|Mountain Area Information Network|
TIIAP project narrative
The problem Mountain Area Information Network (MAIN) will address
Western North Carolina is one of the most isolated regions of the United States. This 22- county region of 9,081 square miles (roughly the size of Vermont) forms the southern terminus of the Appalachian mountain chain.
Known for its rugged and beautiful mountains (which include the highest peaks east of the Mississippi), Western North Carolina is a coherent geographical and cultural region bound by a common social and political heritage. The population of the 22 counties is 814,036 (1992 U.S. Census Data).
Unfortunately, the mountains' beauty hides a grim reality: generation after generation of isolation and chronic poverty have produced the highest illiteracy and unemployment rates, and the lowest per capita income and overall standard of living, in all of North Carolina.
The difficulty in building transportation and communication infrastructure lies at the heart of this isolation and chronic poverty. Not until the 1880s did the railroad link WNC to the outside world. Not until 1968 did the Interstate Highway provide an east-west route through the region.
Until the mid-1970s, Interstate 26 from South Carolina stopped at the North Carolina border. The northern I-26 corridor into Tennessee will not be completed until the end of the century.
This pattern continues with the Information Highway. Only 2 of the region's 22 counties have local dial-up Internet access via a commercial provider. Even more disturbing is that the acclaimed North Carolina Information Highway has virtually by-passed the region.
Mountain Area Information Network (MAIN) is designed to confront and help overcome this isolation by leveraging existing resources to bring the National Information Infrastructure to the region.
In doing so, MAIN will serve as a demonstration model for cross-jurisdictional collaboration and cost-sharing. It will also demonstrate the use of the NII for creating cross-generational and cross-cultural "bridges" and for stimulating microenterprise economic development.
By-passing the Mountains: The Sunbelt Economic Boom
The much-publicized Sunbelt economic boom has largely by-passed WNC's native mountain families. While other similarly impoverished regions of the South have prospered with Sunbelt growth, our mountainous terrain continues to be a barrier to sustainable economic development.
The exclusion of WNC from these economic benefits is also tied to the region's historic isolation from North Carolina's "power centers" of commerce, capital, government, and health/education/cultural resources. This reality is often glossed over in the celebration of the Sunbelt boom.
For example, on March 27, 1995, the Christian Science Monitor reported unemployment rates below 3 percent for the cities of Charlotte and Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill. Completely ignored was the fact that this sparkling employment picture rapidly fades as the N.C. Piedmont gives way to the WNC mountains, where the region's eight most depressed counties struggle with an unemployment rate double the state average of 5.8 percent.
One vivid example of this isolation is Cherokee County, the region's westernmost county. Its county seat, Murphy, is closer to six state capitals (Atlanta, Ga. Nashville, Columbia, S.C., Frankfurt, Ky., Montgomery, Al., Charleston, W.Va.) than it is to Raleigh, the capital of North Carolina, some 308 miles distant.
Isolation from the state's "power centers" is aggravated by an "interior isolation" among the communities of WNC. For example -- due to the rugged terrain and size of the region -- it takes five hours to drive from Alleghany County in the northeast corner of Western North Carolina to Cherokee County in the far west.
Here's further testimony to the effects of this isolation. On March 10, 1995, Jackson County principal Ann Melton wrote the following to the MAIN board of directors:
By-passing the Mountains: The N.C. Information Highway
The deployment of the much-publicized North Carolina Information Highway is disturbing confirmation of the plight of Western North Carolina. This new technology could greatly benefit the region, but our meager and widely dispersed economic resources have prevented most WNC communities from qualifying for the program.
Only 6 of the 123 N.C. Information Highway sites under development, or in operation, are located in Western North Carolina. Of the 51 public school sites statewide, none is in WNC. The reason? Few WNC communities could raise the matching funds and pledge the ongoing operational costs required by this full-motion video (ATM) state initiative.
That's why TIIAP -- with its emphasis on scalability, interoperability, and reliance on existing resources -- fits so neatly the needs and pocketbooks of WNC communities.
The Quilting Bee: A Mountain Tradition
During the 18 months we have been planning the Mountain Area Information Network (MAIN), some of our volunteers have remarked on how our effort resembles the Appalachian mountain tradition of the "quilting bee."
In today's language, the quilting bee can be described as a "cooperative development model" in which individual participants bring scarce resources to the table to create a "value-added" community asset. This is the modus operandi for MAIN.
MAIN's two-year "demonstration" phase will create partnerships between key WNC institutions (mainly community colleges and public libraries) to create a string of UNIX-based "hubs" from Watauga County in the northeast to Cherokee County in the far west.
Using appropriate and affordable technology, this MAIN "backbone" will leverage existing resources to create a "first-phase" public infrastructure that can organically grow to include other WNC communities.
Most significantly, this first-phase TIIAP project would reach WNC's seven most remote and depressed counties (Cherokee, Graham, Clay, Swain, Madison, McDowell, Mitchell). Graham County, for example, struggles with the state's highest unemployment (25.7 percent) and lowest per capita income ($8,877).
Adding insult to injury, Graham County residents must call long-distance to communicate with their local community college, Tri-County CC. If awarded a TIIAP grant, MAIN's highest priority will be the linking of Graham County's high school and public library with a high-speed connection to Tri- County Community College.
Graham County's dilemma is just one vivid example of how WNC's mountainous terrain has historically inhibited community-building collaboration and problem-solving. Another example of this barrier to collaboration and cooperation is the fact that the 22-county region is served by 8 different local-exchange phone companies.
MAIN's intra-regional network design will help overcome these barriers to communication and collaboration.
How MAIN Works
MAIN is predicated on county (or tri-county) partnerships between a local community college and local public library. Each of these partnerships comprises a "hub site." There are seven such sites covering 14 of WNC's 22 counties in MAIN's two-year demonstration phase.
This partnership model creates a cost-effective and appropriate division of labor: the college houses the hardware; the library serves end-users.
The network hardware housed at the community college site will include a high-speed computer for data storage and network management, a Pentium-level communications processor, and a bank of "industrial strength" modems to ensure scalability (see budget narrative).
Meanwhile, the local dial-up phone numbers for each WNC county will be listed with the local public library, which will be responsible for registering MAIN users just as they now register and issue library cards. We will use computer-savvy retirees as library volunteers to assist library staff with public-access terminals. (WNC is a haven for well-educated, civic-minded retirees -- see appendix).
This approach concentrates technical support and maintenance at community colleges, where technical support staff exists to "feed and water" the MAIN hardware. This cooperative approach removes the burden of sophisticated network maintenance from our typically small, rural public libraries, thereby freeing their staff to do what they do best -- helping people access information.
In return for providing in-kind match and technical support for public libraries, the community college/hub sites will receive TIIAP funding to upgrade critical aspects of their campus networks that strengthen their ability to reach out and partner with the off-campus community.
With this "distributed processing" approach, MAIN will grow over time in a manner similar to the Internet. This decentralized, modular design -- linking community-based systems -- will allow MAIN to grow from a limited demonstration model to a larger comprehensive system, without creating a centralized bureaucracy removed from local stakeholders.
Most importantly, by leveraging and linking local resources to create a larger network, MAIN encourages county-by-county "ownership" in the network, thereby strengthening the overall integrity of the system and laying the groundwork for future collaboration, cost-sharing, and sustainability.
MAIN's Technical Design
Over the last 18 months, MAIN's technical design team explored both frame relay and switched multimegabit data service (SMDS) as possible design solutions for our regional network. Uncertainty over near-term pricing and the affordability of eventual upgrade to ATM strongly influenced MAIN's decision to focus our near-term prospects on the decentralized "distributed processing" approach, which relies on existing resources and available technologies (at this writing, SMDS is still not available in WNC).
This approach, as noted earlier, keeps our options open and our operating costs at a manageable level in the critical early years of deployment. It also maximizes "local stakeholding" at the county level, thereby maintaining commitment to a regional telecommunications infrastructure.
Meanwhile, by partnering with Land of Sky Regional Council and community colleges, MAIN qualifies for state contract purchasing of hardware and connectivity (see budget narrative). We plan to connect our seven hub sites with a 56Kbps backbone network (upgradable to T1 via state contract).
If the TIIAP grant is awarded, MAIN will immediately begin a "technical assessment phase" to review the hardware and connectivity choices we have made at this point. Given the rapid rate of change in telecommunications markets and technologies, it would be imprudent to do otherwise.
MAIN is also committed to a "minimum service standard" based on the evolution of WEB technology. This includes, but is not limited to, full TCP/IP interoperability, high-level scripting language for menu/interface development, GUI/text interface options, seamless e-mail with WEB and newsgroup browser, and client security/encryption for e-mail and client forms, especially for social service use.
A Bridge Between Generations and Cultures
The demographics of WNC present a unique opportunity for MAIN to pursue the "practical application of information infrastructure . . . in ways that can serve as national models." In WNC, we see the NII serving as a technology "bridge" between generations and between social classes.
WNC is one of the top five retirement destinations for affluent, well-educated Americans. Simultaneously, the mountain region is experiencing a debilitating loss of young people who must leave to find a decent job as adults.
Indeed, 19,925 residents of WNC ages 55-74 told the U.S Census that they had migrated to one of WNC's 22 counties since 1985. By contrast, 39,300 people ages 20-29 reported they had left the region since 1985 (see appendix for table).
Aggravating this intergenerational disparity is the fact that only a handful of counties (Buncombe, Henderson, Polk, Transylvania, Macon) have benefitted significantly from this in-migration of affluent retirees. Moreover, this influx of affluent retirees intensifies the awareness among native mountain folk that the economic benefits of Sunbelt growth have largely passed them by.
MAIN is committed to working with the Asheville-based North Carolina Center for Creative Retirement to explore how the NII can harness these human resources to produce cross-generational and cross-cultural benefits for the entire region.
Because appearance, age and accent are largely irrelevant in on-line experience, MAIN can be a powerful "bridge technology" to help overcome the economic and cultural gulf separating affluent in-migrants from native mountaineers.
MAIN is well-positioned to bridge this gulf because its key partners -- community colleges -- attract a large number of first-generation college students from native mountain families.
In addition, as the "baby boom" generation nears retirement age, MAIN's experience with inter-generational applications of the NII should prove extremeful beneficial to other communities across the nation.
MAIN will coordinate the resources of job placement offices at WNC colleges and universities to establish and promote an on-line "Career Center" for WNC employers and job-seekers. We will also use retiree volunteers -- especially members of SCORE -- to serve as on-line career mentors to the Matt Tibbits of WNC.
However, if WNC is by-passed by the Information Highway, Matt -- like thousands of other WNC youth over the years -- will continue to migrate to places like Charlotte, Greensboro, Raleigh or Atlanta.
The MAIN Attractions: Getting Regular Folk On-line
"If you build it, they will come" may work for computer-literate residents, but MAIN will create special applications to attract WNC residents not predisposed to using a computer. MAIN will create strategic applications to attract those users with the most to gain from a community network.
As with the MAIN's "cooperative development" infrastructure model, the follow strategic applications build on existing programs and resources:
Evaluation and Dissemination
The most important benchmark for measuring the success of MAIN is the network's ability to reach "information poor" residents of Western North Carolina. MAIN will keep detailed county-by- county records of log-ins as well as visits to public-access sites. This on-going tracking will be essential in providing MAIN administrative staff, board of directors, and county advisory committees a baseline evaluation of the success of network deployment.
By one important measure, the deployment of MAIN itself will mark its success because 13 of the 14 counties in MAIN's phase one have per capita incomes significantly lower than the North Carolina state average, and seven of the 14 counties are among the most depressed in the entire state.
Because 26 of our public access sites will be located at remote Community Clubs (see appendix for descriptions), we can virtually guarantee that our goal of reaching "information poor" residents will be met. We will also work closely with staff from the N.C. Cooperative Extension Service and the WNC Community Development Program (which provide assistance to the Community Clubs) to develop feedback mechanisms and to collect case studies about the usage of MAIN in these historically isolated communities.
One of the most important parts of our evaluation strategy will be the collection of case studies for the following strategic applications: the MAIN On-line Mentoring Project, the WNC Micro-climate Weather Map, the WNC Virtual Farmer's Market, and the Mountain Microenterprise Project. These case studies will be used to demonstrate to other WNC counties -- and to other communities nationwide -- what works and what doesn't work.
In addition, we will build into the process of network deployment a "feedback" mechanism using "MAIN-L", a dedicated listserve established last Febuary by our partners at Appalachian State University. This on-line forum will be used to establish an ongoing advisory committee of local residents who will monitor MAIN's progress, serve as local sounding boards, and represent MAIN in their communities.
Finally, MAIN will implement a national media strategy to disseminate results of the demonstration phase. The strategy will be developed by Wally Bowen, president of MAIN, who specialized in national media relations as director of UNC-Asheville News Bureau, 1983-1991.
A Final Note
Five of the first Community Clubs to receive MAIN public access terminals and connectivity will be Beech Mountain, Unaka, Snowbird, and Nantahala Gorge. Following are some observations on these communities from Marilyn Cole, the N.C. Cooperative Extension Service agent responsible for coordinating the WNC Community Club program, the only one of its kind in the state.