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

Public Spectrum for Public Access

An extraordinary moment has arrived in the evolution of the internet. For all the transformation that has occurred over the 20+ years since the arrival of the World Wide Web and for the billions of people whose economic, civic and social circumstances have been improved, most people remain without internet connections.

Residing in every country, these unconnected billions still wait for affordable meaningful access to this essential service. Without access to the internet, people cannot even begin to participate in the global digital economy.

In the context of the UN’s 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDG’s), the World Bank/IMF, in partnership with the US State Department, recently launched the Global Connect Initiative(GCI) with the goal of bringing the next 1.5 billion people online by 2020.

A consensus approach has emerged that connecting public access facilities represents the most economical, expedient and equitable way to provide a basic level of service to the greatest number of users. Public libraries, offering low-fee/no-fee access “entry points” combined with necessary training and support services, have proven to optimize chances for successful adoption.

According to the GCI, “Programs to deploy Wi-Fi hotspots in community centers, libraries, schools, and clinics; and to leverage emerging technologies for reaching remote communities, will greatly expand broadband communications access.” Libraries or other community centers can be connected at a fraction of the cost to reaching every home or office. These neighborhood nodes may also serve as “intermediate end points”, potentially as interconnect hubs in wider buildout schemes.

Even with economies of scale gained by connecting community access hubs, a critical barrier to adoption remains a lack of adequate telecom infrastructure. Cell-tower based systems have rapidly brought a convenient yet limited form of connectivity to billions. For billions more the cost of access services and devices remains prohibitively expensive.

Clever new enabling techniques for sharing spectrum across a wide range of licensed as well as license-exempt frequencies have greatly expanded capabilities to conenct. Additionally, new open spectrum is arriving in the form of a low cost wireless infrastructure utilizing unused spectrum in the old analog TV broadcast bands called TV WhiteSpace(TVWS).

Rapid deployment of TVWS together with traditional WiFi and other license free or “lightly licensed” spectrum technologies to libraries, schools and other centers appears to offer the most promising path to providing connections to 100’s of millions of new users within the next few short years. TVWS systems require no monthly fees, 3rd parties, carriers, towers nor other permissions once national use standards are in place.

TVWS, as a nearly “weightless” infrastructure, can quickly extend the edges and fill gaps of any network. Low power transceivers, as nodes in semi-autonomous wide area IP networks, lend themselves to pairing with small solar or wind generators to supply enough electricity in remote or otherwise isolated locations to run the equipment and also serve as charging stations for end user devices.

Successful implementation will depend on worldwide advocacy and country by country adoption of enabling regulations for open shared use of this powerful TV band spectrum. A contrary argument often appears, “Why should we give away something for free that we could sell for billions?”, begging the question, “Who is this ‘we’?” TVWS, like all radio spectrum, originates as perhaps the most in-common public property, the public airwaves.

Rather than the public sell all of this precious asset, only to have to buy some back to enable public services, it makes more sense to retain a portion of these valuable frequencies for shared public use. It would be as if a community sold off all of its open land only to use the proceeds to lease back space for public parks. In perpetuity.


Note from Jane Coffin: This blog post is part of a series of posts about the importance of community networks, anchor institutions – like libraries, and the importance of the unconnected connecting themselves.  A cadre of experts around the world are seeking ways to provide information, case-studies, training, and more to tip the balance in favor of the unconnected who would like to be connected.