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Why Community Networks Matter to Advance Internet Access for All

This post was written by Maiko Nakagaki, A4AI’s Strategic Partnerships & Development Manager. It provides an overview of a webinar on community networks featuring expert members of A4AI. The webinar is available to watch on-demand.

For the first time, by the end of 2018, over half of the global population was using the internet. While a moment to celebrate, getting online is still a challenge for many people across the globe for a number of reasons, including a lack of affordability. One transformative answer to overcoming the connectivity challenge is employing public access solutions such as community networks and public WiFis.

Community networks are a subset of crowdsourced networks, designed to be open, free, and neutral, and often reliant on shared infrastructure as a common resource. They are generally built, used, and managed with a bottom-up approach by communities. A4AI is a strong proponent of community networks. We recently hosted a webinar featuring four A4AI members who are leading experts in the field, to explain how they help bring more people online.

Luca Belli, Professor of Internet Governance and Regulation from Fundação Getulio Vargas (FGV) Law School in Brazil explained that because community networks are democratically built and rely on the participation of people from local communities, they usually address the direct needs of these communities. They also fill the gap in bringing connectivity to rural and less commercially profitable areas that traditional mobile network operators may not be interested in serving. Belli also highlighted publically available resources, such as The community network manual : how to build the Internet yourself, recently published by FGV, International Telecommunications Union, and Internet Society (ISOC), to encourage communities wishing to bring internet to their area to do so.

International organisations, such as ISOC, are pushing globally to expand community networks. Jane Coffin, the Senior Advisor to the CEO – Connectivity & Infrastructure at ISOC, explained that ISOC advocates for community networks because they help connect marginalised rural, remote, and underserved communities by making internet access more affordable. Coffin explained that ISOC encourages the development of community networks in several ways, including supporting organisations to implement community network projects; working with policymakers to change and promote the deployment of community networks; partnering with international financial institutions to support community networks and train partners; and hosting knowledge sharing opportunities among partners.

To learn about good practices from the field, Osama Manzar, the Founder and Director of Digital Empowerment Foundation (DEF), presented three key takeaways from implementing over 30 wireless community networks in India. First is the importance of manoeuvring complex legal and regulatory barriers, such as only using the unlicensed 2.4 GHz and 5.8 GHz spectrum bands or abiding the limitations on allowable wireless technologies and equipment. While important to follow existing frameworks, Manzar noted that such policy limitations hinder community networks from flourishing and must be reformed. Second is the need to build the capacity of local engineers who can maintain the technology of the community networks. Because technologies need upkeep, DEF emphasises the importance of training new and existing engineers in communities so they can manage and maintain networks once DEF leaves these communities. Manzar also noted that policy advocacy is necessary to liberalize internet provisions. DEF has been advocating for community networks and individual entrepreneurs to be permitted to officially register as rural/village-level internet service providers (ISPs) so they can further distribute internet connectivity.

Another challenge of community networks is sustainability. Given that many networks are not-for-profit or rely on donor support, some organisations are testing alternative models to sustain their networks. Project Isizwe, which provides free public WiFi networks for low-income communities and rural areas across South Africa, is one of them. Dudu Mkhwanazi, the CEO of Project Isizwe, presented interesting sustainable revenue models that her organisation is pursuing to scale its free public WiFi networks. For instance, Project Isizwe offers 35 MB of free WiFi access per day in certain cities, and after that encourages users to purchase low-cost WiFi vouchers (100 MB for 1 Rand/0.07 USD). Another revenue generating model they are trailing is selling advertisement space on its main homepage when people access through its public WiFi.

Community networks are an exciting solution to help expand access for all. In addition to nonprofits and international organisations, some companies — like Google’s Google Stations — are exploring public access solutions to expand access. Indeed, to bring the next half of the world’s population online, all stakeholders — governments, civil society organisations and the private sector — should work together and support public access solutions. A4AI will continue to explore new models of connectivity to reduce costs and bring more people online.

You can watch the full webinar here and explore the slides.

For more updates on our work, follow us on Twitter at @A4A_Internet.