ASHEVILLE – Residents of Western North Carolina plagued by sub-par broadband Internet access – or no access at all – can document their experience to share with policymakers thanks to a new website from the nonprofit Mountain Area Information Network (MAIN).
“Mapping Broadband in Western North Carolina” enables WNC residents to run a broadband speed test and submit the results to be mapped and measured against the official Federal Communications Commission (FCC) broadband availability map. The free website also allows residents to map locations where broadband is not available.
The FCC estimates that 19 million Americans, mostly in rural areas, cannot get wired broadband service from a cable or telephone company. That estimate includes more than 48,000 residents in 16 counties in Western North Carolina.
“Based on our experience, we believe the FCC is underestimating the scope of this problem,” said Wally Bowen, executive director of MAIN, which has advocated for Internet access in rural areas since 1995. The FCC’s estimate is based primarily on data provided by the cable and telephone companies.
“This new website empowers citizens to compare their real-life experience with the FCC data, but more importantly, it dissects the broadband problem, provides ideas for solving it, and shows citizens how to add their voices to the policy debate,” said Bowen.
Telecommunications is considered one of the most arcane and complex public policy issues. “Of course, those who benefit from this complexity prefer to keep it that way,” said Bowen. “Our goal is to decipher the world of broadband policy and make it accessible to the folks who are most affected by these policies.”
In a speech last May, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski noted the centrality of broadband access in daily life and the high cost incurred by the broadband deficit. “Millions being left out of jobs, left out of digital learning, is not just an economic issue; it’s a civil rights issue, he said.”
Once considered a luxury, broadband is now a necessity for getting an education, finding a job, and participating in civic affairs. “Today, if you don’t have adequate broadband access, you are riding in the back of the bus,” Bowen said.
Increasingly, broadband-deprived citizens have turned to public libraries for relief. But 65 percent of libraries report “insufficient” workstations to meet public demand, and almost half report “insufficient” broadband speed, according to the annual “Public Libraries and the Internet” survey. The FCC’s current definition of broadband sets a minimum speed of 4 megabits per second (mbps) download and 1 mbps upload.
“Mapping Broadband in Western North Carolina” will serve as a platform for citizens’ voices to share their experiences and to press key policymakers and elected officials for a solution to the rural broadband deficit. MAIN will issue periodic reports as it collects and analyzes the speed test data.
“Solving this problem isn’t rocket science,” said Bowen. “We’ve seen this movie before. Seventy-five years ago, for-profit electric utilities left rural America in the dark, so Congress passed the Rural Electrification Act and allowed local communities to solve the problem themselves by creating nonprofit electric cooperatives.”
Funding for a similar Rural Broadband Act has already been approved by Congress via the Universal Service Fund. Last year, the FCC converted USF to the Connect America Fund, with plans to spend $4.5 billion a year through 2020 for rural broadband deployment. The money comes from the $1-$2 USF fee paid each month by all US telephone subscribers.
Under current FCC rules, only incumbent telephone companies are eligible for CAF subsidies. However, the largest of these carriers – Verizon and AT&T – have refused the subsidies. Moreover, the large carriers have notified the FCC that they plan to abandon their wired networks in rural and other unprofitable areas.
“The refusal of Connect America funding by the big carriers, plus their plans to abandon their wired networks in rural areas, is a policy earthquake that’s been ignored by corporate media,” Bowen said.
“Mapping Broadband in Western North Carolina” is a major step toward making the rural broadband deficit a front-burner issue, he said.
The website is phase one of a project funded by a $10,000 Rural Digital Advocacy grant from the Rural Policy Action Partnership, which includes the Institute for Emerging Issues at NC State, the Center for Rural Strategies, Network Impact, Inc., and the Kellogg Foundation.
The project also provides training for rural activists in how to use digital mapping and data-visualization to deepen public understanding of their issues.
The training will initially focus on staff and volunteers from five local nonprofit partners: Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project, Canary Coalition, Disability Partners, Western Region Education Services Alliance, and Mountain Area Health Education Center.
MAIN’s project partner is Navigating Our Future, a nonprofit developer of civic IT infrastructure based in the San Juan Islands of Puget Sound, WA.
For more information, contact Wally Bowen at 828.255.0182 or e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. END
Dear Friends of MAIN:
As you know, MAIN helped gain FCC approval of the “TV white spaces” for rural broadband in 2008.
Now, AT&T is trying to strangle TVWS in its crib. You hadn’t heard?
No surprise. Corporate media won’t touch a story revealing how Wall Street works to control our media infrastructure, and therefore what we read, hear, and see.
That’s why MAIN and our media reform allies exist. We pull back the curtain, à la the Wizard of Oz, on what’s really happening in the corridors of power. Please make a generous year-end donation to continue this all-important work.
The stakes have never been higher. Here’s why:
* On Nov. 7, 2012, AT&T announced a $14 billion “upgrade” to move its entire wireline network to the Internet. The same day, AT&T notified the FCC of its intent to abandon its wired networks in rural and low-wealth communities.
If this were a newspaper headline, it would read: “AT&T to Rural America: Drop Dead.” Industry analysts expect other major carriers to follow suit.
* On July 2, 2012, Verizon filed a lawsuit to block the FCC’s Open Internet rules with the breathtaking claim that, like a newspaper publisher, Verizon owns the content that travels over its network.
Verizon’s suit claims that Open Internet rules ensuring user-privacy and non-discrimination violate its First and Fifth Amendment rights (free press and private property).
The handwriting on the wall is clear. The cable and phone cartel is making radical moves via corporate-friendly courts and legislatures to complete their capture of the Internet.
They may have over-played their hand.
MAIN and our national allies believe this is the opening we need to focus attention on building a “third pipe” alternative to the cable-telco cartel. This “third pipe” is largely based on the “community network” model MAIN has pioneered since 1996.
That’s why we need your support now more than ever.
This is our moment. President Obama pledged that he would “take a backseat to no one” in preserving an Open Internet. With your help, we will make sure he keeps that pledge.
Is there any more important work than ensuring a more open and democratic media?
All the issues and challenges you care about begin – or end – with media access.
Please support this work with a generous, tax-deductible donation. You can make a secure online donation, or you can mail your donation to: MAIN, 34 Wall Street, Suite 407, Asheville, N.C. 28801.
Pat Battle Wally Bowen
Board President Executive Director
PS – On Nov. 30, 2012, the FCC approved the long-awaited low-power FM radio rules, clearing the way for MAIN-FM to resume broadcasting with a much stronger signal! Stay tuned for details.
Every Thursday at 8pm until 11:00pm
Playin’ Today’s NEO-Soul and Yesterday’s Rhythm & Groove!
click on the link for the Groove Nation Group Page
By Wally Bowen, Asheville Citizen-Times – Sunday, May 20, 2012
Once upon a time, Internet enthusiasts made the following comparison: the Internet is to 21st-century economies what navigable waterways and roads were to 19th and 20th-century economies.
But what if our rivers and highways were controlled by a private cartel which set tolls and dictated the make and model of our boats and vehicles? It’s unthinkable, of course. Yet over the last decade, a cartel of cable and phone companies has gained this kind of control over more than 95 percent of Internet access in the US.
In response, many communities have built municipal broadband networks. The cartel, in turn, has persuaded legislatures in 19 states, including North Carolina, to pass laws prohibiting municipal networks.
Scholars call this the “enclosure” of the Internet, similar to the enclosure of rural commons by private owners in 18th and 19th-century England. This trend includes smart phones and tablets which are locked down and controlled by licensing agreements. By contrast, the personal computer is open to innovation. You can take it apart, experiment, and create new functionality. You can also download your choice of software, including free open-source programs.
The full impact of this corporate enclosure of the Internet is still to come, but evidence of it is growing. Consider e-books. When you purchase a real book, you enjoy “first sale” ownership. You can resell it or use it as a doorstop. You can do anything with it, except reproduce it. But when you purchase an e-book, your options are limited by a license that can be changed any time by the vendor without your consent.
With an enclosed Internet, we become renters rather than owners. Our freedom to experiment and innovate, while not totally lost, is governed by gatekeepers and licensing regimes.
But there is a way around the Internet gatekeepers: “open wireless” networks using unlicensed spectrum.
Most spectrum used for smartphones is licensed to, and controlled by, the telecom cartel. By contrast, the free Wi-Fi we enjoy in coffeehouses is unlicensed and free for anyone to use and experiment with. But this spectrum has a very limited range. In 2008, therefore, the FCC approved the “TV white spaces” (TVWS) for unlicensed use. Often called “Wi-Fi on steroids,” this superior spectrum has a far greater range and capacity than conventional Wi-Fi.
Last December the FCC approved the first TVWS device. This new technology can provide seamless coverage throughout a city like Asheville, thereby creating a viable alternative to the cable/phone company cartel. Here’s a sampling of what’s possible via “open wireless” technology:
* “Buy local” advocates use open-wireless to run mobile payment systems that keep money in the local economy and reduce the burden of credit card fees on local merchants.
* “Green energy” advocates use open wireless to transform the corporate “smart-grid” to a “micro-grid” that empowers local innovators and entrepreneurs to promote conservation and new sources of energy.
* A hospital in Ohio is field-testing a TVWS network for its emergency room. When EMS vehicles are in range, patient information and vital signs are automatically transmitted ahead to the ER staff.
These creative and local uses of the Internet were possible because of open-wireless technologies. No one had to ask permission of a network owner or pay rent to a license-holder.
For “Smart Cities” and local self-reliance advocates, open-wireless networks are essential community infrastructure. “Community wireless protects our freedom to innovate and problem-solve in ways that keep money and jobs in the local economy,” says Christopher Mitchell, director of the Telecommunications as Commons Initiative for the Institute for Local Self-Reliance.
Since 2003, the nonprofit Mountain Area Information Network (MAIN) has operated an open-wireless network, but its reach and capacity have been limited. With the imminent arrival of the TV “white spaces” technology, MAIN is launching a $50,000 capital campaign to convert its wireless network to TVWS. This new technology is estimated to have a range of 15-20 miles with speeds of 10-15 megabits per second.
As the telecom cartel tightens its grip on the Internet, MAIN and its partners envision Internet access for Asheville and WNC that protects civil liberties and preserves the freedom to innovate for local inventors and entrepreneurs. To learn more or to get involved, visit: http://www.main.nc.us/TVWS.
Wally Bowen is founder and executive director of MAIN. In 2010, he was diagnosed with ALS. He will be stepping down as executive director later this year, but will continue working on community broadband policy and advocacy.
One of Western North Carolina’s oldest public affairs radio program is moving to MAIN-FM this spring. “Our Southern Community” aired more than 400 shows over the last 10 years on local public radio, according to founder/producer Ned Ryan Doyle.
“Exploring the people and the issues of the environment, energy and economics of the Southern region” is the stated goal of the award-winning public affairs program.
The program is expected to begin airing on MAIN-FM in April. Stay tuned for details on the day and time of this weekly broadcast.