WNC's mountainous terrain has historically inhibited community-building collaboration and problem-solving. Another example of this barrier to collaboration and cooperation is the fact that the 22-county region is served by 8 different local-exchange phone companies.

MAIN's intra-regional network design will help overcome these barriers to communication and collaboration.

How MAIN Works

MAIN is predicated on county (or tri-county) partnerships between a local community college and local public library. Each of these partnerships comprises a "hub site." There are seven such sites covering 14 of WNC's 22 counties in MAIN's two-year demonstration phase.

This partnership model creates a cost-effective and appropriate division of labor: the college houses the hardware; the library serves end-users.

The network hardware housed at the community college site will include a high-speed computer for data storage and network management, a Pentium-level communications processor, and a bank of "industrial strength" modems to ensure scalability (see budget narrative).

Meanwhile, the local dial-up phone numbers for each WNC county will be listed with the local public library, which will be responsible for registering MAIN users just as they now register and issue library cards. We will use computer-savvy retirees as library volunteers to assist library staff with public-access terminals. (WNC is a haven for well-educated, civic-minded retirees -- see appendix).

This approach concentrates technical support and maintenance at community colleges, where technical support staff exists to "feed and water" the MAIN hardware. This cooperative approach removes the burden of sophisticated network maintenance from our typically small, rural public libraries, thereby freeing their staff to do what they do best -- helping people access information.

In return for providing in-kind match and technical support for public libraries, the community college/hub sites will receive TIIAP funding to upgrade critical aspects of their campus networks that strengthen their ability to reach out and partner with the off-campus community.

With this "distributed processing" approach, MAIN will grow over time in a manner similar to the Internet. This decentralized, modular design -- linking community-based systems -- will allow MAIN to grow from a limited demonstration model to a larger comprehensive system, without creating a centralized bureaucracy removed from local stakeholders.

Most importantly, by leveraging and linking local resources to create a larger network, MAIN encourages county-by-county "ownership" in the network, thereby strengthening the overall integrity of the system and laying the groundwork for future collaboration, cost-sharing, and sustainability.

MAIN's Technical Design

Over the last 18 months, MAIN's technical design team explored both frame relay and switched multimegabit data service (SMDS) as possible design solutions for our regional network. Uncertainty over near-term pricing and the affordability of eventual upgrade to ATM strongly influenced MAIN's decision to focus our near-term prospects on the decentralized "distributed processing" approach, which relies on existing resources and available technologies (at this writing, SMDS is still not available in WNC).

This approach, as noted earlier, keeps our options open and our operating costs at a manageable level in the critical early years of deployment. It also maximizes "local stakeholding" at the county level, thereby maintaining commitment to a regional telecommunications infrastructure.

Meanwhile, by partnering with Land of Sky Regional Council and community colleges, MAIN qualifies for state contract purchasing of hardware and connectivity (see budget narrative). We plan to connect our seven hub sites with a 56Kbps backbone network (upgradable to T1 via state contract).

If the TIIAP grant is awarded, MAIN will immediately begin a "technical assessment phase" to review the hardware and connectivity choices we have made at this point. Given the rapid rate of change in telecommunications markets and technologies, it would be imprudent to do otherwise.

MAIN is also committed to a "minimum service standard" based on the evolution of WEB technology. This includes, but is not limited to, full TCP/IP interoperability, high-level scripting language for menu/interface development, GUI/text interface options, seamless e-mail with WEB and newsgroup browser, and client security/encryption for e-mail and client forms, especially for social service use.

A Bridge Between Generations and Cultures

The demographics of WNC present a unique opportunity for MAIN to pursue the "practical application of information infrastructure . . . in ways that can serve as national models." In WNC, we see the NII serving as a technology "bridge" between generations and between social classes.

WNC is one of the top five retirement destinations for affluent, well-educated Americans. Simultaneously, the mountain region is experiencing a debilitating loss of young people who must leave to find a decent job as adults.

Indeed, 19,925 residents of WNC ages 55-74 told the U.S Census that they had migrated to one of WNC's 22 counties since 1985. By contrast, 39,300 people ages 20-29 reported they had left the region since 1985 (see appendix for table).

Aggravating this intergenerational disparity is the fact that only a handful of counties (Buncombe, Henderson, Polk, Transylvania, Macon) have benefitted significantly from this in-migration of affluent retirees. Moreover, this influx of affluent retirees intensifies the awareness among native mountain folk that the economic benefits of Sunbelt growth have largely passed them by.

MAIN is committed to working with the Asheville-based North Carolina Center for Creative Retirement to explore how the NII can harness these human resources to produce cross-generational and cross-cultural benefits for the entire region.

Because appearance, age and accent are largely irrelevant in on-line experience, MAIN can be a powerful "bridge technology" to help overcome the economic and cultural gulf separating affluent in-migrants from native mountaineers.

MAIN is well-positioned to bridge this gulf because its key partners -- community colleges -- attract a large number of first-generation college students from native mountain families.

In addition, as the "baby boom" generation nears retirement age, MAIN's experience with inter-generational applications of the NII should prove extremeful beneficial to other communities across the nation.

  • One immediate and specific goal is to establish the MAIN On-line Mentoring Project, which will pair computer-literate retirees and at-risk students at Asheville Middle School. MAIN will use TIIAP funds to expand an existing "Adopt a Class" mentoring program now underway through the N.C. Center for Creative Retirement.

    Three days a week after school, at-risk 6th-graders will be able to log-on from their campus to exchange e-mail or participate in an on-line "chat/homework" forum with their retiree-mentor. With the support of the N.C. Center for Creative Retirement, our goal is to encourage other MAIN communities to use the NII to experiment similar on-line mentoring projects. We will produce a half dozen case studies on this experiment by the end of the two-year demonstration project.

  • MAIN will also use computer-savvy retirees as public-access volunteers to provide end-user training and assistance. Virtually every computer-user organization in WNC is comprised mainly of retirees.

  • MAIN will also harness assets, resources, and wisdom of in-migrating retirees and "lone eagles" to create new education and economic opportunities to help stem the out-migration of WNC youth from our less affluent counties.

    For example, Matt Tibbits is a 20-year old native of Yancey County and sophomore at UNC-Chapel Hill. A physics major, Matt has discovered the power of the Internet. He would like to return some day to Yancey County and pursue his dream of establishing a small information service business using advanced telecommunications.

MAIN will coordinate the resources of job placement offices at WNC colleges and universities to establish and promote an on-line "Career Center" for WNC employers and job-seekers. We will also use retiree volunteers -- especially members of SCORE -- to serve as on-line career mentors to the Matt Tibbits of WNC.

However, if WNC is by-passed by the Information Highway, Matt -- like thousands of other WNC youth over the years -- will continue to migrate to places like Charlotte, Greensboro, Raleigh or Atlanta.

The MAIN Attractions: Getting Regular Folk On-line

"If you build it, they will come" may work for computer-literate residents, but MAIN will create special applications to attract WNC residents not predisposed to using a computer. MAIN will create strategic applications to attract those users with the most to gain from a community network.

As with the MAIN's "cooperative development" infrastructure model, the follow strategic applications build on existing programs and resources:

  • The WNC Micro-Climate Weather Map will be one of the first and most important MAIN attractions. Everyone wants to know about the weather, especially in a large, mountainous region where the weather can change rapidly and vary widely from one micro-climate to the next.

    By leveraging existing resources at Asheville-based National Climatic Data Center and UNC- Asheville's nationally recognized Atmospheric Sciences Program, MAIN will offer an attractive and easy to use weather map of the region, updated several times per day.

    The National Weather Service has long worked with citizens in remote WNC areas to get daily temperature reports. MAIN will continue this tradition and work with these same individuals to provide highly accurate updates of microclimate weather.

  • The WNC Virtual Farmer's Market will fill a critical void for the region's small growers. On-line networks connecting brokers to growers already exist for America's typically large growers. But our mountainous terrain dictates that most of our growers are small.

    Paul Gallimore of Sandy Mush Community in Buncombe County is a good example. A small grower of rainbow trout, Paul sells 8-10 inch trout to brokers and large restaurant chains. But he has difficulty marketing those trout which do not fit this commercial standard.

    The WNC Virtual Farmer's Market would provide Paul with a way to market his non-standard trout to small restaurants and individual consumers in his own backyard.

  • Community Clubs On-Line -- Founded in 1949, the WNC Community Development Program (with assistance from the N.C. Cooperative Extension Service) coordinates 100 Community Clubs in the remotest most disadvantaged communities of WNC. These clubs serve as the cultural, educational, and social centers of these remote communities (the clubs are often located in a multi-purpose school building.) With in-kind support from the N.C. Cooperative Extension Service of $65,000, MAIN will place public access terminals in 25 Community Clubs, to be selected by the WNC Community Development Program steering committee.

  • The Mountain Microenterprise Project will work with the Mountain Microenterprise Fund, Handmade in America, the Penland School of Arts and Crafts, and the Grove Arcade Public Market Foundation to use the public Internet as a powerful new marketing tool for small, poverty-level, rural microenterprises.

    This demonstration project will focus on durable goods such as crafts and specialty foods that ship well in small packages. MAIN will sub-contract with the Washington office of the Center for Civic Networking to plan, develop, implement, and evaluate this project.

  • The New Horizons Child Development Center is one of the few N.C. Information Highway sites in WNC. As an NCIH site, New Horizons will develop and disseminate early childhood development programs to state, national and global audiences.

    Without MAIN, however, New Horizons would by-pass parents and child-care professionals in its own backyard. We are extremely excited about the prospect of connecting New Horizons with child development programs at those WNC community colleges which could not qualify for N.C. Information Highway funding.

  • The Haywood County School Network is a rural, 16-school system in the heart of Western North Carolina. Each school has recently installed a local area network (LAN), but the school system lacks the funding to connect the schools to each other or to the world outside Haywood County. MAIN will provide $40,000 in TIIAP funding to enable each school to access the Mountain Area Information Network. In return, Haywood County Schools will serve as a demonstration model for the 21 other mountain school systems.

  • The WNC On-line Library will be led by staff at Appalachian State University's Belk Library, the region's largest library, and the Mountain Colleges Library Network (MCLN), the regional organization of community colleges and small private colleges. MAIN will provide the crucial missing link to extend resources -- such as government electronic databases, electronic journals, and numerous indexing services -- to audiences who historically have been cut off from knowledge resources. Indeed, the MCLN campuses comprise a large body of first-generation college students who heretofore have had no network access.

    Moreover, MAIN would accomplish another historic first: enabling access to sophisticated library resources to isolated mountain families whose contact with the outside world via electronic media has been limited to the telephone and -- if they could afford it -- cable or satellite TV.

Evaluation and Dissemination

The most important benchmark for measuring the success of MAIN is the network's ability to reach "information poor" residents of Western North Carolina. MAIN will keep detailed county-by- county records of log-ins as well as visits to public-access sites. This on-going tracking will be essential in providing MAIN administrative staff, board of directors, and county advisory committees a baseline evaluation of the success of network deployment.

By one important measure, the deployment of MAIN itself will mark its success because 13 of the 14 counties in MAIN's phase one have per capita incomes significantly lower than the North Carolina state average, and seven of the 14 counties are among the most depressed in the entire state.

Because 26 of our public access sites will be located at remote Community Clubs (see appendix for descriptions), we can virtually guarantee that our goal of reaching "information poor" residents will be met. We will also work closely with staff from the N.C. Cooperative Extension Service and the WNC Community Development Program (which provide assistance to the Community Clubs) to develop feedback mechanisms and to collect case studies about the usage of MAIN in these historically isolated communities.

One of the most important parts of our evaluation strategy will be the collection of case studies for the following strategic applications: the MAIN On-line Mentoring Project, the WNC Micro-climate Weather Map, the WNC Virtual Farmer's Market, and the Mountain Microenterprise Project. These case studies will be used to demonstrate to other WNC counties -- and to other communities nationwide -- what works and what doesn't work.

In addition, we will build into the process of network deployment a "feedback" mechanism using "MAIN-L", a dedicated listserve established last Febuary by our partners at Appalachian State University. This on-line forum will be used to establish an ongoing advisory committee of local residents who will monitor MAIN's progress, serve as local sounding boards, and represent MAIN in their communities.

Finally, MAIN will implement a national media strategy to disseminate results of the demonstration phase. The strategy will be developed by Wally Bowen, president of MAIN, who specialized in national media relations as director of UNC-Asheville News Bureau, 1983-1991.

Applicant Qualifications

  • Land of Sky Regional Council is a "council of government" founded in 1966 as a regional planning and economic development commission operating under the Local Government and Fiscal Control Act of North Carolina. Arlene Wilson is Director of Administration and Finance for Land of Sky Regional Council, the fiscal agent for MAIN. She and her staff supervise more than 65 active grants and contracts as well as the council of governments' $3 million annual budget. She received her CPA license in 1979.

  • Mountain Area Information Network (MAIN) was conceived in October, 1993 in response to a Corporation for Public Broadcasting grant program. MAIN incorporated with the State of North Carolina in July, 1994 and is preparing to file for 501(c)3 tax-exempt status with the IRS. MAIN is governed by an 18-member board of directors.

  • Wally Bowen is president of the Mountain Area Information Network and founder/executive director of Citizens for Media Literacy, a tax-exempt non-profit (based in WNC) which promotes citizenship and civic participation via citizen access to the media environment.

    Before founding CML in 1991, Bowen was News Bureau Director for the University of North Carolina at Asheville, where he coordinated media coverage throughout the state and the 22-county region of WNC. He has also served on the board of directors of public radio WCQS-FM, "The Mountain Air Network."

    In 1986, Bowen served as a judge for the WNC Development Association's Community Club competition. During a week of travel around the 22-county region, Bowen witnessed firsthand the extreme isolation of many WNC communities. This experience is a driving force behind his leadership in founding the Mountain Area Information Network.

  • Glenn Davis is vice-president of Mountain Area Information Network and leader of MAIN's Technical Design Team. Glenn teaches computer technology at Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College and chairs the college's Information Technology Planning Committee.

    Before joining A-B Tech, Glenn was senior telecommunications analyst and computer security officer for Asheville Industries, Inc., a subsidiary of Newport News Shipbuilding Corp. He is currently the leading candidate to become MAIN's Technical Director. Glenn has 20 years experience in telecommunications and computer systems.

  • Don Davis is a MAIN board member, key member of the Technical Design Team, and president of New Era Computers, Inc., a WNC-based retail computer firm. New Era is an Internet access provider through a contract with the Raleigh, N.C.-based Interpath, Inc. Davis was the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce Small Business Leader of the Year for 1994. His civic involvement includes providing technical support for the Baha'i Youth Workshop and the Martin Luther King Prayer Breakfast.

  • Kern Parker is a MAIN board member and Director of University Computing for the University of North Carolina at Asheville. He holds a master's degree in computer science from Johns Hopkins University. Kern is responsible for deploying the university's fiber optic network.

  • Bede Mitchell is a MAIN board member and Associate University Librarian for Public Services at Appalachian State University, the region's largest public university. He also serves as president of the Appalachian Chapter of Phi Delta Kappa and a member of the WNC Library Network. Bede will lead the development of menu applications for MAIN and will coordinate the delivery of library sources over the network. He holds a master's in library science degree from the University of Michigan.

A Final Note

Five of the first Community Clubs to receive MAIN public access terminals and connectivity will be Beech Mountain, Unaka, Snowbird, and Nantahala Gorge. Following are some observations on these communities from Marilyn Cole, the N.C. Cooperative Extension Service agent responsible for coordinating the WNC Community Club program, the only one of its kind in the state.

  • Beech Mountain Community Club -- Avery County:
    A remote community which fought to keep its school open since their young children would have to travel down the mountain an hour and a half on a narrow treacherous two-lane road. Ice and snow during most winter months would prevent children from attending school or risk their lives. Volunteers spent innumerable hours renovating the school, causing the principal to remark that a "$30,000 grant could not repay them." Beech Mountain is a hardworking, close-knit, deserving community of about 300 families which could benefit greatly from MAIN, from their youth to their senior citizens.

  • Unaka Community Club -- Cherokee County
    Unaka is the most remote community in all of WNC. It is 45 minutes -- on a narrow two-lane road -- from the county seat, Murphy, which itself is two and half hours from Asheville. For years, Unaka boasted the "smallest school in North Carolina," and its graduates routinely excelled at Murphy High School, more than any other area. Last year, however, the county closed the school. Unaka has a community center, a volunteer fire department, and a vacant school building.

  • Snowbird Community Club -- Cherokee Reservation
    The Cherokee Reservation covers five WNC counties, all of which are in MAIN's first-phase service area. Snowbird is an extremely poor, isolated community in Graham County, the state's poorest county. This community has done more than any other to retain its Cherokee language and heritage. Their isolation from the Qualla Boundary at Cherokee makes it very difficult for them to communicate with tribal government and to use tribal services such as health and social services.

  • Nantahala Community Club -- Macon County
    A part-time farming community whose residents must drive "out" at least 45 minutes to an hour for any type of employment, mostly out of county. The county seat is only 25 miles away, but the travel is treacherous and more than an hour's drive over the mountain. Nantahala has one of the smallest schools in the state, and their students excel on SAT scores and at college. Richard Baldwin, a native of the community, is the school principal and is a young, innovative leader and educator. Aggravating this community's isolation is that any phone call outside the community is long distance.