In Memoriam: Wally Bowen — Internet Pioneer, Community Activist, and A Hell of God Guy.

Last week, we lost a true leader for rural communities, a true champion of social justice in communications policy, and a personal friend and inspiration.  Wally Bowen, founder of Mountain Area Information Network, died of ALS (aka “Lou Gehrig’s Disease”) on November 17 at the age of 63.

You can read his official obituary here. As always, such things give you the what and the where, but no real sense of what made Wally such an amazing person. I don’t have a lot of personal heroes, but Wally was one. Simply put, he gave the work I do meaning.

It’s almost Thanksgiving, and I am truly thankful for the time we had with Wally on Earth, even if I am sorry that it ended too soon. I elaborate below . . .

I met Wally in 2008 at the National Conference on Media Reform in Minneapolis . I didn’t know that, by that time, Wally had already been working a dozen years to bring Internet access to rural Appalachia through the Mountain Area Information Network (MAIN), and was working to help provide the local community with its own Low-Power FM radio station . Wally sought me out because at the time I was deeply involved in the fight to get authorization for unlicensed to operate in the TV white spaces. This was June 2008, and we were struggling to get the First Report and Order out over phenomenal resistance from broadcasters and wireless microphone users.

Wally understood what TV white spaces could do for broadband in his community. As Wally explained to me, the terrain in western North Carolina and South Carolina, where MAIN operates, presented huge challenges for broadband deployment. Mountainous, sparsely populated, and covered with trees, no private company would ever willingly drag fiber or put up cell towers to deliver reliable, high speed broadband. Conventional unlicensed spectrum required lots of work and engineering to deal with the terrain and the tree cover (the frequencies for Wi-Fi, 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz, are stopped by wet leaves). Because the higher frequencies do not travel as far, conventional unlicensed equipment for broadband as a wireless ISP would take many, many repeaters.

MAIN serves some of the poorest communities in the United States, scattered across thinly populated stretches of Appalachia. It relies primarily on volunteers and donations. MAIN started by providing dial up, because phone lines are everywhere. But as dial up became increasingly too slow for useful purposes, Wally knew they needed to find another solution in the most expensive territory (and with the least return on investment) to serve. Any rational person would have thrown up his hands and walked away.

But Wally would not give up on providing broadband access to his community, and to rural America generally, or to anyone on the wrong side of the digital divide. We talked for 45 minutes at NHMC and came away with a plan.

Wally became one of the faces of TV white spaces, translating how an arcane change in rules at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) could have real changes in people’s lives. Here’s Wally summing it up in a 2.5 minute video as part of a series called “Free the Airwaves.”

Wally helped rally the rural community across America for us to get the first vote on TV White Spaces in 2008. After the vote, Wally remained active in pushing for rural communities to take control of their own digital destinies. In 2009, he wrote the “Local Network Cookbook,” where he decried wireless networks run by “absentee owners” who did not care about the local communities — especially in poor communities and rural communities. He urged local communities to band together to apply for the broadband stimulus funds so they could build out needed backhaul facilities for their own wireless networks using unlicensed spectrum. Wally helped forge this strategy as a representative on the North Carolina state Rural Internet Access Authority, supporting local middle-mile networks that would support local community networks — whether commercial, non-commercial or municipal.

In 2010, Wally was diagnosed with ALS. But he still continued to push the FCC for improved access to wireless spectrum and increased federal support for rural broadband efforts and local ownership. He continued to fight for local media control and media reform that would provide space for local programmers offering real local perspectives and local news — whether on broadcast through low-power radio or on cable through community access channels. Wally worked with dozens (if not hundreds) of allies throughout the country, always willing to help mentor people or provide whatever support he could. You can hear a great interview with Wally, and get his passion for local media and local broadband ownership, here.

 

 

A Life Well Lived, A Life Rewarded.

 

In 2014, in recognition of Wally’s work, Carlson Wireless donated to MAIN a bunch of first generation TV white spaces devices. It is enormously gratifying to know that Wally got to first fruits of his long labors at the FCC, and to use TV white spaces devices to help connect his community.

 

Just a few weeks before he died, The United Church of Christ honored Wally with the Donald McGannon in recognition for his work connecting low-income rural communities. By that time, Wally could not move any part of his body but his eyes. But he still managed to type out an acceptance speech that was read aloud. You can watch below:

As the Bible tells us: “A dream comes true only with much labor.” — Eccl. 5:2

Wally knew this. He labored much, and was rewarded to see the first fruits of that labor. Wally also understood two other vital principles of the Jewish faith — even if he never actually heard about them. First, from Ethics of the Fathers 2:16. “Rabbi Tarfon taught: the work is not yours to finish, but neither are you free to abandon it.” Wally knew — especially after his diagnosis with ALS in 2010 — that he would never see an end to his work to connect rural America, or even rural Appalachia. But he remained undaunted, never abandoning the work until the very end.

 

But more importantly, Wally also understood Eccl. 4:12 “For if a one man alone would be defeated, two together shall prevail — and a three-fold cord is not easily broken.” Wally knew that none of us can achieve anything significant without friends and without community. He knew we needed our neighbors locally, and our friends globally, to make a difference in the world. Wherever he went, whatever he was doing, whether it was in his passion for sports, his love of his family, or his belief that civic responsibility means giving back to the world and trying to make it a better place for everyone, Wally worked to build bridges and form communities. As a result, even though Wally has gone to his final rest, the work to which he devoted so many years of his life will continue.

 

I Am Thankful For A Personal Friend, and a Personal Hero.

 

From when we first met in 2008, I stayed in touch with Wally. I kept him up to date on what was happening at the FCC. In that time Wally became a good friend and colleague on the advocacy of inclusion and localism. Throughout his illness, Wally remained upbeat and brave. He continued to push himself and stay active with his community for as long as physically possible.

 

But what made Wally a personal hero and inspiration wasn’t merely his personal courage in the face of death, nor his activism on behalf of others. What made Wally a hero to me, and makes me Thankful that I knew him these last 7 years, is that he gave my work meaning.

 

I work in Washington D.C., a city unto itself. In the wonky world of telecom policy, fewer things are more abstract and theoretical than spectrum policy. We argue how many decibels fit on the head of a pin. We debate what sort of filtering and spacing we need to prevent theoretical interference for radio waves no one can see, for devices that may never be built, for services that may never be deployed. And lets face, I and my fellow spectrum geeks find this fun. Intellectually, I know what we do — as arcane as it looks — has huge impact in the world. But a lot of times, it can be hard to see how what we do really matters, especially when the regulatory cycle and equipment development take so many years to complete.

 

Wally was an amazing example of how what I do in Washington can make a difference in people’s lives. He took the abstract theories, rules and regulations I helped advocate for and turned them into digital inclusion for some of the poorest communities in America. He took the LPFM service I worked to see founded and expanded when I was at Media Access Project and proved how important and valuable a local voice on the radio can still be — even in this age of ubiquitous podcasts and online video.

 

 

Perhaps most importantly, in a world where grassroots activists often regard us “inside the Beltway” allies with suspicion and distrust, Wally never doubted for one minute we were all playing on the same team. Running backs don’t distrust defensive blockers, and the offense squad doesn’t think of itself as more “real football” than the defense squad. Wally always knew that the special teams in D.C. were as important to winning the game as running the ball on the ground. He never hesitated to get his hands dirty in Washington at the FCC or with members of Congress anymore than he hesitated to get his hands dirty putting up antennas or managing a network operations center.

 

Wally was always a friend, a true comrade, and a constant reminder of why I do what I do — so I can put tools in the hands of folks like Wally who can translate all the high level policy fights and technobabble into something that genuinely improves people’s lives.

 

So this Thanksgiving, I will raise a glass to my friend and inspiration Wally Bowen. I grieve that our time together was so short, but I am grateful to God for giving me, the people of Asheville, and everyone else Wally touched, the time he had. And even if you never heard of Wally Bowen or MAIN before this blog post, take a minute tomorrow to be Thankful for the Wally Bowens of the world — those who give of themselves with joy to build a better world.

 

I close with this video of one of my favorite songs of farewell, “The Parting Glass.” I particularly love this arrangement by the Celtic Women. It starts mournfully, but builds to a joyous conclusion. When we lose a friend we mourn. But as we mourn, we remember and celebrate the lives of those who have touched us.

 

For absent friends, with us forever in spirit.

 

 

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