The competition for $7.2 billion in federal stimulus funds for rural broadband development is about to begin, and the Asheville-based Mountain Area Information Network aims to be a front-runner in securing some of that cash.
Executive Director Wally Bowen says his organization will be applying as part of a coalition of locally owned Internet service providers who’ve been working together for six months. MAIN will team up with BalsamWest FiberNET, Pangaea and ERC Broadband.
"What we're trying to create is a comprehensive, regionwide proposal that includes both fiber funding, middle-mile funding and last-mile funding," he explains.
Details of the project are still being worked out, notes Bowen, who declined to give an estimate of how much money the coalition will ask for. "It's a substantial request," he says, that will include a number of "shovel-ready" projects across Western North Carolina. One example is MAIN's vision of a wireless network blanketing Asheville, which would deliver Internet service to 90 percent of Asheville's low-income and public housing complexes.
Getting high-speed Internet service to rural areas in WNC is critical to bridging a digital divide that has left rural residents with either no broadband service at all or else with fewer choices that often cost more. Broadband is critical to the nation’s economy, according to President Barack Obama's administration, which maintains that pushing access deeper into rural areas will create jobs and spur commerce.
MAIN is a nonprofit Internet service provider. BalsamWest is a partnership between the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and Drake Enterprises, a Macon County software company. Pangaea is a fiber-optic network based in Polk and Rutherford counties. The Asheville-based ERC Broadband, meanwhile, is a nonprofit that seeks to expand the region's fiber-optic network and technical infrastructure.
Two federal agencies — the National Telecommunications and Information Administration and the Rural Utilities Service — will dispense the money via loans and grants. Most of it is earmarked for nonprofits and local government entities. Grant application windows are expected in July, November and May of 2010. But in the coming days, the two agencies are slated to explain how to submit an application.
The goal is to make high-speed Internet as accessible and widespread as other basic infrastructure (think electricity). But the cost of establishing broadband in these rugged mountains can deter for-profit companies.
That's why the federal grants are so important, says Bowen, who’s written an instructional manual for anyone interested in leveraging stimulus funds to start a local wireless broadband company.
"Our fear is that community media organizations may not feel confident in applying for funding, so that's why we created a little road map," he explains.
The “cookbook” (http://main.nc.us/lan-recipe/) clearly spells out the steps involved and explains the often perplexing technical jargon. Bowen says the manual is starting to get some attention, and he's talking to organizations such as Free Press, the Media and Democracy Coalition and the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California to get help in distributing it.