Growing the Internet

Connecting the unconnected: Experience from the First Phase of our W4C Project in Pakistan

Coming from the urban part of Pakistan, the Internet is nothing new for me and not as novel anymore, as I have been using it every day for the past many years. However, for many who don’t have access, it can indeed be a thing of wonder that can be used to connect, communicate and collaborate. This is something I realised during the first phase of our ‘Wireless for Communities’ (W4C) pilot project in Pakistan.

Today, wireless technologies are an excellent alternative, especially in countries that are lagging behind regarding getting the Internet to rural communities. Embracing Internet Society’s vision that the Internet is for Everyone, W4C is the Internet Society Asia-Pacific Bureau’s award-winning project that follows a holistic approach to community-based wireless networks which provide much-needed connectivity in rural and underserved environments in South Asia. The project has been running successfully in India for the past five years and has very recently made an entry into Pakistan and Nepal.

In Pakistan, the W4C pilot project was carried out with COMSATS Internet Services, which is our local partner. Structured in four phases, the first phase of establishing connectivity was completed in December, when together with a team of network engineers, we spent two eventful days at ‘Chak-5 Faiz’,our project site, located near the city of Multan.

This ‘180 feet tri-polo tower holding Sector Antennas’ (base station) provided a decent 2 kilometres coverage area in a scattered community comprising several small villages. The most immediate ‘to be connected’ need came from a girls and a boys school situated closer to the base station, and there were sheer moments of both delight and gratitude in these schools. The computer lab teacher (video) at the girls’ school told us about the struggle to have a working Internet connection and that the W4C project will enable students to learn about and be part of the online world. The situation at the boys’ school was similar; we saw both smiles and anxiety on faces while we installed the Internet connection and a computer in the school – both teachers and students were energised to use the Internet in their teaching and learning.

Our next task was to connect the community (client) side that brought even more worth to our work. We first needed to secure an elevated position to install our client antenna, and without any hesitation, a local villager offered his property when told that we were there to offer the Internet. News of our work spread like a wildfire to nearby villages, and we had several asking if we were able to offer a W4C site to them as well – I wish we had a Magic Internet Stick which we could just wave to make it happen!

The day passed with us working to configure the client side with the base station, speaking with villagers and listening to their need for reliable connectivity. Not surprisingly, one of the most valuable uses of the Internet we heard from them was to make calls over the Internet to be able to communicate with their loved ones abroad. This person told us (video) how he feels about W4C coming to his village.

Access to the Internet is still a dream to many – some half of the world’s population remains offline – and our W4C project is a small effort to help connect the unconnected, and provide a best practice example that others can replicate.

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