The following post originally appeared on the APNIC blog.
The Internet can enhance social inclusion and participation and can contribute to economic development. Therefore, it should be a commodity for every citizen, but, as RFC3271 says, ‘it will only be such if we make it so.’
Internet infrastructure and services do not even reach 50% of the global population. The three main issues affecting Internet growth are: not everyone wants or needs it, not everyone has access to it, and not everyone can provide it.
I respect people’s choices with the first issue since the Internet is not a natural thing that we need to sustain or protect ourselves. However, for many, they don’t want or need the Internet because there is a lack of locally relevant content and services or training on how to use it. Metaphorically speaking: Shall I eat the same fast food made far away when I like my local tasty food not offered here?
Without content and services adapted to my local taste and language, it may not be attractive or digestible. At the same time, local access and education are necessary primers to produce such relevant and meaningful content.
The second and third issues are connected. Access requires investment in networking and service infrastructure. The only way for most people to access the Internet is to wait for a telecom provider to set up the infrastructure and provide a payable service, hopefully at a reasonable price.
For those who cannot afford their own Internet connection, they might rely on public, cooperative, or business initiatives to provide connectivity with local resources (self-provision), but they are not without their challenges.
Compared to food sovereignty, feeding the world requires that people can produce and cook food for themselves since large supermarket or restaurant chains cannot feed everyone in the world. They are not in that business. But, if food is heavily regulated, with high Quality of Service requirements, or in a very deregulated market, then local initiatives cannot start or survive to be competitive or complementary to other models of provision.
Access to connectivity, in sustainable terms, is typically limited to people and regions already involved in the ‘economic market’. In these markets, commercial telecoms and ISPs can operate for-profit services effectively. As population density decreases, the distance to major cities increases or the economic capacity of customers decreases, the margin from commercial exploitation decreases to become negative. The less profitable are left with either nothing, partial coverage of the most profitable areas only, no alternative choices, or an expensive service. Unfortunately, this is the reality for the majority of the world’s population.
Therefore, diversity of models to invest, build infrastructure and operate services, and their coexistence seem a better choice than betting on a single model for everyone.
Developing a self-sustainable Internet
Diversity and the choices that it brings is a good ingredient for sustainability. In most cases, the cooperation of all local public and private interested stakeholders is the only way to combine the necessary resources to bootstrap affordable local connectivity.
Cooperative models can be a viable way to develop infrastructure particularly when such infrastructure cannot be developed efficiently by a single public or private participant, or duplicated and left to competition. However, cooperation requires coordination, which, when not done properly, may lead to failure.
These are examples of ‘commons’: resources managed for individual and collective benefit, managed as common property, also known as a common-pool resource (CPR). This is a traditional and recognized governance model for shared resource systems such as irrigation systems or fishing grounds.
According to Ostrom, a CPR consists of a core resource that provides a limited quantity of extractable fringe units. In our case, the core resource is the network infrastructure, which is nurtured by the network segments that participants deploy to reach the core network or to improve it. The fringe unit is the connectivity that participants obtain.
A crowdsourced and crowdfunded network infrastructure commons (such as guifi.net) can contribute to accelerate local development and support many private and public initiatives, for profit or not, and enable beneficial impacts with economic and social impact.
Infrastructure commons can feed virtuous circles in the local economy: they can provide cheaper and more widespread connectivity, more trained people, and more content and all of which results in more need for access. Widespread connectivity promotes and enhances local economic exchanges, which provides more choices and helps develop the market, even for traditional telecom service providers.
Access is not only consumption (eyeballs) but also production (of connectivity, contents and services). The production side is even more limited in too few hands. Most citizens cannot produce their connectivity, contents and services; neither as volunteers for self-consumption nor in a professional basis, as a source of income, for example, the guifi.net economic system.
Another argument in favour of diversification and promotion of commons-based models for network infrastructure development is diversity in technology and business models. Metaphorically, the centralized and near monopoly business of natural ice distribution in the 19th century melted (pardon the pun) in the 20th century due to the decentralized mesh of electric fridges in every factory, warehouse or home. That had a revolutionary effect, not only in food quality and diversity but also in the decentralization of flows — a more bottom-up society.
Equivalent transformations are coming to the Internet and digital communications. One great case is wireless access networks: while mobile operators are engaged in the 5G initiative, we see next generation WiFi technology also offering faster and cheaper devices. Who will win? Mobile operators or WiFi device vendors? Probably both will coexist and complement each other. Just remember the competition of Asynchronous Transfer Mode in DSL subscriber lines versus Ethernet in homes and data centres.
How to enable the Internet for everyone?
The potential for universal participation requires breaking the barriers that prevent normal citizens from producing and offering their own connectivity, content, and services. Otherwise, these citizens will be marginalized to be mere consumers.
We are starting to see citizens that can build their own access networks with symmetric connectivity and can connect to other commercial players of the Internet at wholesale (such as Rhizomatica in GSM, B4RN in fibre, or Zenzeleni in wireless mesh), instead of at a retail level.
Universal connectivity, content and services require researchstandards, products, business models, legislation, and regulation that support decentralization and disintermediation of the Internet and other networks.
As a result, citizens will be able to ‘cultivate’ their own connectivity, as well as cook, offer, trade, and enjoy their own service and content, instead of just waiting and starving for it.
Leandro Navarro is an associate professor at the Universitat Politecnica de Catalunya, and member of the executive board of APC.org.
Photo: New WiFi and mobile technologies may have a similar transformation on the Internet/communications industry as electric refrigeration had on the ice trade industry in the 20th century. Credit: Biswarup Ganguly