Mountain Area Information Network

Asheville Citizen-TimesSaturday, August 21, 1999

Internet cooperative brings Web to rural areas

By Tim Reid, Business Editor

ASHEVILLE - A U.S. Department of Commerce study found that North Carolina trails most of the nation when it comes to people having home computers and Internet access.

Experts say much of the blame lies with technology cracks in rural areas where affordable Internet access is hard to find.

The Mountain Area Information Network (MAIN) has been addressing that problem since 1996 through a patchwork of leased phone lines to "long-haul" Internet service to remote areas.

"MAIN brought the Internet to the backwoods," says Leslie Spragins of Marshall. Local dial-up service through MAIN made the Internet accessible to people in Madison and other counties who could not afford longdistance charges through other providers, she said.

"We had no service before that," Spragins said. "They made it really easy and affordable for us." Spragins' son has diabetes, and she uses the Internet to contact support groups and others for helpful information on coping with the disease.

Her husband, Bill Spragins, established Carolina Natural Beef, a farmer-owned cooperative that has a presence on MAIN's Blue Ridge Web Market.

"Our Internet access through MAIN has meant more to us than we ever thought of or dreamed of," Mrs. Spragins said. Executive director Wally Bowen says MAIN is a "nonprofit Internet cooperative on the model of the old rural electric co-ops."

In addition to individual subscribers it also supports 60 public access terminals in libraries, community centers and other locations.

MAIN hosts more than 250 nonprofit Web sites and recently launched the Blue Ridge Web Market to help entrepreneurs in remote mountain communities market their products on the World Wide Web.

MAIN has brought affordable Internet access to more than 3,000 subscribers in 12 western counties, but the system is limited by the area's lack of technology infrastructure, Bowen said.

"We're a success story because we have been able to cobble together this multi-county, co-operative network," he said. "It's unwieldy, inefficient and expensive, but it does work."

MAIN's phone bill alone averages $15,000 to $20,000 per month, Bowen said. Businesses and others in the far western counties that need highspeed band width are at a distinct disadvantage compared to their competitors in urban areas that can get the service more cheaply, he said.

"The bottom line is that if there is a business out there in a remote mountain county that needs a full T-1 line, they are looking at a cost of $3,000 or $4,000 per month," he said. "That's three or four times as much as somebody in Charlotte would pay."

Western North Carolina needs a comprehensive technology "backbone" of fiber optic cable and microwave towers to deliver highspeed bandwidth throughout the region, Bowen said.

"Bandwidth for our day and time is what water and power and other natural resources were for an earlier time," he said. "It is the energy of economic development. If you don't have it, that's going to put you at a competitive disadvantage."

Bowen believes the solution lies in the approach taken by residents of the Berkshire Mountains in a remote area of Massachusetts.

A task force of civic and business leaders with state help commissioned a study to come up with a plan for developing a technology backbone to overcome the area's geographic disadvantages.

"What they did was an analysis of existing infrastructure and what kind of upgrade they needed to provide bandwidth comparable to what businesses in New York and Boston have," he said.

Walt Cooper of Flack and Kurtz Consulting Engineers, the consulting firm that helped come up with the proposed Berkshire Connect, said the private sector has expressed interest in implementing it.

"It seems possible at this point that one or more service providers will build the network," he said. "If that doesn't happen, a public/private approach may be used."

"The distinguishing thing about Berkshire Connect is that it is a local community taking the bull by the horns rather than waiting for the technology to trickle down to them," Bowen said.

Cooper will be in Asheville Aug. 31 to explain the Berkshire Connect model to supporters of N.C. Connect, a state initiative to see that all areas of the state share in the new information infrastructure.

"A knowledge-based economy is impossible without plentiful and affordable bandwidth," Bowen said. "Businesses cannot be competitive in this day and time if they don't have equal access to bandwidth."

The Berkshire Connect plan calls for putting together a network of new fiber optic cable, "dark" cable (lines that are in place but not currently being used) and microwave towers for those areas where installing cable is not feasible.

A similar approach would probably be taken for Western North Carolina, Bowen said. Increased bandwidth would benefit not just businesses but universities, government, health care and individuals, he said.

"Part of the charter of Berkshire Connect was to provide a solution for everybody and not leave anybody short," he said.

Barbara Lange of Burnsville said that Internet access is crucial to overcoming the barriers of living in WNC's remote areas.

"We were kind of stuck before MAIN. We would have had to pay long-distance phone charges for Internet," she said. "There was no way I could do it."

Getting affordable Internet access enabled her to turn a parttime hobby into a viable business, Lange said. "It has really changed my life," she said. "It has made the world a whole lot smaller for us."