Encryption Strengthening the Internet

Strong Encryption Is Central to Good Security – India’s Proposed Intermediary Rules Puts It at Risk

Security and encryption experts from around the world are calling on the Indian Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeiTy) to reconsider proposed amendments to intermediary liability rules that could weaken security and limit the use of strong encryption on the Internet. Coordinated by the Internet Society, nearly thirty computer security and cryptography experts from around the world signed “Open Letter: Concerns with Amendments to India’s Information Technology (Intermediaries Guidelines) Rules under the Information Technology Act.”

MeiTy is revising proposed amendments to the Information Technology (Intermediaries Guidelines) Rules. The proposed amendments would require intermediaries, like content platforms, Internet service providers, cybercafés, and others, to abide by strict, onerous requirements in order to not be held liable for the content sent or posted by their users. Freedom from intermediary liability is an important aspect of communications over the Internet. Without it, people cannot build and maintain platforms and services that have the ability to easily handle to billions of people.

The letter highlights concerns with these new rules, specifically requirements that intermediaries monitor and filter their users’ content. As these security experts state, “by tying intermediaries’ protection from liability to their ability to monitor communications being sent across their platforms or systems, the amendments would limit the use of end-to-end encryption and encourage others to weaken existing security measures.”

End-to-end encryption is one of the strongest tools for digital security online. With end-to-end encryption, only the sender and intended recipients have access to unencrypted content, providing trustworthy confidentiality and integrity to their communications. As the threats to computerized and networked technologies increase, confidentiality and integrity is critical. Since no third party, including the platform provider, has access to user content in an end-to-end encrypted system, content monitoring or filtering is impossible. As the letter notes, “There is no way to create ‘exceptional access’ for some without weakening the security of the system for all.”

Whether intended to filter online misinformation or to provide access for law enforcement purposes, laws or policies like those being proposed in India would make the Internet less safe, unintentionally allowing access to online communications to malicious hackers and criminals.

It is imperative that digital security not be undermined for hundreds of millions of people in an effort to force blanket data retention and network observability. Digital security is the foundation of our connected economies and societies. It is up to governments to make the right decision and support strong digital security, and it is up to all of us to hold them to account.

Image: Guna city, India. © Atul Loke/Panos for Internet Society

Events Internet Governance Shaping the Internet's Future

Fourth Annual inSIG Boosts India’s Capacity to Shape the Internet’s Future

Earlier this month, the fourth India School on Internet Governance (inSIG2019) was held in Kolkata on 15-17 November, expanding its network of leaders and professionals active in shaping the Internet’s future.

With support from sponsors, 50 fellows from various academic, cultural, and regional backgrounds participated in inSIG2019. Through panel discussions, workshops, role plays, and group activities the three-day school covered a myriad of topics related to the Internet, boosting participants’ understanding of the complexity of Internet Governance and its importance in the future of the Internet.

The sessions covered fundamental topics like the history, principles, and status of the Internet. The hurdles around online safety, human rights, online radicalization, and cybersecurity were extensively examined and many perspectives were brought out which were thought-provoking and ingenious. Status and challenges of emerging technologies, content regulation, and the multilingual Internet were also discussed widely, and valuable feedback and inputs were provided by the participants.

The importance of the multistakeholder model of Internet Governance was stressed upon, and the Dutch approach to Internet Governance was presented in which Arnold van Rhijn spoke about how a collaborative consultation with multiple stakeholders reduces future friction in policymaking.

The event had global experts from Internet-related organizations such as APNIC, CISCO, ICANN, IETF, the Internet Society, and SFLC, representing various stakeholders such as academia, law, civil society, government, technical groups, and the private sector. The multiple outlooks from these varied organizations gave this event a holistic view of Internet Governance issues.

This year, inSIG2019 was a part of the India Internet Week, and had two Day 0 events: the Second YouthIGF India and the Global Forum on Cyber Expertise Triple-I Workshop. The YouthIGF India brought together about 150 young people from all across India to deliberate on various Internet Governance challenges and plan for enhanced youth engagement in policy discussions. The Triple-I Workshop, facilitated by the Dutch Ministry of Economic Affairs and Climate, brought together top experts in security with participants from industry, civil society, government organizations, and the technical community to examine ways to improve the security of the Internet and the trust of its users.

Overall, inSIG2019 was well structured and rendered a great balance between the technology and policy aspects of Internet Governance. The well-rounded knowledge and insights provided the foundation for establishing a strong alumni network of Internet leaders and practitioners who will leverage the inSIG platform for further contribution and collaboration.

InSIG was established in 2016 and previous schools events were held in Hyderabad (2016), Trivandrum (2017), and New Delhi (2018). inSIG2019 was organized through a partnership of four Internet Society Chapters of New Delhi, Kolkata, Mumbai, and Trivandrum. The event was supported and sponsored by NIXI, Facebook, the Internet Society, APNIC, ICANN, Neustar, APASA, and MediaNama.

The fifth inSIG, is scheduled to be organized during October-November 2020 in Mumbai.

Building Trust Encryption Privacy

In India, Days Left to Comment on Rules That Could Impact Your Privacy

The public has until 31 January to comment on a draft set of rules in India that could result in big changes to online security and privacy.

The Indian government published the draft Information Technology [Intermediary Guidelines (Amendment) Rules] 2018, also known as the “Intermediary Rules” for public comment.

When it comes to the Internet, intermediaries are companies that mediate online communication and enable various forms of online expression.

The draft Intermediary Rules would change parts of the Information Technology Act, 2000 (the “IT Act”), which sets out the requirements intermediaries must meet to be shielded from liability for the activities of their users. The draft rules would also expand the requirements for all intermediaries, which are defined by the Indian government and include Internet service providers, cybercafés, online companies, social media platforms, and others. For example, all intermediaries would have to regularly notify users on content they shouldn’t share; make unlawful content traceable; and deploy automated tools to identify and disable unlawful information or content, among other new requirements.

Here’s some more background:

  • News reports are citing a number of concerns about the draft rules. Ours centers on their potential impact on the use of encryption.
  • Encryption is the process of scrambling or enciphering data so it can be read only by someone with the means to return it to its original state. End-to-end encryption is the most secure form of encryption available, in which only the sender and intended recipient can read the message.
  • Although you might not realize it, you rely on encryption every day. It protects you while you browse the web, shop online, use mobile banking, or use secure messaging apps.
  • By requiring the deployment of automated tools to identify and disable unlawful information or content on their platforms, the proposals in the draft Intermediary Rules could require intermediaries to break their end-to-end encryption or otherwise risk becoming liable for the activities of their users.
  • This weakens the technology meant to keep our private information private. That means it’s easier for anyone, anywhere, to access our stuff. And, with all intermediaries impacted by this decision, end-to-end encryption it’s not just messaging applications like WhatsApp or Signal affected, but also secure Voice over IP (VoIP) services, some cloud storage services, and much more.
  • We believe strong encryption is critical to the Internet and should simply be how things are done. We’re working to ensure encryption is available for everyone and it becomes the default.

If you  want to make your voice heard on these draft rules, now is the time.  The deadline to submit comments to India’s Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY) is 31 January to:

  • gccyberlaw[at]meity[dot]gov[dot]in
  • pkumar[at]meity[dot]gov[dot]in
  • dhawal[at]gov[dot]in
Building Trust Encryption Improving Technical Security Privacy

Internet Society Delhi Chapter and CCAOI Organize Webinar on India’s Draft Intermediary Rules

On 10 January, the Internet Society Delhi Chapter and CCAOI jointly organised an interactive webinar on the draft Information Technology [Intermediary Guidelines (Amendment) Rules] 2018 (“the draft Intermediary Rules”) to improve understanding of it and to encourage members and other Indian stakeholders to submit their comments to the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY) during their public comment period. The draft Intermediary Rules seeks to modify Section 79(2)(c) of the Information Technology Act, 2000 (the IT Act). Section 79 of the IT Act introduces obligations for intermediaries to meet to gain exemption from liability over the third-party information that they “receive, store, transmit, or provide any service with respect to.” These proposed changes were developed by MeitY to try to address misinformation and harmful content on social media, which have been connected with lynching and other recent violent acts of vigilantism.

The session was moderated by Subhashish Panigrahi, chapter development manager for Asia-Pacific at the Internet Society, and Amrita Choudhury, treasurer of the Internet Society Delhi Chapter and director of the CCAOI.

The changes to the IT Act proposed in the draft Intermediary Rules would require intermediaries to provide monthly notification to users on content they should not share; ensure that the originator of unlawful content is traceable; deploy automated tools for proactively identifying and disabling unlawful information or content; and obligate intermediaries with over 5,000,000 users to set up office in India and appoint a nodal officer (for coordination with law enforcement agencies).

An “intermediary” under the IT Act includes any person or entity who on behalf of another receives, stores, or transmits a message or provides any service with respect to a message. Under the IT Act, intermediaries include ISPs, cybercafés, online companies, social media, etc. Looking at the broad definition of intermediaries, some argue that the proposed changes to the IT Act would be difficult for many intermediaries to comply with. Other concerns include whether the draft Intermediary Rules have the capacity to affect the fundamental rights of free speech and privacy or may erode the safe harbor protection for intermediaries which Section 79 of the IT Act provides.

During the interactive webinar organized by the Delhi Chapter and CCAOI:

  • Shashank Misra, Senior Associate at Shardul Amarchand Mangaldas & Co, gave an introduction to the draft Intermediary Rules, the definition of intermediaries under the IT Act, and obligations for intermediaries. He presented an overview of the draft Intermediary Rules, categorizing the amendments under five broad themes, and reiterated the importance of commenting on the draft now before it becomes a law.
  • Nehaa ChaudhariPublic Policy Lead at Ikigai Law, highlighted the draft Intermediary Rules’ lack of clarity on oversight mechanisms for the state and central government. She called attention to the lack of safeguards on take down requests under Section 5 of the draft Intermediary Rules. She also questioned the introduction of some obligations as part of “delegated legislation,” instead arguing that these should be proposed under new legislation. (In India, delegated legislation occurs when an executive authority is given the power to make laws to implement a primary legislation.) The Intermediary Rules are a form of delegated legislation to implement the IT Act. She also questioned the necessity of some of the proposed suggestions, such as the monthly user notification by all intermediaries, and whether it achieves its objective.
  • Arjun Sinha, a tech lawyer, argued that the government needs to adopt a graded approach for requesting for information or assistance from online platforms, rather than adopting a 72-hour timeline. Using this approach, different grades would be based on the importance of the information requested. He also questioned the metrics used to calculate the 5,000,000 users, including how the government would independently verify the number and ensure compliance.
  • Gurshabad Grover, Policy Officer at CIS India, highlighted that the draft rules may exceed the scope of what is allowed to be “delegated legislation.” In addition, he argued that the draft rule 3.9, which asks for deploying automated tools for “proactively identifying and removing or disabling public access to unlawful information or content,” is technically impossible for some intermediaries to implement.
  • Paul BrooksChair of Internet Australia, an Internet Society Chapter, shared the Australian chapter’s experience and lessons learned during their own advocacy on Australian regulations and policies that could impact Internet security. In 2018, the Chapter engaged in an advocacy campaign to inform lawmakers and the public on the issues that could arise from proposed legislation on encryption. During their campaign, Internet Australia’s activities included holding a public workshop, making submissions on draft legislation, and conducting interviews with media outlets about the legislation.
  • Subhashish Panigrahi emphasized the Internet Society’s commitment to support Indian chapters in making their submissions on the draft Intermediary Rules. He also gave an overview of the work done by the Internet Society on encryption, such as the Encryption Policy Brief. He encouraged participants to visit the Internet Society’s encryption issues page for more resources.

With nearly fifty people attending the webinar, there were various questions raised by the participants, which were responded to by the experts.  Based on interest, another discussion may be held just after the submission deadline so that counter comments can be submitted.

All are encouraged to submit their comments on the draft guidelines by 31 January to:

  • gccyberlaw[at]meity[dot]gov[dot]in
  • pkumar[at]meity[dot]gov[dot]in
  • dhawal[at]gov[dot]in

Watch the Livestream of the event!

Community Projects Development Growing the Internet Human Rights

Experiencing the Internet’s Role in Community Empowerment

Taking advantage of the fact that Internet Society’s CEO, Kathy Brown, and I were both in India last month, we visited one of our Wireless for Communities (W4C) sites in Tilonia, located in Rajasthan state.

Located some 380km from Delhi in a rural location, the W4C Tilonia site is based at the Barefoot College campus, and is a self-reliant model village – from generating their own solar electricity to sustainable water harvesting. They also run a community education programme teaching people from around the world skills to help them empower their local communities.

The W4C programme has been running since 2010 and it adopts a holistic approach to empowering rural communities with digital skills and tools. Establishing W4C in Tilonia was a natural meeting of the two programmes.

The impact was plain to see. Both the old and new campuses of Barefoot College in Tilonia are now linked to each other by point-to-point WiFi, and each campus has a local WiFi network that connects everything from schools to community radio stations. The administration of the campus has now gone paperless – with all work being done online. The community education programme uses Internet and ICT technology extensively and it was amazing to see tablet computers and large screen TVs being used to teach electronic kit assembly to the ‘Solar Mamas’. These Solar Mamas keep in touch with family back home using Internet messaging apps. The Internet truly permeates through everything at Barefoot College.

One of the most touching scenes was seeing a classroom full of young girls during their midday break all queuing up in an orderly fashion to get their 10 minutes each at a computer. The wonder and curiosity in their eyes – and their patience waiting for their turn – was truly remarkable. And all the more reason, that we must make the Internet of Opportunity available to everyone, everywhere.

You can follow Kathy and my journey to W4C Tilonia on storify here and there is a video of our visit here.

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.

Growing the Internet Technology

Access in India and the Digital India promise

I recently attended the 24th edition of Convergence India, the ICT and Broadcast expo in Delhi.  The theme of the exhibition and a conference track was the much talked about Digital India. This topic, like the project, has filled the 1.25 billion Indians with pride and evoked much emotion at the same time.

In the words of Narendra Modi, Prime Minister of India: “Digital connectivity should become as much a basic right as access to school … under Digital India, IT will be used to drive government processes to improve service delivery and programme implementation and provide broadband connectivity to villages. “  

Digital India is government-led with a government service provider as the custodian.  Other special initiatives launched include Make in India (to foster innovation, enhance skill development, conceptualise and promote manufacturing in ICT), Skilling India and Smart Cities (establish 100 smart cities across India).  In the words of the Minister of Communication and IT, this $18 billion programme ‘sets India for a digital revolution’.  

Our Wireless for Communities (W4C) project, which we started six years ago, connects remote communities to the Internet using unlicensed free spectrum, and low cost Wi-Fi equipment.  We built local expertise by training barefoot engineers, and made it sustainable through community ownership and revenue generating models.    The project also empowers the community for digital knowledge-based transformation.  Through the project, we pretty much do it all -  create digital infrastructure, help deliver services digitally and, develop digital literacy.

Were there any experiences and findings we could share with the Digital India programme? We learnt much from our project, and these would indeed be relevant. These include:

·  The level of Internet connectivity can be affected by wider government policy, prices of services and devices, overall level of infrastructure and backhaul availability etc.

·  Infrastructure sharing should be promoted as much as possible; these include towers, ducts and radio spectrum

·  Devices like mobiles should be made more affordable and with a basic set of features which allows people to use it as a means to access the Internet

·  Applications and content should be designed such that they take into account the local context, including local needs and relevance

·  Liberalise the last mile and make it commercially viable for different kinds of players such as rural ISPs.  Explore new models eg. Have municipalities invest in the network and look at PPP models to operate i

·  There needs to be more holistic spectrum allocation to take into account public interest  

·  Streamline and harmonize licensing procedures such as for obtaining a leased line or putting up towers etc

·  Accelerate mutual recognized arrangements (MRAs) that simplify and speed up import certificates, particularly to allow low cost device availability

As the Internet of Everything is on its way – and promises to further change the way we live and work – the Digital India project is an acknowledgment of the power of the Internet and all its benefits.                         


Growing the Internet Human Rights Technology Women in Tech

Wireless For Communities (W4C) – Best of a breed

It isn’t everyday that I get to sit on a panel to talk about our favourite development project in the Asia-Pacific region – the Wireless for Communities (W4C) project in India.  So I jumped at the opportunity when this opening came up at the Aid & Response Summit Asia in Bangkok this week.

W4C is a project that we are particularly proud of at the Internet Society Asia-Pacific office – not only because it has won two international awards namely the ITU/MCMC (International Telecommunications Union – Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission) Connecting at the Roots Award for Broadband for Communities/Schools and the Gold Standard Internet for Good Award by Public Affairs Asia – but also because of how the Internet was able to empower and transform peoples’ lives for the better.  This project totally democratises the availability of connectivity, enabling access to information in rural parts of India and allows for content and services to originate from rural areas. 

The brainchild of the Internet Society Regional Bureau Director for Asia-Pacific Rajnesh Singh, W4C began its pilot in 2010 in collaboration with our partner the Digital Empowerment Foundation (DEF) at Chanderi, a small municipality in the Ashoknagar district of Madhya Pradesh, India. Chanderi is renowned for Chanderi silk which had Geographical Indication (GI) status.  In Chanderi we began by providing basic connectivity and access to content and services and saw first-hand social innovation evolve, using the Internet to meet the social needs of the local community.

Thanks to various ICT interventions, average household incomes more than doubled.   A variety of ICT-related programmes enabled new vocational skills to be gained, which in turn have helped people establish their own micro-enterprises. Internet access helped preserve local heritage, digitised local knowledge and assets, linked patients at the local health centre to the district hospital using telemedicine and helped children improve digital learning in school.  All this originating from a base population where very few were digitally literate, had poor access to advanced health facilities and had no computers in schools.

Fast forward to the present time, and for the record, we have brought Internet connectivity to more than 200,000 people in 10 rural locations across India.  Many that we have worked with are minorities, marginalised and from migrant communities. We have made more than 4,000 rural youth, children and women digitally literate and provided telemedicine facilities to several communities that had no access to advanced health care.  More than 50 panchayats (local village councils) and 50 rural schools, several non-government organisations and a number of micro and SMEs have been linked to the Internet enhancing their productivity and operational efficiency.

W4C is both self-sustainable and replicable and our basic model relies heavily on local communities. To keep things simple, we used unlicensed spectrum bands and low cost WiFi equipment.  Infrastructural sustainability was enabled by training grassroots barefoot engineers in basic wireless technology, enabling them not only to run and manage the networks but also pass on their skills to others. Digital skills for the community was facilitated and nurtured.

Notably, the latest phase of the project focuses on the empowerment of women in these rural communities through the Wireless Women for Entrepreneurship and Empowerment (W2E2) initiative. This part of the project took on 40 women across the 10 W4C locations and provided them with training on using ICTs and the Internet to set up micro-enterprises providing digital services within the local community. This helps improve their social standing as well as provide a livelihood. The women also are encouraged to train and encourage others in the community, thereby further democratising the availability of information to the wider community, and helping navigate cultural and social barriers.

More information on the project may be found on the W4C website.

Growing the Internet

Rural ISPs needed to expand Internet access in India

The Net neutrality debate currently raging in India has brought to light a broader underlying concern: the low—currently below 20%–Internet penetration in the country.

A major rationale used by network operators in justifying a non-neutral network is the need to expand Internet use in India, particularly in low-income areas. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, whose initiative has been taken up by Reliance Communications, in a recent piece argued that free—albeit selective–access to the Internet will bring more people online, particularly those who are not yet able to afford it. Meanwhile, the telecom industry has implied that charging content providers for carriage will enable it to deploy the infrastructure needed to widen broadband coverage to unserved and underserved regions.

Triggered by the rise of zero-rated schemes and a draft consultation paper released by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) on differential pricing for over-the-top services and applications, the issue has prompted a number of Indian Internet firms to pull out of recently signed deals with carriers, following a massive public backlash in which more than 1 million petitioners voiced out support for Net neutrality.

But the contention also highlights a deeper challenge that neither Net neutrality alone—nor the lack thereof—can fully solve.  In December 2014, the Internet Society  at its 4th Wireless and Open Spectrum Summit sought to flesh out persisting barriers to rural connectivity, and found that a diversified ISP sector, along with local loop unbundling, is integral to ensuring equitable and affordable Internet access in India. The annual summit, organised by ISOC and Delhi-based Digital Empowerment Foundation, is part of our ongoing Wireless for Communities programme, which enables rural communities around India to build and operate their own wireless networks using low-cost technology and unlicensed spectrum.

Central to the recommendations made by participants at the forum is a policy framework and licensing regime that makes possible the establishment of rural ISPs as a legitimate business entity. Such village-level enterprises will not only facilitate the development of new models for universal access, but would also reduce users’ dependence on bigger players. This can be complemented by rules that mandate telecom firms to share their infrastructure, such as their points of presence, to new entrants, and a streamlined system for the acquisition of required government permits, which remain costly and time-consuming.

At the same time, district panchayats or self-help groups in India can invest in village level infrastructure, using funding from such sources as the Backward Region Grants Fund. This is already being done in towns like Sabarkantha in Gujarat, which has appointed an ISP to run its community network on a revenue-sharing agreement.

These and other success stories around the world show that measures to increase Internet connectivity should not be bound by traditional approaches. With the Internet’s fundamental principles—decentralised, open, and interoperable—in mind, stakeholders should cultivate an environment that is more accommodating to emerging and novel setups, particularly those which seek to address gaps that established models have found difficult to fulfill, and those that enable existing and future users—in cities, towns and remote villages–to become innovators, too.

You can download the 4th Wireless and Open Spectrum Summit report here

Development Growing the Internet

Diversity the Key to Connecting the Last Mile

Building upon the progress from its third edition last year, the 4th Wireless and Open Spectrum Summit, held in conjunction with the 14th Manthan Awards in Delhi, India, brought experts and practitioners from the telecommunications, government, foundation and research fields together to collaborate on solutions for bringing Internet connectivity to India’s offline and underserved populations.

The Internet community in India is all abuzz this year with the announcement of a comprehensive strategy on Digital India, which has been identified as a priority area by the new Prime Minister. Backed by a $17-billion budget, the programme aims to create the necessary infrastructure, service delivery platforms and human capacity to turn the country into an online powerhouse. Amidst the flurry of big ticket projects, however, participants at the Summit lamented what they perceived as an failure to address to the challenges faced in connecting the last mile.

Among the group’s recommendations is the cultivation of rural ISPs, which along with aggregate online services can not only provide affordable broadband access to far-flung villages, but also energise small-scale entrepreneurship in marginalised communities. Indeed, attendees concurred that liberalising the last mile market is key to both optimising the use of existing, and at times underutilised infrastructure, and to filling in coverage gaps left by commercial providers.

Such possibilities are, however, constrained by a number of barriers. One of them is the arduous and expensive licensing procedure for ISPs, in part due to various permits which need to be secured from different state agencies. Restrictive regulations, which currently mandate that those without class A, B or C ISP licenses cannot sell bandwidth without becoming a franchisee, impose additional burdens not only to small aspiring ISPs but to organisations who want to pilot new broadband technologies which could better serve the marginalised.

But even with an open ISP market in place, one fundamental question remains: Who should shoulder the costs of last mile network rollout? Summit participants agree that this requires mutual support and coordination between the government and the private sector. Operators attending the roundtable suggested, for instance, lowering telecom firms’ universal service obligation fees—currently at 5% of their revenues—by one or two percent in exchange for them deploying the necessary infrastructure in areas that are not commercially viable. Another is to tweak the existing spectrum auction guidelines, shifting the focus away from profit maximization towards cost considerations for operators, as the high price paid for spectrum may be contributing to the lag in network investment. Civil society representatives, for their part, encouraged a more user-oriented public policy to drive the allocation of scarce resources.

Participants appealed to the both government and the private sector to consider gains above and beyond direct revenue, pointing to the positive economic impact of broadband access particularly for disadvantaged sectors of society. Projects like Wireless for Communities have enabled disenfranchised women to set up independent e-commerce businesses, like, along with other social enterprises owned and managed by local people in their own communities.  

Overall, attendees concurred that bringing a diversity of smaller players into the fold, from ISPs to community-based digital service providers, can only do the industry good, enabling the development not only of different business models and approaches to last mile connectivity. By doing so, not only will all players be able to benefit, but more importantly, we can get closer to creating a more inclusive, and truly global, Internet. 

Growing the Internet

2013 India Wireless Summit at the Manthan Awards

This year’s Wireless Summit , which I moderated, was structured differently to the ones we did in the past. Instead of having a series of presentations, we set up a dialogue between subject matter experts (covering regulatory, spectrum, policy, technical, business, governance, research) on one side, and practitioners (people from the community who were out in the field running the wireless community networks) on the other, plus a small audience. The objective was to video the exchange of thoughts and ideas and extract from it the successes, challenges faced, and in particular a set of suggestions and recommendations for improvement at all levels.

This proved to be a very interesting format, as it allowed a free flow of ideas and information and gave each participant the opportunity to be highly interactive (including the ability to converse in local languages). For the subject matter experts, it gave them an opportunity to hear from people on the ground who use and benefit from the community wireless networks, and discuss how policy, regulatory and governance mechanisms could be improved.

The participants highlighted a variety of issues that are key to success when it comes to providing access and connectivity, particularly in rural and underserved areas. Primary amongst the identified issues are a harmonised regulatory approval processes and finite approval timelines, appropriate licensing mechanisms to provide last mile access at the community level (using a rural ISP type model or perhaps the highly successful cable TV retailer model in India), deployment and access costs that are affordable to the target community, business and sustainability models and the importance of knowledge sharing between communities and practitioners.

We expect a summary of the session to be available towards the end of this month, and will post a link to that when available.

About the Wireless for Communities Project
In October 2010, the Internet Society and Digital Empowerment Foundation (DEF) initiated a joint project called “Wireless for Communities” (W4C) which utilizes low-cost Wi-Fi based equipment and unlicensed spectrum to connect and empower rural and under-served communities in India. This award winning project employs a holistic approach to community development and empowerment, bringing the benefits of Internet access where it is most needed.
Growing the Internet Human Rights

A journey through digital empowerment in rural India

A small team of seven made up of Internet Society and Digital Empowerment Foundation (DEF) staff, two camera men and a future project site contact set out for a 48 hour journey to capture the stories and key learnings that currently live inside the Wireless For Communities (W4C) project across rural India.
Covering roughly 1500 km by train and car over the two days, the trip began on Saturday morning at the train station in Delhi to reach Baran, some 10 hours away. The goal of the trip was to meet and talk to the local people who are benefiting from the W4C project that the Internet Society and  DEF are sponsoring. DEF’s Lead Engineer, Shahid Ahmed, has developed this “barefoot wireless network” in Baran, which is now maintained by localmembers of the local community support that he has trained himself and who have gone on to become multipliers, training many others. We learned first-hand about how this project is directly impacting over 50,000 lives that are now connected to the Internet.
Following our six hour train ride to Kota, we arrived at Sindhu Hospital which acts as the main tele-medicine center where doctors connect with 10-15 patients a day live over a web cam to diagnose illness and prescribe medication. Sindhu Hospital is part of a government funded NGO program and now services the several wireless sites in Baran as a result of the W4C project which is saving the local folks time and cost to travel to the nearest major town, Kota, which is 50 km away.
Our second stop in Bhanwargarh, a village three hours away from Kota, is where the first network tower was built accompanied by solar panels to generate the needed electricity to run the network. Shahid has set up the technical infrastructure and solar energy at this location and continues to train others localsly so they can learn how to maintain the network.
This center provides food, shelter and education to girls whose families cannot provide the financial support needed to advance their education. Also, at this location, kids can take advantage of e-learning opportunities online in a computer room with four computers, access a physical library with books, science equipment and health information and even become part of the live radio broadcast show that was created onsite and is now reaching other villages in Baran managed by the children.
One teenage girl who was trained and educated at this location has moved on to continue to spread her Internet knowledge at our third location and is considered the local “Internet Activist”. She now teaches others about using Facebook and other online tools to help develop a presence online. Currently she has 15 Facebook friends across the entire network that services the Baran villages, which is amazing considering this has been a largely unconnected community till W4C arrived.
Our third stop in Khadela included a small center where locals can gather and use this online learning facility. This location has one computer and leverages the Internet to process and track government subsidized wages and address labor issues such as payment problems, unfair treatment and timely processing. As online information is helping to educate the village, the process of managing local wages has become faster online and the time and cost to travel to the government facility located more than 50 km away is no longer a factor. This site is also used as a monthly meeting place for the village to discuss and work together to address labor issues within the community.
In addition to the online collaboration, one young man decided to branch out and start his own “shop” where he offers document services to locals such as printing birth and death certificates as well as licenses and other legal documents. Using the wireless network, a workstation and his phone, he is able to access the Internet for profit and makes roughly $200 a month USD offering these types of services.
Our last stop in Mamomi included visiting a children’s learning center which was made possible also through the new wireless network and now offers online education opportunities to those that visit. Many stop in for a few weeks sort of like “camp” like to get exposed to using a computer, learn Hindi online and how to use Google and other tools for online educational purposes.  The center Manager was trained by Shahid just as in the other centers so he can not only maintain the network tower and IT equipment, but also repair the solar panels and address electricity issues if they arise. In addition this facility also produces packages and ships the locally known gooseberry candies to nearby markets and other villages.
As this work continues on the ground across a total of seven centers in Baran, new project sites are being targeted for 2014 in Indonesia and Burma. The dedicated staff of DEF and the project promoters likeother project sponsors like the Internet Society will not only help India get connected, but changes thousands of lives in the process through online education and holistic community development.