The future of the Mountain Area Information Network, Asheville’s nonprofit Internet service provider, lies in providing mobile broadband and developing a full-fledged news operation.
That’s the vision put forth by Executive Director Wally Bowen in a presentation titled “MAIN 2.0.”
MAIN hopes to capture $1.8 million from the $787 billion stimulus package that President Barack Obama signed into law Feb. 18. The bill earmarks more than $7 billion for bringing broadband to unserved or underserved communities, which has been MAIN’s mission since its inception in 1995.
The money would allow the nonprofit to build wireless infrastructure using “white spaces”—unused parts of the TV spectrum—for high-speed Internet access. Last November, the Federal Communications Commission voted 5-0 to free up that part of the spectrum for unlicensed use by mobile devices. The spectrum is attractive because it enables signals to travel far and penetrate buildings. Bowen said it will provide strong, high-speed Internet connectivity that’s crucial for rural areas in Western North Carolina where less than a third of residents have access to broadband at home.
“The stimulus money will help us rebuild our network, then improve capacity,” Bowen told about 60 people gathered in Pack Memorial Library’s Lord Auditorium Feb. 23.
MAIN is already a wireless provider, with a “mesh network” that’s operational in nine Asheville neighborhoods. It uses an overlapping network of small devices that can connect to the Internet and provide wireless connectivity within about 1,500 feet. The system depends on people sharing cable or DSL connections, which usually violates individual customers’ contracts with those companies, but MAIN gets around this by offering itself as the pathway to the Web.
With its mobile-broadband capability strengthened, the nonprofit will move into community journalism—a critical component, said Bowen, given the upheaval in the newspaper industry and the deaths of many papers nationwide.
MAIN would employ at least one editor and pay community journalists to create news content that would be delivered online, via Asheville’s low-power FM station WPVM, and on URTV, the local public-access channel. MAIN holds the radio station’s license, and the MAIN and WPVM Web sites will be merged as a first step, said Bowen.
The last part of Bowen’s vision, which generated much of the discussion at his Feb. 23 presentation, was his financial plan. “We have a new business model for journalism,” said Bowen.
It envisions a mix of funding sources, including the Internet service provider, a service providing technical help to other local nonprofits, underwriting and even a cooperative with local businesses. Questioning the financial model’s sustainability, audience members asked Bowen for specifics. He said he hadn’t done detailed financial modeling, adding that MAIN has made changes recently to “operate as a business.”
Seven working groups plus a new advisory council will direct planning and implementation. For more information, go to www.main.nc.us, or call 255-0182.