Community Networks Growing the Internet

ISOC’s Policy Statement at the WSIS Forum: Support Your Local Heroes

On 13 June 2017, Internet Society Vice President, Global Engagement, Raúl Echeberría, and Senior Director, Global Internet Policy, Constance Bommelaer de Leusse, participated in the Opening Ceremony and the High-Level Policy Session on Bridging Digital Divides at the World Summit on the Information Society Forum (WSIS) 2017. Here are their reflections.

The WSIS +10 Review made explicit the link between the WSIS process and the 2030 Agenda. A link that highlights the unprecedented ability for information technology to support human progress, and to reduce the world’s geographic and social barriers. A link that clearly demonstrates that connectivity enables socio-economic development. 

The Sustainable Development Agenda and the Sustainable Development Goals focus on change and action.  They recognize multi-stakeholder solutions.  At the Internet Society we strongly believe that everyone has a role to play in the implementation of these objectives.  For example, the ITU through its membership and mandate has a leading role to play in examining key barriers to connectivity and together – from local to global levels – to find the solutions to overcome them.  With partners, we can amplify change. 

But change will not happen if we look to the past.  We must look forward. We must take risks. To achieve the Sustainable Develop Goals and connect the next billion, business as usual won’t work.  

We know that the answer is to do things differently, and to take our lessons from the core ingredients: A bottom-up approach and collaborative exchanges that have allowed the Internet to flourish in so many parts of the world. 

None of us here this week, whether we are from government, the private sector, or from an NGO, can ever achieve our ambitions to support sustainable development if we try to do it alone. We can only do this through collective efforts, and by supporting more local connectivity solutions and access to information, markets, healthcare, and opportunities. We must recognize that the success of the Internet is inherently linked to building the capacity of those it connects.  And, without connectivity, communities are disconnected.  

We need to connect unserved and under-served communities.

Part of change we need to see is to make it possible for people to connect themselves through local solutions. Solutions like Community Networks, where anyone, anywhere – regardless of background – can connect as long as they have the right tools and support.  Regular people – local champions – local – heroes – who do not think twice about what they are doing.  Let’s be inspired by these everyday heroes. People dedicate themselves to local connectivity.  And, they work from within communities to build connectivity.  They are part of a bigger connectivity puzzle, and they are a compliment to other efforts under way to connect people.

So where do we start?  What can we do to promote local connectivity solutions – to support community networks?

The answer lies in partnerships.  Support your local heroes who are developing these local connectivity solutions.  Understand their needs.  Because they need your support and they are part of your solution to connect more of your citizens, to enable social and economic growth and to enable opportunities. 

For example:

  • If you are a regulator, consider Community Networks as a legitimate alternative form of local connectivity. Recognize them as a sustainable means to connect people “from the village out”.  Where local people build, develop, and manage a community network, where many traditional networks do not reach.  And, where sustainable development is strong as the community network has been developed By, For, and With the Community.
  • If you are a policy maker, consider ways that existing or new funding programs can support Community Networks, and make sure that they are recognized as a solution to your ambitions to develop an information society with more digitally literate citizens and future innovators – who can support economic and social progress. They are a partner for your development ambitions.  
  • If you are from the operator community, consider partnering with local community networks. See them as a complimentary means to empower the unconnected to connect, and consider what you can do to support their development through equipment donations, training opportunities, or through back-haul provision to reach the global Internet.  

All of us need to take inspiration from these everyday heroes who are building connectivity by, for, and with local communities, because development, innovation, and solutions are always local.  

Community Networks Growing the Internet

Using TV Whitespace To Connect Communities in Malawi

About twenty years ago, people here at the International Centre for Theoretical Physics (ICTP) in Trieste, Italy started thinking about what happens to the people who come here after they go home. Specifically, what happens to the academics and researchers from the developing world who come to work with us. 

At the time, they’d come, work with us, do some amazing things, and then go back to places where they didn’t have the Internet. With no Internet, it was very hard for them to do research. They cannot download papers, they cannot contact colleagues. So, we started teaching people about internet technologies, and, at that time, we already had the vision that wireless is much cheaper and much quicker to deploy than fibre, or copper or anything else. We started teaching people about wireless and WiFi when it wasn’t even called WiFi.

We did the first link in Nigeria, at Obafemi Awolowo University in Ife-Ife. That was one of the first WiFi links, or proto-WiFi links, on the whole continent. From there, more and more people got in touch with us and started asking for training.

An interesting thing happens when you create a long-distance wireless Internet connection to somewhere, which is that you also make it possible to bring the Internet to other, nearby places, as well.  A few years ago, we worked on connecting hospitals in Malawi. At one of the hospitals, there was a girls’ school nearby, and they said ‘Oh, we’d love to be on the Internet, why don’t you connect us?’ Then there was a boys’ school further up the road that said ‘Oh, we want to get the Internet as well.’ And then once the Internet is in the schools, you can do some clever stuff like giving communities access to the bandwidth at night. There is no one in the school at night, so that bandwidth is going to be wasted.  Why can’t we give that to communities or public parks, or you know, telecentres or whatever, in the evening? 

One of the things we’re working with a lot right now is TV white space. In most of the world, they only have two or three TV channels, so all the rest of that broadcast spectrum is going unused. So, in Malawi, we started measuring TV white space, producing maps, and the local university went to the regulator with the maps that we produced together, and they said ‘Look, we’re only using two channels out of a hundred, can we please use some of that spectrum to connect schools and hospitals?’  So, the government of course could only say yes. We had one pilot project, then another other pilot project, and that’s the story of how the TV white space started.

There are advantages and disadvantages to using TV white space for the Internet. The disadvantages are that the equipment is much more expensive, because it is not a standard yet, antennas are really, really huge — they’re basically TV antennas — and the throughput is lower, so it’s not as fast. The huge advantage for us, though, is that the penetration is much better. It can go through walls much more easily. It can go through vegetation.  In many of these countries, when it rains, you don’t get WiFi on the university campuses, because trees are wet, and the signal doesn’t pass through wet leaves. It can also cover huge distances, and by using high-powered radios, we could limit the number of access points. 

Malawi gave our local partners a license to use TV white space for one year, and then that worked, so now they extended it for a second year. Now, Malawi is going to become the first country in Africa to regulate TV white space. If an ISP wants to use TV white space to provide internet to their customers, they can do it. Now, that’s having a snowball effect, so we helped launch a similar project in Mozambique last year, near Maputo. This year we’re going to go into three other places to connect about 10 schools.  What we’re trying to do there is to kind of extend the network, not only to TV white space sites, but then to have some MESH networks to connect communities.  

The ICTP is a bit different from some organizations, because if you ask us what difference our work makes on the ground, we don’t always know. We partner with local Universities and train people here, and then they go home and create networks. They see the changes, and they evolve their projects as they see fit. And that’s a great thing, they already know what they need. 

Note about the Internet Society and its support for Community Networks
The Internet Society is dedicated to helping the unconnected connect. We do this through funds provided by our Global Engagement team and through our grants programme called Beyond the Net. We are keen supporter of ICTP’s. Their team will be working with us to help train more community networks in Africa on radio frequency and spectrum basics. 

This article is part of a series on Community Networks.

Community Networks Growing the Internet Technology

Build The Internet: Training Barefoot Network Engineers

India is an interesting country when it comes to Internet access.

On the one hand, India has the second most Internet subscribers in the world. There are over 450 million people online here. On the other hand, we also have the largest number of unconnected people. Only about 35 percent of our population is online, including more than 70 percent of women. Between 70 and 80 percent of our landmass isn’t connected, including most rural parts of the country. So we have a severe problem when it comes to connectivity.

I helped found the Digital Empowerment Foundation about 20 years ago, with the aim of fixing these connectivity problems. Our goal is to overcome information poverty and make the Internet accessible to the remotest part of the country, for the poorest of the poor.

One of the core problems is a lack of last mile infrastructure. The “last mile” refers to the final leg of the network, the one that delivers the Internet to people’s homes and businesses. Telecom companies here have been reluctant to invest in the last mile in rural areas because it doesn’t make sense for them as an investment. They say the cost is higher than the return. That’s often where we come in.

There are certain bands of wireless spectrum that are unlicensed, which means anyone can use them for community networks. By using unlicensed spectrum, we’ve managed to bring the Internet into telecom dark areas. If you build a tall enough relay tower, you can easily get a line of sight that will allow the signal to carry for up to 40 kilometres. And you can set up a series of these towers. That’s how we build networks. We started in 2010 when we first started partnering with ISOC. It began with a pilot program in a handful of communities. Now, we’re in over 100 communities, and we’re still growing.

What’s amazing, though, is how the network gets built and maintained. Over the years, we’ve trained hundreds of people to become what we call barefoot network engineers. These are regular people in rural villages, often without much formal education, who we train to be network engineers. With ISOC’s help, we’ve developed a multi-lingual kit and guidebook that explains the technology and equipment at a literacy level that works for them. So local people can maintain and troubleshoot the network themselves. And this is tremendously empowering, not only for the individuals we train but for the whole community.

The access itself gives people a tremendous sense of liberty. Suddenly, they can access government programs, which used to be controlled by middlemen. They can run their own business. They can buy things at better prices. They can access doctors through telemedicine. They can access education. Because it’s a broadband connection, they can do video conferencing, which has an enormous appeal to people who might not have high levels of literacy. Also, they use it for entertainment. That’s important, too.

The biggest achievement is that people aren’t just acting as a consumer of information, but they’re talking to each other. They’re sharing knowledge. They’re talking about their rights, about access to services, about democracy. You see it the most with the women in the community. India is still a very patriarchal society, but in our programs, women play a key role. In many of these communities, the men have to migrate to other parts of the country for work, but the women usually stay put. As a result, they’re often in charge of the community access points and the computers themselves. They’re the keepers of the information, and having that role gives them more leverage to make decisions in their households and communities.

Community networks are one of the most viable, available technology-based solutions for last-mile access to underserved communities. What we’ve been doing in India could become a prototype or a scaleable model for connectivity all over the world. But right now, it’s still seen as a novel idea, not something that could be rolled out on a large scale. Organizations like ours need to work with each other, as well as with larger organizations like ISOC, to advocate for community networks to become a global, mainstream phenomenon. Because when you connect these communities, amazing things happen. I’ve seen it first-hand.

Impressed by Osama’s story? Tell your local policy maker. Share this and the Policy Framework for an Enabling Internet Access and help make access possible. Keep watching our blog throughout the week for our Community Networking Series.

Community Projects Growing the Internet

How You Can Help Connect The Planet

Be it high into the Himalayas, deep into the country side of India or the hills of Mexico, incredible people are helping to bring connectivity to some of the world’s forgotten places.

We want to you to a part of it.

Yesterday we held an online forum where some of these incredible people shared how they are connecting the world by connecting communities.

They talked about how they helped build community networks and how hard it can be to get equipment.

We heard about different network models, ways to fix common problems, links to resources for new projects and to help train others.

Here is who spoke:

Rajnesh Singh, ISOC Asia-Pacific Regional Bureau Director: Raj gave us a high-level overview of ISOC’s Wireless for Communities Project (W4C) in APAC that has been running since 2010, and the impact he is seeing in the communities we work in with our partners.

Osama Manzar, Director/Founder, Digital Empowerment Foundation (DEF):  ISOC has forged a partnership with DEF to support their W4C efforts. In collaboration with DEF, we have connected over 13 Indian villages in rural India. Osama described how he built communities, and the impact connectivity has made in high-mountain villages.  From the development of micro-enterprises and health centres to schools brought online, and trainers “trained” to build and roll-out community networks.

Mahabir Pun, Nepal Wireless Networking Project, ISOC Hall of Fame and Jon Postel awardee: Mr. Pun’s work provides connectivity to villages in Nepal through community wireless projects and the opportunities for tele-health and online learning that these projects help make possible. Mahabir has helped ISOC’s APAC team by training local people to become trainers for W4C efforts in the region. In late 2015 his team helped expand the W4C project to Nepal by connecting eight villages in earthquake-affected areas.

Roger Baig Vinas, project, and ISOC Catalan Chapter member: is an award-winning Commons-based wireless for a community projects in Catalonia, Spain. Roger described how the Guifi network works and the importance of collective contribution from all partners across urban and rural communities to sustain the entire network.

Mike Jensen, Association for Progressive Communications (APC):  Mike is an active supporter of community-based networks and innovative radio spectrum use. He worked to raise awareness of the potential for TV White Space technology in reaching the unconnected.  Mike shared views on the importance of innovative uses of spectrum and the issue of equipment costs related to project implementation.

Peter Bloom, Rhizomatica:  Peter Bloom founded Rhizomatica in 2009 to address a need to transfer photos and videos between human rights defenders in Nigeria without passing through the networks of large telecommunication companies. Peter provided a snapshot of the GSM-based community-operated network in Oaxaca, Mexico, where the local people built and now run the network.

Jane Butler/Sebastian Beuttrich – part of the Wireless Networking in the Developing World (WNDW) volunteer team:  Jane described how the WNDW book was created and what you can find on its website. She also talked about a really great online University – WirelessU. Sebastian described key training issues and factors involved in building out community infrastructures and the importance of the case-studies in WNDW and online!

Watch the video and learn more!


Stay tuned in to this blog space as we plan to provide more snapshots about Community Networking projects!

Got a great idea to build connect the planet? See if you qualify for support from Beyond the Net!

Growing the Internet

Dili Village Telco