Supporting DIY networking from the regulator

Although Brazil has the most competitive mobile broadband market in the Americas, there are still access gaps in rural, remote, and even underserved urban areas. According to the Regional Centre for Studies on the Development of the Information Society’s 2018 TIC Domicílios study, only 51% of Brazilian households in rural areas have a fixed broadband connection, and 80% of lower income individuals have access to a mobile broadband connection. The study also identifies stark inequalities between rural and urban populations, since only 44% of rural households have internet access, compared to 70% of their urban counterparts. The access gap is particularly acute for indigenous peoples in Brazil, who are less than 1% of the country’s population, more often live in more rural areas, and have much lower rates of access to ICT devices like mobile phones or computers.

The expansion of communications infrastructure to underserved urban, rural, and remote areas has been a principal objective of the National Agency for Telecommunications (Anatel) as defined by Telecom Public Policy Decree No. 9.612/2018. In particular, the regulator has been working with prestadoras de pequeno porte — defined as internet service providers (ISPs) that hold a smaller than 5% market share — to lift regulatory burdens. However, the low return on investment on rural and remote network deployments still presents a barrier to universal connectivity.

One of the solutions that has come out of the pequeno porte market are community networks — “bottom-up” networks built by individuals or community groups for the common good. In technical terms, these networks can support backhaul connections and more to a local area within their coverage.

In addition to expanding internet access opportunities, community networks also empower communities. These networks can support sustainable development goals such as increasing access to educational and cultural resources, sharing community objectives, and even defining community governance structures. These networks are especially relevant to Brazil’s many indigenous populations and quilombos (communities established by the descendants of escaped Afro-Brazilian slaves), as community networking allows greater participation in structuring and guiding the mission of these networks.

Although Brazil does not have a separate set of regulations for community networks, Anatel has built on existing regulations to support them. First, Anatel defined community networks under Anatel Resolution No 617/2013, which provides the regulation of Private Limited Services (SLP) — a telecommunications service category that allows people to create a legal identity for their network. With this, community networks can be formed in two ways: either as independent networks built by communities, or as partnerships with small-scale ISPs (PPPs).

Community networks can then be authorised as SLPs, provided that they are restricted within a physical boundary and use radiocommunication equipment with restricted frequencies. Interested parties need only register on Anatel’s website. If the service is confined to a building, then then there is no need for authorisation, according to Law  nº 9.472/1997. Regardless of whether or not they need authorisation, SLPs must ensure that equipment is certified by Anatel as non-conflicting with other signals. If community networks instead wish to use a radio frequency, they must go through Anatel’s authorisation mechanism as defined by Resolution  nº 671/2016.

Regardless of how community networks are formulated, Anatel provides straightforward instructions on how to pursue this endeavour and facilitate authorisation and deployment on its webpage. This one-stop shop is specifically designed for communities who want to deploy their own network. This practice — of targeted regulatory explanations and guidance for community networks — is comparatively rare among regulators.

In order to further foster community networks, Anatel makes readily available on their webpage the joint publication The Community Network Manual: How to build the internet yourself — a collaboration among the Fundação Getulio Vargas (FGV), the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), and the Internet Society (ISOC). The document gives an overview of elements involved in creating a community network, such as the principles of network self-determination, technical expertise, and information on scalability.

In Brazil, community networks have been instrumental in empowering community groups and peripheral communities. Many of these projects often have social, educational, or cultural objectives. Indigenous groups and quilombos are at the forefront of adopting these technologies.

In Northeastern Brazil, there are two community network projects that are led by Afro-Brazilian and indigenous women — one by the Perifericas collective in Itaparica, Bahia, and the other in Peri Peri, Piauí, by the Ayabás Institute for Black Women. These projects are specifically designed to democratise access to connectivity and elevate women’s participation in public spaces. The projects also have capacity-building components designed to teach women technical and digital skills.

Community networks can also expand opportunities in Brazil’s low-income urban communities. For example, the Casa dos Meninos Association installed an intranet system in Jardim São Luiz — a São Paulo neighbourhood where the majority of residents live in favelas or informal settlements, and which has a homicide rate almost double that of the city’s average. The community network was created to support the Association’s educational objectives by facilitating community access to video lectures and online classes, and is trying to expand to other applications such as a book-lending service.

Yet, community networks often face persistent challenges, as the communities who could benefit from them often do not have the resources or hands-on expertise to build and maintain networks. However, according to a recent report by the Association for Progressive Communications, there are some civil society organisations, such as the cooperative laboratory Coolab, that provide funding and capacity training for groups to build autonomous communications structures.

Anatel’s community network-related regulations also strengthen small- and medium-sized enterprises, because these networks have the option of partnering with small-level ISPs that own less than 5% of the market share to deploy connectivity. In this sense, community networks are also improving market competition and allowing new entrants to gain a foothold in the market.

In conclusion, community networks are both improving the robustness of Brazil’s last-mile ICT infrastructure, and ensuring that communities have control of their own connectivity. Regulators can further encourage this with positive regulatory behaviours, such as the creation of targeted guidance for community networks.