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This session with the Association for Progressive Communications (APC), the Internet Society, Internet Addresses Registry for Latin America and Caribbean (LACNIC), and The Internet in the Asia Pacific Foundation (APNIC) gave an overview of their experience in building, supporting, and working with community networks over the years. More precisely, the session discussed how policymakers and governments can work with under-served, rural, remote, and indigenous areas to aid them in creating their own connectivity solutions.
The participants agreed that it is no longer an issue whether community networks can work, as they are now living and thriving all over the world. A new interest has arisen to engage in the deepest levels of policy and regulation (which was considered tedious and unattractive up until that point). Changes in policy and regulatory activities have complemented this shift of energy towards building networks, that the panellists felt started at the 2016 IGF in Guadalajara. Mr Carlos Rey Moreno (Association for Progressive Communications) gave an example of an exercise in the creation of a policy Wiki resource, in which people collaboratively contributed to see how a community network could fit in the regulatory framework of the country, from the licensing, national policy, and spectrum perspectives.
Issues of the digital divide were explored; the need was discussed for regulators to have more information from operators on their working issues, to the changing landscape of what constitutes the digital divide today.
‘The gap that separates those that are connected to those that are not yet connected keeps widening every single day’, stated Mr Sebastian Bellagamba (Regional Director, Latin American and Caribbean Internet).
The funding mechanisms provided by the Inter-American Telecommunication Commission (CITEL) alliance were brought forward as a good practice in supporting community networks; these mechanisms are filling the financial gap for community networks across their regions of work. Ms Silvia Calin (Head, Programmes, APNIC) presented the work of the alliance through their two types of funding mechanisms - awards and small innovation grants. She shared an example of one of the most successful projects. One of the first recipients of the CITEL alliance award from 2009 was the wireless provider for the Dalai Lama, which has now grown into an enterprise that provides access in India for nine cities and has hundreds and thousands of users, including banks, schools, and hospitals. That provider is undertaking research this year around power to assess how to maintain relay stations in the mountains of India interconnecting cities, schools, and hospitals, to ensure that a special relay in a remote location can stay up for a particular number of hours, monitored by the community.
Other examples of community networks mentioned included community networks in urban areas, such as New York City Mesh, a WiFi based on microwave links, using an unlicensed spectrum, which successfully works, supported by a back-haul agreement (providing an intermediate link to the backbone network) with DCIX, an Internet service provider.
The session ended with an announcement about the FRIDA (Regional Fund for Digital Innovation in Latin America and the Caribbean) award given to the Nuestra Red project, one of the oldest community networks in Colombia. Their technical team has worked to document different lessons concerning the set-up of networks so that their solutions could be scaled elsewhere, supporting the actual set-up of other community networks in the country.
Overall, the speakers of the session were united in the opinion that for connecting the unconnected it is crucial to support the deployment of community networks. This means creating and nurturing the capacities for these networks, reducing barriers for their development, and providing funding mechanisms for them to thrive and form partnerships; supporting grass-roots projects from their very beginnings.
By Darija Medić