Financing and building sustainable community networks – The Coolab experience

19 Dec 2017 12:15h - 12:45h

Event report

[Read more session reports and live updates from the 12th Internet Governance Forum]

The session was co-organised by Mr Adriano Belisario, an associate of Coolab, based in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and Mr Rafael Zanatta, researcher at the Instituto Brasileiro de Defesa do Consumidor (IDEC), and moderated by Mr Bruno Vianna, associate at Coolab. It presented the experience of Coolab, a collective dedicated to the creation of community networks in Brazil. In partnership with other NGOs, Coolab works to bridge the digital divide in Brazil through sustainable community networks.

Mr Peter Bloom, founder and general coordinator of Rhizomatica, talked about how they designed the network to be sustainable. He said community networks have to be supported in order for them to exist. He continued that they have 16 networks, which are attached to legal organisations for protection, with more than 3 000 people using them daily. The network users pay 2.50 dollars, of which 2 dollars stay with the local networks while 50 cents is used to support the umbrella organisation.

Mr Mike Jensen, Internet Access Specialist, Association for Progressive Communications (APC), introduced APC as an organisation and network with about 10 members who are supporting or operating community networks. He said that research and observation has indicated that scale is a key issue in community networks, since they have low population density compared to urban areas. Another problem is the low level of technical and business skills, and so capacity building is necessary. Also the cost of backhaul may disturb connection to the outside, while the possibility of sharing infrastructure, such as towers, can reduce the cost of deployment.

An unidentified speaker said work on projects related to ICT for development is supported by ISOC and APC, aimed at showing that communities can design and deploy their own cellular networks. She added that they have identified five things important for a sustainable network:

  • Connectivity with people with different abilities and roles
  • Independent working for communities, respecting their systems and cultures
  • Awareness of the difficulties and challenges that exist
  • Working with diverse organisations
  • Participation of different groups including women

Mr Vianna explained that Coolab is an organisation in charge of building community networks. He added that initially they had no permanent source of funding and relied only on foreign aid, which was not sustainable. He said that they created a revolving fund through a project they presented to Mozilla Equal Challenge, and received a grant of 30 000 dollars to start the project. With this grant and support from the Rosenberg Foundation, seven networks were created, and the fees paid are used to pay the backhaul and finance new installations. Although there were problems of scale, it is sustainable and users are trained to build their own networks. Also local apps and services are developed that run on the local network for sharing of knowledge and culture without dependence on external applications.

An unidentified speaker talked about the need to support open technology developers as they develop the technology that communities use to deploy their networks at low cost.

Another unidentified speaker from the University of Paraiba, Brazil, presented the community cellular (CELCO) project that was implemented with engineering students in the university with funding from their state. She added that they have deployed three community networks based on GSM. She concluded that as a university they cannot expand the network but can build the knowledge that can be expanded to other communities in the Amazon region.

The session ended with questions and answers where the audience raised concerns about the sustainability of funding and the regulation of community networks.

By Foncham Denis Doh