By Jane Coffin and Don Means
Internet connectivity is coming to be regarded worldwide as no less than essential infrastructure, and yet it’s estimated about half of the world’s population today remains unconnected.
Connecting the world’s unconnected populations will demand new approaches in business relationships, policy making, and technology solutions. The challenge in bringing the last billions online is marked by a number of unique complications that vary depending on the given unconnected region.
These could include a lack of conducive public policies, education, relevant content, technology options, or even reliable electricity. Community networks and public access figure as central among a pool of solutions through which the great promise of connecting the unconnected is most likely to be fulfilled.
The specific benefits of community networks and public access—such as adaptability to local needs, affordability and contribution to digital literacy—are particularly well suited for connecting the unconnected in rural, remote and underserved areas. IEEE has issued complementary statements on the roles of community networks and public access in advancing universal access, affirming each as “an important element of expanding internet access and allowing individuals and communities to reap the benefits of the internet.”
As evidenced by BOSCO in Uganda, TunapandaNET in Kenya, Rhizomatica in Mexico, AlterMundi in Argentina, Digital Empowerment Foundation projects in India, Guifi.net in Spain, Tribal Digital Village in the United States and others, the world’s successful community networks are as varied as the communities they serve.
Indeed, the IEEE statement points out that “definitions of community networks can be simple or more complex” and that when “based on open internet standards are technically no different than other networks for providing internet access.”
Community networks either can provide access in areas where commercial internet service is not available, or they can offer a valuable complementary alternative to existing commercial offerings in some markets
So often, commercial providers in unconnected regions report that the licensing conditions render return on investment in service rollout to be extremely challenging. Community networks in these settings can provide an affordable and compelling way to get people online:
- they can be built and operated by the members of the communities they serve—sometimes volunteers;
- they can use locally available hardware and software—sometimes donated or open source solutions, and
- they can foster creation of highly relevant content in local languages and dealing with local issues.
The success stories around the world show that a wide variety of governance, organizational and operating models can be leveraged to serve the needs of local communities. In addition, different funding sources and compensation schemes are possible.
So, are there important patterns for community networks to achieve success and/or best practices to be replicated in other markets around the world? The crucial common elements in the success stories are local champions and sufficient people-, project- and money-management skills—even more than any particular networking platform, technologies or architectures. Plus, there often are common policy reforms in a region to be undertaken.
“To unleash the full potential of community networks, policymakers should consider innovative ways to license Community Networks and provide meaningful access to spectrum,” the Internet Society wrote in a May 2018 report, “Unleashing Community Networks: Innovative Licensing Approaches.”
The paper’s recommendations in this area include streamlining/eliminating regulatory requirements as possible, providing relief from various fees and duties, enhancing regulatory transparency, expanding access to universal service funds and other such resources and adopting innovative approaches to providing spectrum access.
Public-access networks providing low- or no-cost access, and ideally combined with training and support, figure to play a large role in bringing the last billions online. “Public internet connectivity can take the form of free wireless connectivity in public squares, parks, town halls, libraries, transportation stations, and individual businesses,” reads the IEEE statement affirming the value of public access to advancing universal internet connectivity.
These community hubs can even serve as anchor points for wider community networks, and, in unconnected regions where digital literacy tends to be low, libraries and telecenters can help connect people for the first time and acquire the skills to use the internet more safely, securely and to their benefit. The libraries and other institutions through which public access is provided typically offer training in the use of the internet, computers, etc.
As with community networks, the specifics of the world’s public-access success stories (Vive Digital in Colombia, Fatih in Turkey, Connected Homes in Costa Rica, Public WiFi in South Africa and WiFi hotspots in Botswana, among them) tend to vary per implementation. Public connectivity can be funded in some instances by governments; in others, by public-private partnerships or businesses. Connectivity can be provided by separate “telecenter” spaces or as part of existing public institutions.
And, again, a conducive policy environment is crucial to success. “Our analysis shows that Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Rwanda and Turkey score higher than their peers on public access policy, thanks to the development and implementation of policies to support the expansion of public access,” writes the Alliance for Affordable Internet, in its report, “Employing Public Access Solutions to Close the Digital Divide.”
“An examination of the policies in place across these countries reveal a number of common features that have contributed to real impact on the ground,” such as:
- prioritizing public access in rural and low-income communities,
- subsidizing or providing access and/or devices at no charge,
- training in digital skills, and
- rolling out public IEEE 802.11™ WiFi.
Contributions and coordination across community network champions, technologists, policy makers, business and organizational leaders, users and other stakeholders are key to ensure the right approaches are employed in each unconnected region.
Integration of community networks, public access and perhaps even offline internet solutions for the most difficult and remote circumstances, advocated by the Partnership for Public Access, can most economically and equitably connect the next billions.
For a variety of reasons, connecting the remaining unconnected stands to be a different, more difficult and more nuanced challenge than was connecting those of us who already are online. Inventive, tailored approaches—informed by common lessons learned and proven success stories—will be needed from region to region around the world.