Internet Society – APC – FGV – community networks: How to build connectivity?

5 Dec 2016 16:00h - 19:00h

Event report

[Read more session reports and live updates from the 11th Internet Governance Forum]

The session focused on the opportunities offered by community-built networks, and the various economic, social and regulatory obstacles in developing them. It gathered a number of experienced community network developers to share their experiences, and jointly work on a possible outcome document, entitled, Guadalajara Declaration on Community Connectivity (see current draft).

In the first segment, ‘Setting the Scene: the State of Connectivity’, Manu Bardwaj from the US State Department, presented the work of the Global Connect Initiative, which was launched by the US government in September 2015, along with adopting the SDGs, and now has around 40 members. It aims to contribute to the goal of connecting 1.5 billion people by 2020, as well as helping countries build comprehensive broadband plans, encouraging competition, removing bureaucratic obstacles, and encouraging public-private partnerships. Bardwaj suggested a greater role of technical communities in high-level political discussions about connectivity, and the greater involvement of development banks in building connectivity.

Alejandro Pisanty, from the National University of Mexico, mentioned several challenges in providing connectivity, from deploying the broadband infrastructure to providing satellite connection, and the specificities of certain areas, such as rural ones. An enabling regulatory environment and public policies aiming to connect the unconnected are important. Pisanty highlighted the public-private partnership that is being developed in Mexico as a good example of a joint effort to provide connectivity.

Bob Frankston, from the IEEE Consumer Electronics Society, pointed out the technical differences between the connectivity provided by telecommunications companies, which need careful management, and the Internet. From simple programming instructions it is possible to create community networks and services. Broadband provision by telecommunication companies is just one business model, among many. He emphasised that it is also possible to connect using different technologies, such as existing copper wires. The use of the word broadband as synonymous of connectivity is misleading and is currently preventing real connectivity and communication. Communities can be empowered to build their own connectivity.

Some participants questioned the feasibility of community networks, pointing out, for example, that countries like Brazil and Mexico have a large territory with geographic challenges that still make the efficient use of old technologies, such as FM radio, a challenge. Some others mentioned that the main challenge is not the lack of connectivity, but the lack of awareness on being connected, and on the value of the Internet.

Jane Coffin from the Internet Society, the moderator of the second segment ‘From Broadband to Connectivity, reminded participants that in building community networks, 80% is community building, while only 20% is technology and economy. She quoted Raul Echeberia asking whether it is the first or the last mile that we want to connect.

Nathalia Foditsch from the American University, presented key findings in the recent book Broadband in Brazil: Past, Present and Future. Brazil has over 5000 medium and small ISPs, which help connecting areas with low connectivity. One of the case studies mentioned on the book relates to a public-private partnership in the state of Ceara, which is deploying fibre optic cables, which reduces the costs of capital expenditures for the state. There are also examples of community networks in favelas, connected by fibre optic cables. Foditsch, however, mentioned major problems with bureaucracy – for instance, getting licenses can take months. She asked for better spectrum management and more unlicensed spectrum, and investments in new technologies like dynamic spectrum and TV white space.

Percival Henriques from in Brazil, added that only 4 companies hold 80% of the market, while 6400 small and medium ISPs hold 20% of the market. He showcased how the local community can get engaged, from building the infrastructure to training the community.

Mike Jensen of APC reminded the audience that it is not just about connecting the unconnected, but ensuring proper speed and good quality. More importantly, there needs to be a change in the paradigm of ‘waiting for service’: communities need to be active in looking for alternatives and setting them up. The government and private sector also need to be aware of alternatives. Lastly, the policy environment needs to change to enable communities to set up the networks, recognising connectivity as a basic need.

Mahabir Pun from Nepal Wireless Networking, shared his experience with setting up community networks in Nepal in response to the lack of interest by telecoms to reach out. While wireless technology has its limitations, there are pilot projects running TV white spaces which promise good results in connecting remote areas. Pun underlined the importance of local content, and invited governments to use the universal service obligation fund to invest in rural community networks.

Nicolas Echaniz from Altermundi in Argentina, said that remote areas do not only have problems with connectivity, but many other social issues such as health and education. The market dictates that people who cannot pay for a service do not get the service. There are number of projects such as Project Loon, Free Basics and similar. These are ‘Internet for the poor’, offering second rate digital citizenship with access to a limited set of content and services. Small communities are already used to working around the market in various fields – agriculture, markets, etc., so they may be ready to do the same with Internet connectivity.

Leandro Navarro from proposed not to connect the next billion, but to let the next billion connect themselves. Participation is the key, and people need to acquire the knowledge  to build their own networks which can then lead them to addressing their own needs. The principles of natural commons are a useful base of knowledge. The participatory governance model in which anyone can build their own networks and even provide their own services commercially can also help local economies, leaving the surplus to the community members.

In the discussion that followed, the question ‘why universal funds are given to incumbents and ISPs rather than to local communities?’ was raised. Some replied that there is already plenty of infrastructure; however, local communities need to find ways to connect to them better. Regional Internet Registries (RIR) emphasised the need for community networks to get connected to the wider Internet, encouraging them not to use NAT services but to acquire their own IP resources including IPv6, and inviting them to discuss their challenges with RIRs.

It was mentioned that Google, Facebook and other connectivity projects using drones and balloons do help in extending the coverage which telecoms are not doing, yet there is still a need for enhanced dialogue of those companies with the local communities. It was suggested that the price and costs are not related, since the cost can be much lower than the price. Telecom operators manage the path as a service, while communities can manage their own paths. It should be taken into consideration that community networks help to circumvent censorship; besides, different social classes and inequalities (such as gender) exist in small communities and should not reflect in community networks.

The third segment on ‘A new Connectivity Paradigm: Crowdsourcing the Guadalajara Declaration on Community Connectivity’ was used to further discuss the draft outcome document. Luca Belli from the Center for Technology & Society at FGV, presented the work on the annual outcomes of the Dynamic Coalition on Connectivity, and the Declaration on Community Connectivity which should come out of this IGF meeting. The Declaration should facilitate the interoperability of community networks and  regulatory environments, and look into the commitments of communities and recommendations for regulators. The meeting provided comments to the initial draft of the Declaration which defines community networks, describes community network participants, suggests policy principles and reflects policies affecting community networks. It is expected that the legitimacy of the Declaration, given by the UN IGF as well as through the inputs of various communities directly, could help garner broader support of governments to community networks in the future.

by Marília Maciel, Vladimir Radunović, and Ivy Hoetu