Wally Bowen: He Put Rural on the Map – and on the Internet
Wally Bowen, a familiar and friendly face in national efforts to create better communications policy for rural America, and a leader in demonstrating the use of innovative technology, has died. Bowen’s colleagues reflect on his contribution to policies and programs that help rural America connect.
Editor’s Note: Wally Bowen, a man who sought to connect rural America to the rest of the world via wires, radio waves, fiber optic cable, and any other technology that showed promise, died yesterday. He suffered from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS.
Bowen played a direct role in bringing Western North Carolina online with internet services provided through the Asheville organization he headed for many years, the Mountain Area Information Network. MAIN created innovative internet delivery systems that connected rural communities in the mountainous region.
He used this experience to inform his state and national advocacy work in communications policy. He was a founding member of the Rural Broadband Policy Group of the National Rural Assembly, presented at three convenings of the National Media Conference for Media Reform and carried the cause of connecting rural America to federal agencies and members of Congress.
We asked Wally’s colleagues in media policy reform to respond. Their comments and stories are below. They paint a portrait of a person who was optimistic, compassionate, relentless, and committed to including everyone in the opportunities that come with access to the internet.
Sean McLaughlin, executive director of Access Humboldt (California) and an adjunct fellow with New America – Open Technology Institute.
“Wally Bowen was ally you wanted at your side.”
McLaughlin described a meeting he attended with a Washington, D.C., administrator who managed a grant program McLaughlin and Bowen wanted to apply to.
“So, on a beautiful spring day we met up at one of the public lobbies of the massive Department of Agriculture building complex. We were met by a staffer who escorted us in through an incredible maze of offices and long, wide, sterile hallways The scene was so surreal we joked that it was like the ‘Wizard of Oz’ scene as they approached the first meeting with the Wizard. I guess Wally was in the role of Dorothy and I was the Scarecrow.
“We went into our meeting with the officious and nice manager who explained that only communities that appeared as named places in a Rand McNally atlas were qualified for funding. So she busted out her atlas and Wally looked up his towns – they weren’t on the map! She shrugged and apologized. ‘Sorry, that is one of the necessary criteria for funding,’ she said.
“Wally gave her a lovely description of the towns, the terrain and some of the people who live there who wanted to get internet access to help their families. After Wally’s wonderful story of the little towns in the mountains of North Carolina, she shrugged and apologized. ‘Sorry.’
“Meanwhile, I dug through the atlas and found only a couple of our targeted towns in Humboldt County, California. I thought, at least I can try to get a few places funded.
“By the time I looked up from the atlas, Wally was asking the program officer about the rule and how it might be changed. I think at that point she was so charmed by Wally’s stories that she offered ideas to help. It was as if she told us to bring back the broomstick of the wicked rulemaker!
“Undeterred, we marched out of there. Going forward, Wally organized and enlisted our colleagues with Rural Broadband Policy Group to get that rule changed, which we did.
“Aloha Wally – there’s no place like home!”
Fiona Morgan, journalism program director at Free Press, a national media policy advocacy group based in Washington, D.C.
“I first met Wally while I was a reporter for the alt weekly in Durham, North Carolina, covering broadband access issues, including municipal broadband. He was deeply knowledgeable, generous with his time, and very thoughtful. Talking to him made my reporting considerably better.
“Over time I came to appreciate just how much impact he had across the state. His work with the Mountain Area Information Network touched so many people who are working to build a better North Carolina and a better country — people in the rural economic development community; media makers who work with public access cable TV and low-power FM radio; people who advocate for broadband access for low-income communities and communities of color; and people in the nonprofit world who benefit from the support of forward-thinking, community-minded technologists like Wally. He understood the connections, and he forged and strengthened them. He has been one of the leading lights of our state.”
Harold Feld, senior vice president of Public Knowledge
I met Wally in 2008 at the National Conference on Media Reform in St. Paul, Minnesota. At the time, we were pushing very hard to open up the TV broadcast bands for unlicensed use. We were facing terrific opposition from television broadcasters and users of wireless microphones — Broadway, ESPN, and other major corporate media titans.
Wally understood immediately how freeing up the broadcast airwaves for “Super WiFi” would make real, affordable broadband in rural America possible. We talked for an hour, developing a campaign and plan of attack.
Wally and MAIN became the face of the proposed TV white spaces technology. He plainly and eloquently talked about how opening this spectrum could change people’s lives. In 6 months, we persuaded the FCC to authorize the TV white spaces service after more than 6 years of fighting. Over the next several years, Wally remained engaged on making open spectrum real for rural broadband providers, showing the FCC how changes in the rules had direct impact on people’s ability to get affordable broadband services in rural America.
A year ago, Wally received a set of first generation TV white spaces transmitters for MAIN. It gave him incredible joy to actually see and deploy the technology he had worked so hard to bring to rural America.
Rest well my friend. See you on the other side. And if by some chance they don’t yet have broadband in Heaven, I have no doubt you will have it set up by New Year.
Craig Aaron, president and CEO of Free Press.
“Wally Bowen inspired so many of us with his commitment to community and deep understanding of the transformative power of media and technology. He wasn’t just a dreamer; he was a doer, who built networks, put radio stations on the air, and brought people together. I was lucky enough to visit Asheville and see how much he had helped to build there. We went there for an FCC media ownership hearing. … Wally’s example of what one person can do in a local community has always stayed with me. He was an ally to Free Press in countless fights, and we offer our condolences to his family, friends and the many people whose lives he touched.”
Dee Davis, publisher of the Daily Yonder and president of the Center for Rural Strategies
“Wally cared about good technology and making sure regular people could get it. He loved the details. Once he got on stage he could share those details for 30, 45 minutes without taking a deep breath.
“I remember one speech where he kept going on about transmission speed rates to a crowd by then long lost to their own daydreams. Suddenly he stopped, smiled with purposeful excitement, and said, ‘Now, here’s the kicker.’
“Whatever he said next is lost memory, but now every time I hear anybody make a speech, I wait for a pause so I can insert Wally’s words, ‘here’s the kicker.'”
Christopher Mitchell, director of community broadband networks for the Institute for Local Self Reliance, speaking before the Border to Border Broadband conference in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on November 19, 2015..
“Wally was a national champion for internet access for rural regions. He built one of the early wireless networks connecting people in the Appalachia Mountains to the only internet access they had for many years. He was an inspiration to many of us, and a provocateur for many of us, as well. He will be deeply missed. His work has forever influenced the trajectory of rural internet access.”
Joe Belden, Housing Assistance Council & National Rural Assembly Steering Committee
Rick Cohen was a brilliant, strong, and unique voice for social justice and for the nonprofit world. His expertise on rural philanthropy was clearly unmatched and very much needed. He had worked in many nonprofit areas and had deep knowledge of his wide ranging topics. To say that Rick will be sorely missed is a vast understatement.