MAIN turns 10

How soon they grow up. Over the last decade, the Mountain Area Information Network has transformed itself from a handful of media activists meeting at the local library into a technological and political entity with regional and even national reach.

On Feb. 22, MAIN will celebrate 10 years of Internet activity and activism, including the recent expansion of its Internet service beyond the region’s borders, a low-power radio station based in downtown Asheville, and expanded efforts to provide Internet access to people left stranded alongside the information highway.

To mark the occasion, the nonprofit plans twin open houses at its offices and at the WPVM studios (see below, “Ten Years After”). The celebration is slated to continue through the coming months with a series of special guest speakers addressing media issues.

But despite the Internet-service provider’s significant presence in Western North Carolina, Executive Director Wally Bowen says the fight to keep the Internet (and media in general) independent of corporate control remains as pressing as ever.

Internet infants

MAIN’s beginnings actually date back more than a decade. In 1993, recognizing the fledgling Internet’s potential, Bowen and several other local tech visionaries began meeting with an eye toward establishing a “mountain freenet” group based on the work of the Cleveland Freenet (a free, community computer network set up in that city in the mid-1980s — when personal computers were relatively new and the World Wide Web didn’t even exist yet).

“We realized that this was revolutionary technology, that it could really transform people’s lives and overcome the corporate dominance of media,” Bowen recalls.

To that end, the group also got interested in offering outlying areas of Western North Carolina access to this evolving resource.

“Given the common heritage and common destiny of the mountain communities, and their distance from Raleigh, technology could work well to bring the region together,” he explains.

But even as the local group was pondering how best to proceed, another network was emerging in Charlotte that would provide a model for funding the WNC project.

Charlotte’s Web, launched in 1994, began partnering with libraries and community colleges to establish a community computer-information network. But what really got Bowen’s attention, he says now, was the project’s success in obtaining federal funding.

Armed with that precedent, the WNC group secured $800,000 in U.S. Department of Commerce moneys in the spring of 1995 and launched MAIN the following year.

The war chest enabled the young nonprofit to expand rapidly across the mountain region. But it also provided ammunition for MAIN’s competitors and political opponents.

Bill Fishburne, now a local conservative-talk-show host, was at that time involved in creating Internet of Asheville, a network he and his partners eventually sold to Duro Communications (which in turn sold it to EarthLink).

“MAIN chose to pursue federal money, and that federal money allowed them to compete with the private sector,” Fishburne says now. But politics aside, he says he has no regrets about Internet of Asheville’s run, noting, “We sold in 1999 at the height of the IPO craze.”

Bowen, however, defends the decision to use federal funding. “Without that revenue, there’s no way we could survive [at that time],” he says.

But government dollars are only one part of the political equation, and another, more recent, key decision by MAIN has both helped shape its community role and fueled opposition by local politicos.

“Though it took us another few years to do it, we were intent to be a content provider as well,” Bowen explains.

The P-word

That content reflects an activist political agenda spelled out in the steady stream of articles from such publications as The Nation and The Guardian posted on main’s Web site (and, these days, broadcast on WPVM). Frequent subjects include attacks on Bush-administration environmental policy, big-box development, and, particularly, corporate media consolidation.

But MAIN’s decision to get political had practical repercussions last July when the Asheville City Council, on a 4-3 vote, denied the nonprofit’s request for free space on a city-owned telecommunications tower in exchange for supplying city community centers with high-speed wireless Internet access. At the time, Vice Mayor Carl Mumpower said he wouldn’t support taxpayer subsidies for a political group, regardless of what their message was.

In December, however, with a new Council in place, MAIN was granted tower space for a discounted fee consistent with what the city has charged other nonprofits and lower than what is available in the private sector.

That, in turn, has enabled a group that was already providing wireless Internet access in four WNC counties (and dial-up in 14) to expand the range of its wireless service.

Meanwhile, a recent expansion has enabled MAIN to offer dial-up service nationwide. At this writing, the nonprofit’s wireless network serves 200 customers; another 3,071 subscribers receive dial-up service (400 of them on a special plan that allows low-income customers to pay what they are able).

A free and open Internet

Over the years, MAIN has formed or established partnerships with various other nonprofits across the region, including the Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project and the Latino Digital Literacy Project.

“I feel very strongly about MAIN. The changes it has made for the Latino community have been tremendous,” says Nora Ardila, who worked with the nonprofit on setting up the LDLP Web site. She also volunteers at WPVM, helping with the station’s Latino-music and Spanish-language programming.

In addition, MAIN has forged alliances with schools and libraries in outlying, underserved areas. Some of those arrangements have since fallen by the wayside, but the nonprofit continues to work with the McDowell County Public Library and Mitchell High School, as well as the Mitchell County E911 system.

For all of MAIN’s progress, however, Bowen sees more challenges ahead in the form of tighter corporate controls. More and more, he notes, smaller and less-well-funded Internet service providers are being bought up or shut out of the market. A June 2005 Supreme Court decision, for example, allows cable companies to refuse to make their lines available to competing Internet providers. And in July, the Federal Communications Commission made a similar ruling concerning phone companies supplying DSL Internet service. These rulings, some media activists fear, foreshadow a more restrictive, fast-lane/slow-lane future Internet environment in which a few large, corporate service providers might actually control the content available to users and/or the speed at which it was available, favoring material provided by big companies that can afford to pay cable and phone companies higher premiums.

In other words, notes Bowen, MAIN once again finds itself facing the same fundamental issue it’s been dealing with ever since a handful of people first met in Pack Library more than a decade ago. And at the moment, the most viable option for avoiding such a future appears to be wireless service.

As he puts it, “MAIN put its energy into wireless not only for our own survival but for the survival of a free and open Internet.”

Ten years after

MAIN will celebrate the 10th anniversary of its very first Internet connection with a Feb. 22 open house spanning both the nonprofit’s downtown-Asheville office (34 Wall St.) and the WPVM studios (75 Haywood St.). The event will run from 2-5 p.m. At 6 p.m., Executive Director Wally Bowen will give a public talk — titled “It’s Time for Media Reform!” — in Pack Library’s Lord Auditorium. Throughout the year, MAIN plans to announce other talks by assorted media and technology figures addressing the future of the Internet.

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