Editor's note: MAIN is one of 11 projects featured in a new report entitled "Community Connections: Preserving Local Values in the
Information Age." The report is published by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), an agency of the
U.S. Department of Commerce. Click here to access the full report online.
Mountain Area Information Network:
A Town Square in Cyberspace
Communities need public space places where people can come together, where everybody can speak his or her mind, and where individuals and groups can learn about each other, celebrate what they have in common, and find ways of working together. But in today's sprawling, complex society, where can one find such public space?
Aside from shopping malls, which exist solely for commercial purposes, there often seems to be a dearth of such places. "You cannot pass out leaflets in a shopping mall, or stand up and give a speech," notes Wally Bowen, executive director of the Mountain Area Information Network (MAIN), an online network serving twelve rural counties in western North Carolina. "You could go to the town square to do that, but nobody would be there to listen."
According to Bowen, community networks like MAIN are filling the void. Established in 1995 with support from TOP, MAIN has grown to embody its far-flung community. It provides basic Internet access to more than 3,000 subscribers, most of whom otherwise would not have local dial-up access. It also hosts websites for 250 community-based non-profit organizations, carries news from local newspapers, publishes a community calendar, facilitates civic participation, and hosts forums where citizens can discuss issues ranging from gardening to current events. And while it seeks to transcend commercial interests, it is helping to promote small businesses many of which could not afford to rent space in a typical shopping mall by hosting a thriving e-commerce project known as the Blue Ridge Web Market.
With such activities, Bowen says, community networks are giving people a chance to "reclaim public spaces we once enjoyed when we lived our lives more in public squares and town halls, before we started living the more privatized, commercialized existence we have today."
Yet even though community networks can point to many successes, their survival is far from assured. Many are struggling simply to make ends meet. And it is far from clear whether they will be able to hold on in today's rapidly-changing online environment, where even well-capitalized commercial ventures are not assured survival. That makes it all the more important to consider what impact institutions like MAIN are having, and to ask what communities especially those in rural areas would be like without them.
Gauging the Impact
MAIN asserts in the final report on its TOP grant that it has changed many lives. Non-profit organizations, in particular, say that the websites they established with MAIN's help have enabled them to raise funds and attract volunteers. Thanks to its web presence, for instance, the Old Buncombe County Genealogical Society was able to recruit and work with a former county resident who had moved to Seattle; the volunteer became one of the society's top researchers, using email to exchange information with the North Carolina organization. Similarly, the Buncombe County Friends for Animals says Internet access has greatly facilitated its operations. "Our online access through MAIN has been a godsend in the capability that is provided to communicate with fellow board members," reports Gordon Becker, a board member. "The board is composed of volunteers, mostly with full-time jobs, and this capability allows us to communicate with each other regarding committee assignments, meetings and BCFFA related activities without having to play phone tag."
Given its limited resources, MAIN had to show some ingenuity to help so many non-profit organizations go online. It accomplished the job by giving preference in training workshops on website design to people who were willing to help local non-profits build and maintain their own sites. Besides helping the non-profits, the arrangement has paid off for a number of volunteers, who have capitalized on the training by establishing their own web-design businesses.
Meanwhile, although the final returns are not yet in, MAIN's Blue Ridge Web Market has given small businesses a new outlet for their projects. One craft shop received a $24,000 commission in 1999 after a museum in Charlotte, North Carolina, saw its products on the web, according to Bowen. And an herbal soap-maker told the online publication, Civic.com, that the web market now accounts for about ten percent of his business.
MAIN's online discussion forums, meanwhile, have met with mixed success. "We have been disappointed by how little participation these forums have attracted," Bowen concedes. While there have been some exceptions, many forums have languished because they haven't been adequately promoted, he believes. Some forums have attracted a high volume of postings, but in some cases they have encountered a different kind of problem: some have drawn a substantial number of "anonymous rumors and innuendo that occasionally bordered on slander and libel," according to the project's final report. MAIN, which remains committed to making the forums work, has addressed that issue by obtaining web-forum software that requires participants to register for forums. That will allow it to ban anybody who repeatedly posts offensive comments. The software also provides for some self-governance, allowing participants to rate the quality of individual postings on a scale of 1 ("skip it") to 10 ("must read").
While some online forums have had difficulties, the network has established itself as a potentially potent tool for community organizing. One group used MAIN to urge community residents to press for changes in a proposed cable-television franchise agreement in Asheville, North Carolina, for instance. Learning with just two days' notice that the city council was about to approve the accord, citizens organized an email campaign and constructed a web page showing how other communities had negotiated more favorable contracts with the same company. Public pressure led the council to pull back from the proposed agreement. Eight months later, it approved a revised version that will run for twelve years, instead of 17, and provided $340,000 for citizens to obtain equipment to produce and air programming on local topics and issues.
A Struggle to Survive
Such success stories are hardly news to those who have followed community networks. But financial uncertainties continue to cloud their prospects. "Community network projects like MAIN cannot survive by lurching from grant to grant, or by relying on government support," Bowen notes in the project's final report to TOP. "Like government support for the arts, government support for community networking is too easily viewed as a `luxury we cannot afford' if budgets get tight. Nor can projects like MAIN rely on the kindness and largess of the private sector for long-term sustainability, given the fact that private ownership and priorities will inevitably change over time."
MAIN has sought to ensure its financial survival by becoming a non-profit Internet Service Provider a "rural Internet cooperative" in the model of the cooperatives that brought electric and telephone service to rural areas in the 1920s and 1930s. The network has amassed more than 3,000 subscribers, who each to pay $150 a year for Internet access. In turn, by aggregating their demand, MAIN has been able to connect some of the most remote and infrastructure-poor parts of the state.
The network's success did not come without a struggle. As in other places where non-profit Internet Service Providers have been established, commercial ISPs initially felt that MAIN represented potentially unfair competition. However, such complaints have diminished over time, according to Bowen. He cites several reasons. First, he says, MAIN helps commercial providers by "growing a market" for Internet access, especially among people who otherwise could not afford it but who later might "graduate" to a commercial provider. What's more, MAIN refers a substantial amount of website construction business to private businesses, and thus takes pressure off commercial ISPs who are "bombarded" with requests from local non-profits for free websites or discount dial-up access, Bowen says.
Although MAIN's principle objective is to offer its community a rich supply of local news and information, Bowen argues that it could not achieve that goal if it hadn't also become an access provider. Besides securing a solid source of revenue, serving as an Internet portal has enabled MAIN to attract a substantial audience for its website.
"Simply focusing on building a top-flight local-information website, without guaranteeing local traffic, would be like building a beautiful public park off the beaten track, while all the main thoroughfares and bus routes go to the local shopping mall and amusement park," Bowen says. "Some folks may make the extra effort to seek out the public park, but most folks will be drawn to the more accessible and familiar shopping mall/amusement park."
Can MAIN Be Replicated?
Although Bowen believes non-profit Internet cooperatives could succeed in urban as well as rural areas, it remains to be seen whether this model can ensure a place for community networks. Non-profit Internet Service Providers surely would face more opposition in urban areas, where there are more commercial ISPs. Moreover, it is unclear whether providing Internet access by itself will prove to be a viable revenue-producing activity in the long run; some analysts believe that the value of delivering an audience to advertisers and customers to e-commerce companies will become so great that companies will offer consumers Internet access for free just to get as many people online as possible.
Already, profit margins for Internet Service Providers are being squeezed, according to Bowen. "The dial-up, consumer ISP business can only be profitable, as a core business, in very large-scale enterprises," Bowen says. "Smaller ISPs, on the other hand, derive their profitability from a variety of web-hosting, web-design, network administration and high-speed, dedicated access offerings. The dial-up access business is so labor intensive, given the high level of tech support and 'hand-holding' required, that smaller ISPs cannot depend on it as their core business."
Bowen believes these underlying economic forces explain a merger trend among ISPs. (Internet of Asheville, the largest local ISP in western North Carolina, was sold to a larger ISP firm based in Florida, for instance.) But the trend, in turn, points to a serious social challenge for communities: As local Internet companies are bought out by national ventures supported by national advertising, what will happen to local voices and local content?
"The Internet is an ideal tool for helping to create and sustain civic participation and the collective `community memory,'" Bowen notes. But, he adds, "It's hard to imagine how local news and information-gathering could be profitable for the emerging media conglomerates. If this assessment is true, where will local news and information come from? And how will it find an audience?"
To Bowen, non-profit networks must fill the gap. "One of MAIN's most lasting achievements may be our efforts to encourage and enable civic participation, and to grow and preserve the local community memory," he concludes.
Whether he is right or wrong, he has posed some important questions that communities will be facing in the future.