Community Networks Growing the Internet

The Digital Divide May Be News, But It’s Not New

This opinion piece was originally published in Morning Consult.

Low-income Americans; Black, Hispanic and Native Americans; the elderly; Americans with a high school education or less; and rural Americans are much more likely to be on the wrong side of the digital divide. Ours remains a nation where too many people, often our most vulnerable citizens, are unconnected or under-connected.

The digital divide may have made the news during the COVID-19 pandemic, but it isn’t new.

For much of the past quarter-century, Washington policymakers have ignored the digital divide. In more recent years, some public officials, for political reasons, have identified the digital divide as primarily a rural issue, noting that approximately 5 million rural American households can’t access broadband networks. In reality, the number of rural households that can’t access broadband is dwarfed by the roughly 20 million American households that can’t afford Internet access, and that number almost certainly has increased as a result of the pandemic.

Today, Washington finally seems willing to engage in addressing the digital divide. What we need now are not the patchwork solutions of the past, but a thoughtful, fully funded, comprehensive effort to ensure broadband connectivity for all Americans.

My colleagues and I at the U.S. Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration identified the disparity in access to Internet technology in 1995 in “Falling Through the Net: Haves and Have-nots in Rural and Urban America.” In that report, we noted that several factors impacted access to technology: income, race, education, age, and geography.

The difference today, however, is that broadband access has become critical to living life in our country. It is simply impossible to fully participate in society, particularly during a pandemic, without broadband access.

In 2020, 27 percent of elderly Americans don’t have broadband access. And 40 percent of small businesses in New York City are located in gigabit deserts and don’t have access to copious broadband networks.

As many as 30 percent of K-12 students, according to a report by Common Sense Media, don’t have the tools necessary to engage in remote learning. For many this will mean no continued learning during COVID-19 lockdowns.

And many of the 70 percent of residents on rural tribal lands who remain without access to fixed high-capacity broadband, according to The American Library Association, are unable to continue with their studies or job online.

How can we bridge the digital divide, thoughtfully and effectively?

Map availability and affordability

The Federal Communications Commission, and NTIA, in conjunction with state regulators, must find a way to accurately map broadband availability and affordability. You can’t fix what you don’t understand, and our regulators are flying blind when it comes to the true state of broadband connectivity in America today.

Redefine ‘broadband’

For some years the FCC has defined broadband as 25 megabytes per second down and 3 mps up. That standard was insufficient when it was adopted, and is now laughably outdated.

In a report I wrote for the incoming Obama administration in 2008, I called for a 100 mps national standard by 2010. Today, when video conferencing products such as Zoom are near essential tools for education, commerce, and entertainment, a low-bandwidth, asymmetrical standard is unacceptable.

The FCC must now update and modernize its definition of “broadband.” The starting point for any future broadband standard should be 100/100 mps, with an understanding it may take additional time for rural communities to reach that standard.

Modernize and adequately fund connectivity programs

The FCC’s Lifeline program, established during the Reagan era, provides subsidies to low-income families to enable connectivity to telecommunications devices. The current program’s provision of less than $10 per month for connecting one telecommunications device per household is far from adequate to enable meaningful connectivity.

Congress and the FCC must rethink and re-establish the program for the current broadband era.

Use public spaces to improve accessibility

In addition, there are three key things schools, libraries, and other public facilities could do to help reduce the digital divide and provide more equitable access to the Internet. The first two of which can be done immediately:

  1. Use schools and libraries as community WiFi hot spots. This requires a few things, all of which are possible right away: With relatively minimal funding, schools and libraries could place more outdoor access points on their facilities. This actively broadcasts the school or library’s WiFi signal to the local community so that students and – potentially – other community members can have access to Internet resources. The reach of outdoor, unlicensed WiFi is more limited than the other options below, but it can easily reach most of the block that the building is on.
  2.  Schools and libraries can help provide greater connectivity by providing WiFi hotspots to students, library patrons, and their families. There are a number of good options, not just from the main carriers, but from more education-focused providers like Kajeet, ENA, and Mobile Citizen.
  3. A final, more strategic solution that will take longer to implement but that holds significant promise for permanently resolving or reducing the homework gap: We should consider schools, libraries, and other institutions as anchor locations for true community-focused cellular Internet access.

Using either the Educational Broadband Services spectrum, or the Community Broadband Radio Services spectrum, schools, libraries, and other public facilities could provide secure, low-cost, and high capacity cellular wireless Internet to students (and other community members, potentially) across New York City.

Although the upfront costs of building out cellular data networks is more expensive than installing outdoor WiFi or purchasing hot spot plans, this solution would potentially cover much more of the city (indeed, all of it), and the long term total cost of ownership per student/community member is much, much less than paying ongoing fees for hot spot data plans.

We have a clear path toward full broadband connectivity. We can and should make connecting all Americans a national priority. We don’t have another quarter century to waste.

Image by bantersnaps via Unsplash

Community Networks Growing the Internet

Internet Society and the Association for Progressive Communications Enter into a Memorandum of Understanding

The Internet Society and the Association for Progressive Communications (APC) have entered into a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) to work together on designing and deploying community networks, ensuring local connectivity initiatives achieve long-term sustainability, and other areas of joint interest.

APC is an international network of civil society organizations founded in 1990 dedicated to empowering and supporting people working for peace, human rights, development, and protection of the environment, through the strategic use of information and communication technologies (ICTs).

Both organizations have vast experience in growing the Internet through capacity building, advocating for ICT and infrastructure policies, and engaging local communities. This MoU updates and replaces a previous version. We are excited to further advance the work we’ve been doing together for nearly ten years.

The MoU lays out two key areas of joint interest:

  • Developing an enabling environment for communities and local entrepreneurs to solve their own connectivity challenges through design and deployment of community networks, training and capacity building efforts, and highlighting the benefits of connecting the unconnected.
  • Ensuring that local connectivity initiatives are able to reach long-term sustainability, support development opportunities, and contribute to meeting Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in relation to connectivity.

“There remains a profound connectivity gap in many parts of the world. Better connectivity and information exchange strengthens democratic processes, spurs economic growth, and enables sharing of culture and ideas. We’re thrilled to work with APC to help increase connectivity via community networks — networks developed by local communities, with local communities, for local communities,” said Jane Coffin, Senior Vice President, Internet Grow at the Internet Society.

“APC finds the relationship with the Internet Society to be very positive and collaborative on various aspects, and complementary in nature, having contributed critically to the advancement of the community network movement in recent years,” said a representative from APC.

Learn more about our work on Community Networks, or learn more about APC’s work.

Image from the Digital Empowerment Foundation’s Wireless Training Centre in Guna, India ©Atul Loke

Community Networks Growing the Internet

The 2020 Indigenous Connectivity Summit and Trainings: Register Now

People around the world are relying on the Internet to keep them connected to everyday life, but Indigenous communities in North America are being left behind by companies and governments. Lack of connectivity means many are unable to access even basic information and healthcare. And while COVID-19 has hit Indigenous communities especially hard, lack of access means they can’t use services that connected populations consider critical, such as remote learning and teleworking.

We must address this critical gap.

For years, the Internet Society has worked with those very communities, along with network operators, technologists, civil society, academia, and policymakers – bringing them together to discuss what can be done collectively to narrow the digital divide. We do this through our Indigenous Connectivity Summit (ICS) and the pre-Summit Trainings: Community Networks and Policy and Advocacy.

This year, though we can’t meet in person, we’ll hold a virtual event.

We’re excited to announce that registration is now open for the 2020 Indigenous Connectivity Summit.

The Summit will take place October 5-9, 2020, with training sessions beginning the first week of September. Those who register for the Summit before Friday, September 11th will receive a swag bag and materials for hands-on training prior to the Summit. (Training registration will be open until August 28th.)

The 2020 Indigenous Connectivity Summit
Though we won’t be able to gather together in Winnipeg, Canada, as we had hoped, we are looking forward to gathering virtually to continue these important conversations. The venue is a bit different than we anticipated, but many aspects of the 2020 ICS will be the same.

We’ll still talk about many of the pressing issues Indigenous communities in North America face as they work to access the Internet on their own terms:

  • Sovereignty and creating a virtual nation
  • Access to resources such as infrastructure, spectrum, and backhaul
  • Capacity building
  • The Tribal Priority Window for Educational Broadband Service (EBS) spectrum and what 2.5GHz spectrum can be used for

We’re also working hard to include the features that make the ICS a must-attend event, including networking, team building, and unique experiences. The Indigenous Connectivity Summit has always been and will always be a place to foster human connections.

Pre-Summit Training
Following last year’s success, we are also offering two pre-Summit trainings: Policy and Advocacy and Community Networks. Participants of these trainings will hear from experts in the field about how to build, maintain, and operate community networks. They’ll also be equipped to fight for the policies that impact their community’s ability to deploy connectivity solutions on their own terms.

Each course will last six weeks, consisting of one hour-and-a-half long session per week. Sessions will begin the week of September 1, 2020 and run through the week of the Summit, culminating in a virtual hands-on training and the creation of this year’s policy recommendations, which will guide the community’s advocacy work for the next year.

We hope these courses and the Summit itself will equip participants with the skills and network they need to take advantage of emerging opportunities for connectivity as a result of COVID-19 – and to connect their communities on their own terms.

Please  join us for this year’s Indigenous Connectivity Summit and Trainings – and share the word with your partners and community!

Image of a community networks training program participant in Ulukhaktok, Northwest Territories ©Angela Gzowski

Community Networks

Tribal Priority Window Extended to September 2 – But It’s Still Not Enough Time to Connect Indigenous Communities to a Critical Lifeline

While Indigenous communities across the US battle some of the most brutal COVID-19 mortality rates in the country, they’ve simultaneously raced against the clock to take advantage of a once-in-a-generation opportunity to access and manage their own broadband.

The Tribal Priority Window is an unprecedented opportunity for eligible US Tribes to apply for 2.5GHz spectrum leases ahead of the federal auction. Targeted at the most digitally underserved communities in the US— where only half of housing units have access to broadband— the Window is intended to enable rural Tribes access to Internet service and the development of services to narrow the digital divide. The application process posed significant challenges to Tribes who already struggle with poor connectivity. The digital format, coupled with COVID-19 realities, has hampered their ability to file applications within the deadline.

Due to the insurmountable obstacles posed by the pandemic, Tribes and nearly 100 organizations have called on the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and Congress to extend the Tribal Priority Window by 180 days.

In response, the FCC has granted them just 30 additional days to file their applications. In its order, the FCC says that this extension is due to the unusual challenges presented by the pandemic. However, the pandemic is expected to worsen in the next month, not improve.

This extension only gives the portion of Tribes already engaged in the process some extra time to wrap up applications. It does not provide nearly enough time to boost overall awareness and enrollment. The spread of COVID-19 has not slowed, and Tribes continue to battle high infection and mortality rates. Tribes that have not previously engaged in the Tribal Priority Window will continue to encounter immense barriers to collect all the materials necessary, pass Tribal resolutions, engage their community, and submit applications within the new 30-day window.

As Public Knowledge writes in a recent statement, the FCC’s order cites T-Mobile’s comments that suggest that an extension would be necessary. T-Mobile called for a 90-day extension. Even the Window’s critics recognized that a 30-day extension is not enough time for Tribes to take advantage of the unprecedented opportunity for urgently-needed access to broadband.

So many crucial aspects of Tribal life directly and immediately depend on their communities’ ability to apply for spectrum licenses within the Tribal Priority Window. The initiative will allow Tribes the ability to connect their homes, workplaces, hospitals and schools. Tribal students’ educations and futures currently depend on reliable connectivity, and so does the functionality of life-saving telehealth services. Broadband access and stewardship is a necessity for the future of Tribal life.  Tribal communities are long overdue the opportunity to access what is now an indisputable and vital public resource.

Granting Tribes only 30 days to apply for the Tribal Priority Window will leave Tribes that have not been previously engaged in these conversations struggling to connect, and — in a COVID-19 world — struggling to carry out crucial functions of daily life.

At the Internet Society, we believe that the Internet is for everyone. By working alongside Tribal communities in recent weeks, we have been able to spread the word with our partners to many of the 574 federally-recognized Tribes — over 100 of which have successfully submitted applications. We will continue our commitment to making the Internet available to all by pushing for tribal access and empowering communities with networking solutions to fit their needs.

For more information on the Tribal Priority Window and how to apply, visit our site:

And to get engaged in these important conversations, learn more about how to use your license if granted, and build relationships with other Indigenous advocates and community networkers, join us at the Indigenous Connectivity Summit from October 5 – 9 or join a pre-Summit training. Learn more here:

Image credit: © 2019 Elyse Butler. The photo is from a Community Network training program with Nation of Hawaii as part of 2019 Indigenous Connectivity Summit, leading to the build of Hawaii’s first community network in Pu’uhonua o Waimānalo.

Community Networks Growing the Internet

How Community Networks Are Helping during COVID-19

In July 2020, the Internet Society organized the webinar “How Community Networks are helping during COVID-19.”

We are halfway through this unprecedented year in which COVID-19 continues to cause disruptions and confusion in many areas of our lives. What is clear though, is the recognition of the Internet as a lifeline for us – for communicating with family members and health workers, accessing essential services, and participating in online learning and remote work.

But what about those who don’t have it?

The panel was an opportunity to show that there are solutions out there. To get to them will take strong communities driven by the understanding that everyone can make a difference.

The discussions of July’s webinar got to the heart of this.

The panelists shared stories and videos of the community networks they have helped to build in remote villages where underserved Indigenous tribes live. We heard the story of one Indigenous tribe located in the southern part of West Java in Indonesia, who set up a wireless network for their community. It helped them find jobs and increase their income, as well as access health information, learning resources, and government services.

In India, an Indigenous tribe of 2,000 people in Maharashtra gained access in December 2019 to the mobile network and the Internet through a community network. Gram Marg, an organization focused on empowering rural India digitally, helped build it. In the past, the Indigenous villagers had to walk 12km for banking services. But with connectivity and the appointment and training of a woman “banking correspondent” in the village who can provide banking services through a smartphone, there is a new lifeline for the community. With lockdown imposed by the government and roads closed, the villagers have depended on the banking correspondent for banking and government services. Connectivity has also enabled mothers to talk to doctors and nutritionists, using a toll-free number set up by the Spoken Tutorial Project, can provide advice about nutrition for mothers and children.

Emphasized throughout the webinar was the importance of community empowerment. Community networks are not just about establishing an Internet connection. It is more about the communities and how the Internet can help them fulfill their needs. In both community networks in India and Indonesia, the Indigenous tribes have used the Internet to preserve and share their culture, local knowledge, and agricultural practices.

It was also clear throughout the webinar that COVID-19 has exposed the inequalities in Internet access and affordability. The reality is half the world’s population remains unconnected, and trends are showing a slowdown in the rate at which people are coming online. This is partly because many of the unconnected live in remote, hard-to-reach areas that are not economically viable for traditional solutions.

While community networks offer an essential and complementary solution to connect to the Internet, there continue to be many challenges to building them. The policy and regulatory environment often poses the greatest challenge – things such as high fees and unrealistic requirements for licensing and permits to build a community network.

In Indonesia, with thousands of islands and varying local policies and rules, it is a challenge navigating the policy and regulatory system to legally establish and operate community networks. Currently, a mapping of the regulatory and policy system is being carried out and a series of workshops and training courses are being planned to bring together those engaged in community networks development in Indonesia to look at different business models and practices, and learn from each other about ways to sustain and grow the community networks.

If you missed the event, you can watch the recording on Livestream and Periscope.

For those who are interested in getting involved in setting up or promoting community networks please get in touch.

Image of Community Network Champs at a training center near Guna, India ©Atul Loke/Panos Pictures/Internet Society

Community Networks Growing the Internet

A Narrow Window of Opportunity for Rural Connectivity in the U.S.

As COVID-19 continues to shine a spotlight on the vital role the Internet plays, a short window of opportunity has opened for the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to do their part in connecting rural Indigenous communities in the United States.

The Tribal Priority Window is currently open for federally-recognized tribes, Alaska Native Villages, and Hawaiian Homelands to apply for Educational Broadband Service (EBS) spectrum, but it closes on August 3rd. Access to the EBS spectrum would enable Indigenous communities to build their own Internet networks.

The FCC set this deadline before the pandemic, but Tribal governments are now overwhelmed by handling the Coronavirus with limited resources. The FCC must give them more time to apply to the priority window. COVID-19 will not simply disappear from tribal lands in time for tribal governments to pull together applications.

The need for reliable, affordable Internet access is more pressing than ever.

Need proof? One only has to look at the fact that Indigenous communities in the US face the lowest rate of broadband access and the highest per capita rate of COVID-19 infections. The need for access to accurate information and telehealth is at an all-time high. Tribal communities are at serious risk without the Internet as a lifeline.

If the FCC truly wants to close the digital divide, it must act immediately to extend the Tribal Priority Window. Gaining EBS spectrum is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Tribal communities. The FCC will effectively exacerbate the lack of connectivity if it does not act fast. They’ve already done the work of creating the chance for tribes to get connected, but they will throw away the opportunity if they don’t do more to accommodate Indigenous communities, who have been hardest hit by the pandemic.

The Internet Society is working to provide resources and support to tribes looking to apply for EBS spectrum.

Learn more about the Tribal Priority Window.

Community Networks Growing the Internet

U.S. Tribes Have until August 3rd to Apply to Help Bring Internet to Their Communities

See how the Makah Tribe launched an emergency network on EBS spectrum during COVID-19

The Makah Tribe has lived around Neah Bay at the northwest tip of what is now Washington State since time immemorial. It is a breathtaking landscape of dense rainforest and steep hills, far removed from any major urban center.

But for all its beauty, the hills, forests, and remoteness have made it difficult for the community to access quality high-speed Internet – and even cell and radio service.

In some areas, cell service was so poor that only certain spots worked: one community member had to go outside and stand beside a rhododendron bush to make a call or send a text. While Facebook is the main way people stay connected, many couldn’t access it. The local clinic struggled to use electronic records – it sometimes took upwards of 40 minutes just to get into the system. Even emergency responders, such as police and the fire department, couldn’t rely on the dispatch system that required Internet connectivity to operate.

And then the coronavirus began to sweep the world. The Makah closed the reservation to outsiders to protect the community. And its connectivity challenges became even more problematic. Students couldn’t get online to do schoolwork. Health workers couldn’t provide online consults or counseling. People confined to their homes under physical-distancing protocols couldn’t connect with one another. Like many other communities around the world, the lack of Internet access was an emergency within an emergency.

The Makah Tribe found a solution, almost overnight.

Educational Broadband Service, or EBS, is a band of spectrum (a space to transmit information over radio waves). Long ago, EBS was set aside in the United States for purposes that further the public good, primarily education. It has always been under-utilized and recently the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) announced intentions to drop the educational requirements and auction off the spectrum to the highest bidder.

But before selling it off, the FCC agreed to establish a window during which rural Tribal communities can get licenses to the unassigned EBS spectrum over their territory. This allows some of the most underserved regions to obtain the spectrum required to build their own Internet networks, become Internet Service Providers, lease the spectrum to other ISPs or use it as leverage in negotiations.

EBS is uniquely suited to remote locations, requiring fewer towers and less extensive infrastructure to reach hard-to-connect locations.

The Tribal Priority Window expires on 3 August, 2020, after which remaining spectrum will be sold off, likely to large telecoms.

The Makah Tribe partnered with MuralNet. Within days, the community had gathered the equipment – about $5,000 worth – required to launch its own network over EBS. They applied for a Special Temporary Authorization (STA) from the FCC, which would allow them to begin using the spectrum immediately and could later be expanded to a permanent license. It was granted on 27 May.

By 28 May, Makah had completed testing of the network, proving the network viability and speed that will provide high-speed Internet. It will also give them the ability to offer cell service even in the toughest-to-connect areas of the reservation.

The network is keeping people connected during the COVID-19 crisis – and it will provide long-term, sustainable, community-owned and operated Internet into the future.

Other Tribes across the United States can use EBS spectrum to make the same strides as the Makah. The Tribal Priority Window is closing soon and with it, a rare opportunity.

Want to apply? Find out how!

Community Networks Growing the Internet

Closing the Digital Divide in Nepal

COVID-19 has pushed the world into a digital revolution and closing Nepal’s digital divide has never been more important.

Nepal is a landlocked least developed country, and according to the International Telecommunication Union, less than 20% of its population are online compared to 87% in developed countries.

While connecting some of Nepal’s most remote places isn’t easy, two community network projects are case studies of how it can be done. They are Wireless for Communities (W4C) Nepal and Rural Communities Access to Information Society (RUCCESS), both supported by the Internet Society.

Community networks are networks built, managed and used by local communities. They are often established in rural and remote areas that are not commercially viable for Internet service providers (ISPs). The networks are often built using low-cost WiFi equipment and unlicensed spectrum bands to interconnect members of the community and improve their lives.

W4C Nepal

W4C Nepal was launched in the aftermath of the Gorkha Earthquake in April 2015, in partnership with the Nepal Wireless Networking Project, an initiative of Mahabir Pun, an Internet Hall of Fame recipient and winner of the Ramon Magsaysay Award.

Using wireless networks, all powered by solar panels as the villages are off grid, the initiative connected 12 schools and 3 health clinics in 14 remote villages in the Gorkha, Lamjung, and Sindhupalchok districts. All the villages did not have prior access to broadband connectivity.

To provide Internet connectivity in the villages of Gorkha and Lamjung, point-to-point backhaul links were established between the base station in Gorkha Bazaar and Satipipal using fiber cable, from which the villages were connected using the 5.8GHz unlicensed spectrum band. Similarly in Sindhupalchok, backhaul links were established between Kathmandu and Kotdanda, from which the villages were connected using the 2.4GHz unlicensed spectrum band.

Shared devices were provided to some of the health clinics and schools to aid Internet adoption in the villages. The health clinics were connected to the Kathmandu Model Hospital to provide telemedicine services. In the schools, the computers were installed with Nepalese-language educational content and an e-library of 7,000 books developed by Open Learning Exchange Nepal. Rural Innovation Labs were established in three of the villages to encourage technical and scientific innovation.

Check out two other W4C initiatives in India and Pakistan.


RUCCESS is an initiative of the Beyond the Net Funding Programme, implemented by the Internet Society Nepal Chapter in partnership with the Forum for Digital Equality. The initiative has established three ICT-enabled Community Learning Hubs in rural villages of Dhading, Sindhupalchok, and Dolakha districts that had previously inadequate or no connection to the Internet.

The initiative covered two years of payment to the ISP for broadband Internet connection, and equipped the Community Learning Hubs with ICT equipment such as computers, photocopiers, printers, and scanners, as well as a solar power system for back up. The initiative also provided training to operators of the Community Learning Hubs and to community members on using the equipment, and using the various Internet applications and services such as social media and instant messaging, online payment, and e-government, and e-commerce services.

Sustainability of Community Networks

The sustainability of community networks is a concern, especially when they have been initiated with external support. Mahabir Pun shares that only about 50% of the community networks he has helped established are still in operation today. That is why he only helps to establish a community network when there is commitment from the community to sustain the network. Commitment and community’s ownership of the network is important, but it is not always sufficient to sustain the community network. Mahabir Pun advises that training for the local community in operating and maintaining the network is important for ensuring its sustainability.

Rom Kant Pandey, Acting President of the Internet Society Nepal Chapter and the Project Coordinator of RUCCESS also shares that community network sustainability is a challenge. The RUCCESS project team envisioned that the Community Learning Hubs would be able to generate revenue through the ICT services they offer to cover Internet costs and other operational costs. However, over time, as communities are able to purchase their own devices and mobile data, this has significantly affected the revenue generated by Community Learning Hubs.

The operators of the Community Learning Hubs need to constantly engage with community members to understand their changing needs and demands, keep up-to-date with emerging technologies, and creatively adjust their services accordingly.

You can do it! Learn how to extend the Internet to your community.

Image ©Anup Shrestha via Unsplash

Community Networks Growing the Internet

Internet Society and Alliance for Affordable Internet Partner to Promote Community Networks and Expand Access for All

The Internet Society and the Alliance for Affordable Internet (A4AI), an initiative of the World Wide Web Foundation, have entered into a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) to further their existing partnership to collaborate on promoting community networks to expand meaningful connectivity, and other areas of joint interest.

A4AI is a global coalition working to drive down the cost of Internet access in low- and middle-income countries through policy and regulatory reform. The Internet Society is a member of A4AI, and the two organizations share a vision of an open, globally connected, secure, and trustworthy Internet for everyone.

Both organizations have emphasized the importance of solid research, capacity building, and advocacy to develop the policies needed to reduce the cost to connect and enable everyone, everywhere to access Internet connectivity. A4AI and ISOC believe community networks provide a sustainable solution to address connectivity gaps that exist in underserved urban, remote, and rural areas around the world.

This MoU formalizes a longstanding relationship between the two organizations. In the past, we’ve worked together to collaborate on common policy and regulatory objectives across numerous UN and international fora to promote and advocate for the expansion of public access solutions through community networks, and to work on common goals with respect to innovative uses of Universal Service Funds. We are excited to further advance the work we’ve been doing together.

The MoU lays out a few areas of joint interest including:

  • Supporting communities and local entrepreneurs to solve their own connectivity challenges through design and deployment of community networks, training and capacity building efforts, and knowledge sharing opportunities for solving policy and regulatory challenges.
  • Working through Internet Society Chapters and Special Interest Groups, A4AI National Coalitions, and other communities to mobilize resources and partners in support of the implementation of priority programs and projects.
  • Engaging in joint research efforts to support expansion of Internet access in underserved regions.

“This is a tremendous opportunity to work with A4AI and the Web Foundation to create real change for Internet users and potential users across the world. By combining our efforts, we can promote, create, and grow community networks, increase collaboration between network operators, create change in regulatory and policy environments, and provide opportunities to engage with each other to further common interests,” said Jane Coffin, Senior Vice President, Internet Grow at the Internet Society.

“It is wonderful to strengthen our partnership with ISOC to coordinate our activities and initiatives to support the expansion of community networks and overall affordable access for women and men alike. Collaboration is at the center of successful policy and implementation, and by joining our efforts we will be able to leverage our networks and better support our partners in their journey to expand affordable and meaningful connectivity across low- and middle-income countries,” said Sonia Jorge, Executive Director of A4AI.

Learn more about our work on Community Networks, or learn more about A4AI’s work.

Image from the Kondoa Community Network ©Nyani Quarmyne

Community Networks Growing the Internet

COVID-19 Response Must Include Massive Funding for Fiber-Optic Internet Access

By now, many of us are realizing we’ve been taking access to basic things for granted, such as social interaction, health care, on-site education, and…the Internet. While always valuable, the Internet is now a lifeline offering a fortunate few the ability to adapt and maintain a semblance of reality and connection to our employment, health services, and our family and friends. But those who don’t have access to fast, reliable broadband Internet are experiencing the pain of staying at home. Last year, an analysis by Microsoft indicated that 162.8 million Americans aren’t able to use the Internet at broadband speeds. That’s unacceptable, and while there are steps that communities continue to take to build their own networks, Congress needs to lead by taking steps to ensure that broadband access is available at an affordable price to all Americans.

While some cities and states have begun to relax orders, our return to normal life is still a long way off.

Congress took the first important step with the CARES Act, but it did not go far enough. The HEROES Act and the COVID-19 DISASTER in Indian Country Act are a more serious step toward addressing the connectivity needs of localities, and we applaud these Congressional actions. Now, it is time to move this critical legislation forward, and quickly, so that cities, towns, and tribal communities can begin healing from COVID-19 and building their digital economies in a time when our economic futures are uncertain.

These bills meet several goals for access-related policymaking, but there is still more work to do. Before these, or similar bills, are passed they should consider key provisions that will allow community members to benefit directly from their provisions, not just incumbent providers and major national corporations. To guide policymakers as they revise these and other emergency bills, the Internet Society has partnered with our community to create an updated version of our Indigenous Connectivity Summit Policy Recommendations. These recommendations can be used to ensure that Congressional members pass legislation that will empower and enable communities to get access to the Internet.

For example, in allocating funding for Internet access, Congress must ensure that communities across the country are able to utilize the money to deploy their own networks in under-connected areas using the resources currently available to them. These community networks – networks championed by the Internet Society and our partners, and built by communities to ensure their own connectivity – are a key part of the solution to the lack of ubiquitous broadband. Community networks also benefit consumers and entrepreneurs by providing worldwide connections and opportunities, thus leading toward greater socioeconomic growth.

For community networks to evolve from “emergency deployment” to “the new normal,” they need access to backhaul. Backhaul provides the essential first and middle mile of connectivity and is capable of being upgraded easily to keep up with increased demands over coming years.

As Congress considers the HEROES Act, COVID-19 DISASTER in Indian Country Act, and other related bills, policymakers should think about what can provide a solid return on investment for the country, which should include specific funding through grants and loans for community network fiber backhaul. If new roads are built, Congress should support policy encouraging the simultaneous deployment of fiber conduit along those routes, commonly referred to as Dig Once. In areas that will not see upgrades to their roads and highways, Congress should set aside adequate funds to separately build new, fully open access fiber-optic infrastructure to enhance the connectivity and resilience of those communities’ networks.

When allocating those funds through grants and loans, small, rural, Tribal, and community-owned networks should be prioritized. This will not only allow the funds to quickly enter local economies, but also allow networks to be designed and built to fit the needs of their communities. These smaller and locally-owned networks are better at empowering communities, providing training and skills to residents, and ensuring their financial resources stay within the area as opposed to being outsourced to major corporations with no local presence.

Any emergency legislation should also include additional funds for broadband access in anchor institutions, such as libraries, schools, and hospitals, as well as specific funding for training for community members so they can build and maintain this infrastructure themselves.

It is hard to see any silver lining in the tragedy that is COVID-19. But we will emerge from this, and when we do, I hope that our nation will have become more resilient and connected as a result. To do that, Congress must allocate additional funding for broadband Internet access to a full range of networks. Students, employees, doctors and many other community members know the new opportunities afforded by broadband access. Now, it’s up to Congress to make sure it provides important funding to enable a more connected future for all.

You can find the original Indigenous Connectivity Summit Policy Recommendations here and our updated Policy Recommendations in response to COVID-19 here.

You can do it! Learn how to extend the Internet to your community.

Image by Maddy Baker via Unsplash

Community Networks Growing the Internet

For Tribal Lands Ravaged by COVID-19, Broadband Access Is a Matter of Life and Death

This opinion piece was originally published in Arizona Central.

If anyone doubted the importance of the Internet before the COVID-19 pandemic, those doubts have vanished like toilet paper at Kroger. During this time, the Internet has proved to be a lifeline, delivering the latest coronavirus health and emergency updates, connecting people to coworkers and bosses, and facilitating online classes.

But this is only the case for those lucky enough to have access. The American Library Association says seven in 10 residents on rural tribal lands remain without access to fixed high-capacity broadband. Making matters worse, massive swaths of tribal land don’t even have a cellphone signal, much less a broadband Internet connection.

No Internet access means no access to the economic opportunities the Internet holds. In 2018 alone, the Internet sector accounted for $2.1 trillion of the U.S. economy. But during this pandemic, many residents of rural Indian Country don’t have the luxury of dreaming up online business plans.

They are instead fearful for their lives and the lives of their loved ones who lack access to solutions like telehealth or online counseling during this time of isolation.

A lack of access leaves us behind

The Internet was always important, but COVID-19 is illuminating the colossal crevasse between the connected and the unconnected, those in the life raft and those left in open water.

The Internet is critical for indigenous communities to leverage economic, health and educational opportunities. Today, connectivity is a necessary tool for tracking data and sounding the alarm for missing and murdered indigenous women, transmitting timely Amber Alerts, providing resources for physical and emotional healing, growing the number of indigenous language speakers, and cultivating a robust and diverse economy in some of the country’s poorest communities (financially speaking).

Yet indigenous communities remain among the least connected in North America.

The coronavirus is showing us why this is a problem. Students sent home from colleges and schools are encouraged to continue their studies online. But many native students return to homes without an Internet connection capable of playing videos and uploading assignments.

Many can’t work from home or sell goods online while waiting this out. These same tribal communities are also the last to receive important updates on health and emergency procedures, which are important for prevention.

Telehealth? Don’t even think about it.

FCC has dragged its feet on access

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has repeatedly admonished the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) for making radio waves called spectrum (a natural resource) and other telecommunications necessities almost completely inaccessible to tribal nations. In 2018, the GAO said the FCC “has done little to promote and support tribes’ access to radio frequency spectrum that can be used for such wireless service.”

Now, amid this global pandemic, the reality of the situation looms, as connecting Indian Country can mean the difference between life and death. Connectivity is urgent and we need decision-makers to do more.

Anyone can point out the problems, but five months ago some of the brightest minds in Indian Country telecommunications came together to create solutions. They gathered in Pu’uhonua o Waimanalo, a small Native Hawaiian community in O’ahu where Internet connection was so bad, parents often took their children into town to use the Wi-Fi at McDonald’s to do research and submit homework assignments.

In the days that followed, experts assisted the Nation of Hawai’i to establish a sovereign community broadband network, with much higher speeds and lower rates than their former big telecom service-provider. A group of up-and-coming tribal leaders also deliberated over how to tell the FCC that native communities should be first on their list of priorities.

The group transformed their frustrations into policy recommendations.

Finally, we have access to spectrum

In line with those recommendations, on Feb. 3, the FCC opened a 180-day tribal priority window, extending an opportunity for native nations in tribal areas to apply for a license to a small slice of spectrum over their lands – a historic first. Holding these licenses will make it possible for tribal nations to set up their own community broadband networks or make it easier to contract established service providers.

Lately, telecommunications companies have taken steps to make the Internet more accessible to many, removing data caps, expanding public Wi-Fi access and offering free broadband to unconnected students. These are nice gestures that will help many, but the benefits will not necessarily extend to rural, tribal areas where data and backhaul infrastructure may not exist.

At best, they offer a temporary bridge across the widening digital divide.

A few weeks ago I traveled through Navajo Country to deliver telecom equipment and assist Navajo schools in setting up community networks. It was at the start of the COVID-19 outbreak in the United States.

If you’re wondering why my colleagues and I did not choose to self-isolate during this time, it’s because there was no choice. Because of COVID-19, policies suddenly changed. Tribal spectrum opened up and it was suddenly possible to bring these students and teachers online. They needed access to information more than ever.

This step forward could save lives

As I drove, I focused on not letting my bitterness consume me. It shouldn’t take a global emergency for tribal spectrum policies to change, and indigenous telecom workers like me shouldn’t be putting ourselves and others at risk. We will go wherever we are asked to go by tribal leaders, as safely as possible.

But policy changes leading up to this point could have prevented such risk, and made this time much safer and easier for thousands of tribal citizens. The FCC needs to act on tribal access every day, not just when the world is in a crisis.

Indigenous telecom experts have been making suggestions like these to the FCC for decades. Policy recommendations such as those made in Hawai’i are the beginning of a sustainable solution.

They call for consent and meaningful communication before the FCC takes actions affecting tribal nations. They indirectly ask the FCC and Congress to better understand how the government’s trust responsibility to native nations applies to connectivity. And most of all, they call for inclusive indigenous broadband and spectrum access.

This is urgent. The FCC’s implementation of these recommendations are an important step toward connecting Indian Country to services that will save time, money and stress.

But most importantly, it could save lives.

Image of Little Colorado River Navajo Tribal Park by Stéphane Paul via Unsplash

Community Networks Growing the Internet Measuring the Internet

The Internet Is Resilient Enough to Withstand Coronavirus – But There’s a Catch

Earlier this year, as COVID-19 began to dominate our lives, the world turned to the Internet. This sudden shift to distance learning, working from home, and families sheltering in place drove up online streaming demand, placing additional load on Internet application platforms like Zoom, Netflix, and educational tools such as Kahoot. There was also a dramatic traffic increase across supporting network providers.

Faced with the specter of millions of daily Zoom calls and endless hours of Netflix binging, many wondered if the Internet could handle the strain of such rapid traffic growth and increased latency. Would it cause a catastrophic failure of the Internet? Our answer then: not likely.

But were we right? As the world is now more than a month into mandatory lockdowns and stay-at-home orders, with anticipated growth in application platform usage, media consumption, and overall Internet traffic, we can now state:

No – increased Internet usage will not cause a catastrophic Internet failure.

As expected, the Internet has remained resilient. There is no single “Internet” to catastrophically fail, thanks to its foundational “network of networks” architecture.

This architecture means that many interconnected participants all have a role in keeping the Internet resilient:

  • Subscriber (“last mile”) network providers, including community networks
  • Backbone network providers
  • Internet Exchange Points (IXPs)
  • Content Delivery Networks (CDNs)
  • Application platform and content providers

Each Zoom call, Netflix video, and Kahoot quiz relies on this architecture to work the way it should.

However, the past couple of months have made it clear that there has been a different catastrophic failure: the failure to make “last mile” broadband connectivity widely accessible and affordable.

This is to say nothing of the divide found in developing countries, where Internet access is even more limited or may be altogether absent. This last mile digital divide has led to Internet connections that struggle to support professional videoconferencing, media-heavy educational tools, or streaming video, especially when used concurrently. Students who have no usable Internet access at home can be found sitting outside schools and libraries, accessing the WiFi to complete their assignments.

In upcoming blog posts, we will review observations, measurements, and statistics from across the industry to examine the trends seen by the participants listed above, and look at how they are handling increased usage. We will also look at how countries around the world are recognizing the importance of available and affordable Internet connectivity, and the steps that they are taking to close the digital divide.

Learn more about the Internet Society’s 2020 Action Plan Projects, and get involved.

Image by Chris Montgomery via Unsplash