The appropriate boundary between public and private loomed large at the Asheville City Council’s July 12 formal session. Council members vetoed the Mountain Area Information Network’s request for free antenna space on a city-owned tower on a 4-3 vote after concerns were aired about the group’s political leanings.
MAIN, which already supplies both high-speed wireless and dial-up Internet service in parts of Buncombe and surrounding counties, had asked Asheville to waive its $9,600 annual fee for two spots on the city-owned White Fawn tower. Wally Bowen, the founder and executive director of the 11-year-old group, first brought the matter to Council at its June 21 work session.
City staff had recommended granting the waiver, pointing out that MAIN provides Internet access to low-income households. And to sweeten the deal, the local nonprofit had also offered to supply high-speed access to five of the city’s community centers.
Those facilities are now buying high-speed Internet from Charter Communications, explained Director of Information Technology Jonathan Feldman, but it’s only for administrative staff. Youths who use the centers have to make do with dial-up access, he said. The donated service would save the city $5,160 annually, according to the staff report.
Besides providing low-cost Internet access to a growing customer base, MAIN also has 425 subscribers who receive the service either free or on a sliding scale, Bowen told Council members. Laurie Saxton, the city’s grants specialist, told Council that the nonprofit’s efforts to provide wireless Internet access throughout the region are consistent with what municipalities nationwide are doing.
But MAIN’s political positions — featured both on the group’s home page and on its low-power radio station, WPVM (which bills itself as “The Progressive Voice of the Mountains”) — drew fire from some Council members and from members of the public. A portion of the fees paid for Internet service and Web-site hosting go to support the radio station, according to the WPVM Web site.
During the meeting’s public-comment section, conservative talk-show host Bill Fishburne called the organization an outlet for “left-wing political propaganda” and a “local nonprofit media conglomerate.” Because there’s limited space for antennas on the tower, he argued, donated space limits the number of paying commercial customers the city can attract.
Vice Mayor Carl Mumpower, meanwhile, challenged MAIN’s outreach mission, calling it a “mask for a deeper political agenda” and saying he would not support taxpayer subsidies for political groups, regardless of their leanings.
But Bowen defended the organization’s Internet service, pointing out that it doesn’t force political opinions down subscribers’ throats. “We are a common carrier like BellSouth,” he said. “No one is forced to go to the Web site; no one is forced to listen to the radio station. People who use our Internet [service] come from all walks of life and from all over the political spectrum.” Bowen added that according to studies performed by the Asheville City Schools, at-risk students would benefit from having high-speed Internet access available in places where they typically congregate, such as community centers.
Council member Brownie Newman said he welcomes a new face in the Internet market, which is dominated by a couple of big companies. “High-speed is a highly regulated, very monopolistic industry,” noted Newman.
Bowen agreed, adding that increasingly, those large companies are offering Internet, cable and phone service as a package — which some families won’t be able to afford. “This does not bode well for low-income households or small businesses,” he warned.
Council member Joe Dunn, however, wondered whether Council would even entertain a fee-waiver request if it came from a commercial business rather than a nonprofit.
But Newman countered, “Plenty of for-profit companies come here asking for money, and we give it to them.” That money, he said, often comes in the form of economic-incentive grants.
Council member Holly Jones defended both MAIN’s intentions and the proposed financial arrangement, arguing, “The people who are going to benefit from this outweigh the costs.” (“The city typically charges other organizations, including nonprofit organizations, for this service,” according to the staff report.)
As the discussion continued, some attempts at compromise emerged. Council member Terry Bellamy suggested that MAIN pay for the tower access up front but be eligible for reimbursement as the usefulness of its service became clear. Council member Jan Davis proposed a more traditional route: Instead of bartering with the city, why not pay for the tower access and sell its services to Asheville outright?
Bowen, however, said MAIN could not afford to continue its low-cost service if it had to pay the fee, and if Asheville refused to play ball, he would pursue negotiations with other communities. That said, he pushed for a decision either way.
In the end, Bowen got his wish for a vote — but despite support from Newman, Jones and Mayor Charles Worley, the request for tower space narrowly failed.