Bowen: Media infrastructure is key to local self-reliance

November 22, 2011 by Wally Bowen

ASHEVILLE – Communities must become self-reliant in broadband and media infrastructure to achieve sustainability, said media activist Wally Bowen, founder and executive director of the nonprofit Mountain Area Information Network (MAIN).

Speaking Nov. 17 to local economic and social justice leaders about the future of MAIN, Bowen compared broadband and media infrastructure to navigable rivers, trading routes, rail lines, and electric utilities that were critical for sustainable communities in earlier eras. “In the 21st century,” he said, “community-owned media infrastructure is essential for green jobs, economic justice, and sustainability.”

Bowen made his remarks as MAIN begins a search for new leadership in the coming year. Bowen has been diagnosed with ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease. He is speaking out, he said, to ensure that community leaders understand MAIN’s pivotal role in the region’s growing sustainability movement.

He said all communities over time face a “self-reliance” question: “Should we self-provision critical infrastructure or depend on Wall Street and the markets?”

“This question has never been more relevant than today because broadband access to the Internet and World Wide Web has been captured by Wall Street and a cable/telephone duopoly, and Congress appears unwilling or unable to restore nondiscrimination rules which governed the Internet until 2005,” he said.

Bowen said that local economies will soon be embedded in what IT experts call the “Internet of Things,” a world in which everyday objects from cars to household appliances will be WiFi-enabled. Likewise, personal energy consumption via “smart-grid” technologies will be subject to real-time management. “This continuously connected world depends on broadband, and if that broadband is only available from the cable or phone company, you can be sure that the economics will be rigged in favor of Wall Street at the expense of Main Street,” he said.

Fortunately, history shows that local communities can choose self-reliance over dependency, Bowen said.

In 1889, Statesville, N.C., opted for self-reliance by building its own municipal power system after failing to attract an investor-owned utility. Half a century later, said Bowen, most American farms still lacked electricity, so Congress passed the Rural Electrification Act of 1936 to help finance nonprofit rural electric cooperatives.

In the 1980s, Morganton, N.C. opted for self-reliance by expanding its municipal power system to offer cable TV, after years of complaints – including the 1982 blackout of the UNC-Georgetown national championship game – about its commercial cable provider.

Bowen cautioned that corporate interests often oppose local communities which “self provision” critical infrastructure. Morganton’s commercial cable-TV provider sued the city to block its cable venture. Only in 1993, after a decade-long legal battle, did Morganton win the right to self-provision cable TV. Today, Morganton’s municipal cable system offers broadband Internet access at competitive rates and with no contract.

But the municipal broadband option in North Carolina is history. Last May, the cable and telephone companies successfully lobbied the N.C. General Assembly to ban any new municipal broadband networks.

“That means the only option left for communities seeking broadband self-reliance is the nonprofit model pioneered by MAIN,” said Bowen. Nonprofit networks, like rural electric cooperatives, are part of the private sector, he said. Unlike public networks, “the cable and phone companies can’t pass a law to make us disappear.”

The benefits of broadband self-reliance work hand-in-glove with sustainability efforts, he said. Community broadband keeps Internet dollars in the local economy and builds social capital, an essential ingredient for sustainability. While absentee-owned networks outsource jobs and IT expertise, local networks keep these assets local.

“Social capital happens when a local entrepreneur runs into the local network engineer at their kids’ soccer game and brainstorms a new app for promoting local businesses,” said Bowen. “These interactions are routine in places like Silicon Valley and Research Triangle Park.” By contrast, communities dependent on absentee-owned networks forfeit social capital to more urban and affluent areas, undermining their prospects for sustainability, he said.

Greg Wilson, a climate scientist and entrepreneur who moved to Madison County from Atlanta, told the audience about his business venture gathering and marketing critical climate data from his mountaintop office. His venture requires broadband access, and only MAIN was able to provision his remote location, he said.

Over the last decade, Western North Carolina has pioneered the community broadband option via more than 500 miles of nonprofit fiber-optic lines, said Bowen. These networks include ERC Broadband serving Asheville and adjacent counties; Pangaea in Polk and Rutherford counties; French Broad EMC in Madison and Yancey counties; and Balsam West serving the region’s far western counties.

But Bowen cautioned that these fiber networks are “wholesale” providers for major institutions such as schools, hospitals, government and major industries. They do not offer “retail” (or “last mile”) service for individual homes and businesses.

“MAIN is the only nonprofit last-mile provider in the region. That’s why we want to make sure that the critical community infrastructure represented by MAIN is not taken for granted during this time of leadership transition,” Bowen said.

He added that the transition would include an immediate expansion of MAIN’s Board of Directors plus a $50,000 capital campaign for strategic planning and executive director search.

Meanwhile, Bowen urged “buy local” advocates to switch their web-hosting from GoDaddy to MAIN. He said MAIN will soon add data-backup and data-storage as part of a “cloud computing” platform which will help level the playing field between local businesses and Fortune 500 companies.

Bowen also announced that the broadcast component of MAIN’s infrastructure, MAIN-FM, will be returning to the local airwaves with a much-improved signal in mid-to-late December. The Nov. 17 event was held at Grateful Steps Publishing in Asheville. END