Bowen: MAIN’s future lies in wireless broadband

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.

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7 thoughts on “Bowen: MAIN’s future lies in wireless broadband

  1. Just One

    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.”

    Where is the business plan? Has there EVER been a business plan?

    Where are the published annual reports? Board meeting minutes and financial reports? History of board financial contributions to the organization, if any have been made?

    How will MAIN’s business model compete against a FREE national wi-fi plan when the white spaces are auctioned off to the likes of Google?

    It’s important to know whether MAIN is viable to even hold the discussions regarding its internal struggle for leadership—is it a moot point?

    MAIN is either a community organization or it is not. If it wants community support, it has to allow for community participation and accountability to those supporters. Or does it?

  2. Producer1

    I think this is a “pie in the sky” idea. ISP’s are already talking about charging for broadband…we’re not going to be able to watch our favorite TV show on our iPhones, in a cow pasture, without paying big bucks for it. JMHO

    Funny how this never gets mentioned.

  3. John Wilson

    MAIN has great ideas, but from the several people I’ve spoken to about using its service, it has a reputation for poor customer service. MAIN needs to present a strong business face that indicates that its service can be relied upon. I’d like to support MAIN, but I haven’t got time to fool around with them if I’m on a deadline and my internet isn’t working.

  4. James L

    Under Mr. Bowen’s “leadership” MAIN has suffered tremendous credibility problems and a huge lack of effective community partnerships. Were it not for the fact that he secured his own paid position with a non-profit he effectively controls, he’d have been run out of there long ago as he was with previous jobs. This scheme to line up for free taxpayer money on the back of a financial crisis is just another in a long line of disreputable efforts for Wally to look out for what’s best for Wally. The grant approach is about all he has left because no one who really knows him will give him money to work with.

    There is seldom a practical thought out plan or genuine business approach with anything he’s involved with as seen lately with the radio station and his inability to constructively partner with community groups like URTV, and local governments. I’ve never seen anyone talk so often and so liberally about their partner relationships with groups he has no actual affiliation with, often because he long ago burned any bridges to them through his self serving power grab attempts. In fact, his self professed affiliations to various community or industry groups are usually over stated, unauthorized and offensive to the groups he name drops if not a complete surprise to them.

    Everything is always framed as being “good for the community” or “in the public interest”, but in reality it’s always a constantly changing scheme to bolster Mr. Bowen’s consolidation of control or his own pockets. He’s a good speaker who’s only interest is self promotion and deception. I look forward to the day when everyone sees him for who he is so the community can get on with what’s really in the community’s interests and stop wasting time on self serving wolves in sheep’s clothing. The time for self indulgence is over, we’re entering an era of competence and responsibility again and these parasites should get out of the way.

  5. Tonight from 6-8pm @ Rosetta’s
    Join the Asheville ABC Series to discuss:
    Community Journalism & Indy Media in Asheville
    URTV, MAIN, WPVM, WRES, blogging, tweeting, & more.
    Where are we standing & what are our opportunities & challenges?

    If you miss tonight’s meeting keep in touch with the (coming slowly but almost ready to function fully)
    http://www.AshevilleABC.com

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