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Community networks: Internet for the people, by the people | The Web Untangled

Web Foundation · September 2, 2019

In the latest edition of The Web Untangled, our monthly series dedicated to unpacking issues core to digital access and rights, we look at the do-it-yourself networks built for the people, by the people — and why public access solutions like community networks are a key tool for closing the digital divide.

In the Little Rann of Kutch, a salt marsh in the remote reaches of India, farmers work in extreme conditions to extract a rare type of salt. The sea takes over the mudflat for four months of the year, but for the remaining eight months, 3,500 families — and over 5,000 donkeys — call the region home. 

Now, thanks to a van powered by solar panels, those families have a link to the outside world via broadband internet connectivity.

The atenna atop the specially designed vehicle connects to a tower at the outskirts of the region to provide WiFi access to users wtihin a 100-metre radius.

The project is one of over 30 community networks supported by the Digital Empowerment Foundation (DEF), in partnership with Internet Society.

Community networks deliver access to underserved areas with infrastructure built, managed and used by local communities, oftentimes in areas that are financially unattractive for mainstream internet service providers.

Actually it is not rocket science. It is just an application of existing technology in a very innovative and beautiful way.

Osama Manzar,
DEF Founder and Director

The village that built its own wi-fi network – BBC News Africa

Community Networks Q&A

Why do they matter?

Getting online remains a challenge for billions across the globe, thanks in large part to cost. Community networks can serve as a solution. The Alliance for Affordable Internet (A4AI) hosted a webinar on the topic, featuring experts from DEF and Internet Society.

What are the benefits?

Lower consumer costs. Investment in local economies. Development of local skills. Steve Song, founder of VillageTelco and Mozilla fellow, explores the reasons to support the growth of community networks.

How do they work?

From clients and servers to frequency ranges and more, understand the basics of community networks with this how-to guide, edited by Luca Belli and produced by experts from the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), FGV Direito Rio and Internet Society.

Any success stories?

In partnership with Internet Society, Deutsche Welle profiled three community networks providing connectivity in the Republic of Georgia; South Africa; and Zimbabwe. BBC Radio 4 profiled Broadband for the Rural North (B4RN), connecting rural communities in the United Kingdom. 

What are the barriers?

Lack of income. Lack of local skills. Lack of awareness of the potential benefits. Carlos Rey-Moreno investigates the barriers that prevent the creation of community networks or limit the sustainability of pre-existing ones in this report for Internet Society.

Any lessons learned?

Ownership by the community and support from the government are essential to long-term sustainability of community networks, according to lessons learned from the 43 case studies featured in Global Information Society Watch, co-produced by APC and IDRC.

Can they drive gender equity?

Do women tend to be passive users or more active participants in the operation of community networks? Can community networks help transform gender roles? takes a look.

How do I start one?

US-based Next Century Cities compiled best practices and successful strategies into a toolkit for communities looking to improve connectivity. NYC Mesh also has tips for getting started.

Community networks by the numbers

4.4 million+ — Unique users connected to public access solution Project Isizwe’s 1,500+ free WiFi hotspots in South Africa. The project offers a commercial model which community networks can learn from.

170 — Number of engineers the Digital Empowerment Foundation trained to operate and maintain community network wireless facilities

$40,000 USD — Amount of an Internet Society grant that largely financed the creation of a community network to deliver access high up in the Greater Caucasus Mountains in Georgia (The New York Times)

How governments can support community networks

Community networks should be a key piece of policy frameworks to achieve universal access. A4AI Deputy Director and Policy Lead Eleanor Sarpong explains that governments can support community networks in four crucial ways.

1. Establish an enabling policy environment — Removing regulatory obstacles to building networks is crucial to attract funding and scale up. Governments can reduce permitting bottlenecks and set up fees to speed up deployments. Regulations should be forward looking to encourage innovation.

2. Provide financial support —
Funding is necessary to ensure the sustainability of these networks. Governments, alongside private sector companies, can fill funding gaps. Universal Service Funds are an untapped resource that could support the growth of community networks and help close the digital divide. Governments can also provide access to land and refrain from taxation for a period.

3. Open up the space the networks need to operate — Governments can allocate spectrum — the radio frequencies that allow for wireless communication — to enable community networks to develop. This can be achieved either by specific licenses for these networks or by providing access to unlicensed spectrum.

4. Facilitate partnerships with mobile phone operators — Public access solutions require commitment from a variety of stakeholders. Governments can facilitate or even incentivise partnerships with mobile phone operators to aid in the creation, supply of technology and maintenance of community networks.

Community networks have emerged as an increasingly popular means to providing public access — particularly for rural communities — and are an important strategy for governments to consider as part of a policy framework to achieve universal access.

Alliance for Affordable Internet Affordability Report

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