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You are probably reading this right now either from your phone, tablet or laptop, with an average speed of 2 Mbps (at least, and even more than 10 Mbps if you are in the USA, Canada or Europe) and you most likely feel frustrated every time you cannot load a webpage. Trust me, I can relate. 

But what would you do if I told you that you are part of the 47% of people that are privileged enough to be online and that there are still 3.9 billion people who lack internet access? [1]

You are almost certainly surprised by the number, because it is something you normally would not think about. 

Let me tell you some of the reasons why this lack of internet access remains a big problem and why we must care about it from a national and international perspective. 

Source: Prepared by the author based on ITU data

According to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the reasons for limited internet are manifold. Many do not have access because they live in remote or difficult-to-reach areas and do not have access to digital or other basic infrastructure such as electricity or transport. Some do not see the benefits of being connected, often because of limited awareness, cultural impediments or limited relevant digital content. Still others are illiterate, and many do not have the means to afford even the most basic of internet packages and devices. [2]

Efforts at the international regulation level

For many years, it has been on almost all countries’ agendas to find ways of closing the digital gap. These efforts are reflected, as well, at different international forums, such as the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) or the Internet Governance Forum (IGF). 

Moreover, the ITU is the United Nations' specialised agency for information and communication technologies (ICTs) and has the commitment of connecting all of the world’s people. [3] Because of this, the ITU has created different resolutions and plans for countries to adopt, to fight this immense connectivity issue.  

But, in the end, how are countries and the ITU obliged to connect these unconnected people? How do they work together? 

Understanding how the regulation of telecommunications works, at every level, is a very difficult and complex thing. Since the origin of the ITU in 1865 its role has been not only to connect all the world’s population but also to harmonise wider communication services. The ITU provides allocations of global radio spectrum and satellite orbits; develops the technical standards that ensure networks and technologies seamlessly interconnect; and strives to develop global resolutions to improve access to ICTs in underserved communities worldwide. [4]

National legislations and regulations of all countries have had to adapt to the rules established by the ITU, while the ITU has also adapted to the different technologies that have arisen over time. The different sectors of the ITU cover different topics, including radiocommunication and development. Depending on the sector, the ITU’s resolutions are binding or non-binding. [5] They represent agreements made by all regions on how to apply the use of telecommunications, and these are not only applied to governments but to the private sector as well. 

Normally, NGOs and civil society organisations, which are centred on internet-based rights, are present at forums like the IGF or WSIS but not always at ITU events. It is crucial to notice that the places where countries make critical decisions regarding their agendas, plans and projects are, in fact, at the ITU forums, so it is imperative that we ensure civil society participation at these important events. 

As REDES AC, we’ve been part of Mexico’s delegation to the ITU for 14 years. Since the beginning of our participation we have focused our efforts on preparing resolution changes that target the people who do not have internet because they live in remote, rural or difficult to-reach areas. They are part of the 3.9 billion unconnected people mentioned above.

We are known in Mexico for fostering the creation of support networks that facilitate processes nationally in terms of communication for indigenous communities and community networks, who are normally located in rural and remote areas. Our work in the ITU, and with the regional office, CITEL, [6] has been to add the work of community networks to the international agenda. 

We have managed to involve indigenous and community matters throughout the years. In 2014, we presented Recommendation ITU-D19 at the ITU World Telecommunication Development Conference (WTDC) in Dubai. The recommendation refers to telecommunications for rural and remote areas. Since then, we have been using this reference as a background to create and promote more documents that discuss the important role and recognition of community networks.

As a result, at the last WTDC 2017 meeting in Buenos Aires, there was now mention of community networks in two resolutions, and moreover, in March 2018 at the VII Regular Meeting of the Assembly of CITEL, a further agreement was signed between the Internet Society (ISOC) and CITEL. This agreement consolidates the need to include the participation of community networks in bridging the digital divide in the Americas region. 

Furthermore, a month ago, Rodrigo Huerta, the law area coordinator of REDES AC and I attended the 32nd Meeting of CITEL Permanent Consultative Committee I: Telecommunications/ICT and the 32nd Meeting of the Conference Preparatory Working Group to address the Regional Preparatory for World Conferences and Meetings of COM/CITEL​​ in Lima, Peru. We also collected information through a regulation questionnaire we had previously presented and through interviews with regulators from different countries in order to have data for a research project we are currently working on with ISOC, about the regulation of community networks in the Americas region.

Moreover, at the Regional Development Forum which took place in Lima, Peru, the five regional initiatives included in the WTDC 2017 Buenos Aires Action Plan were discussed. One of the initiatives concerned the deployment of broadband infrastructure, especially in rural and underserved areas, among others, and it was mentioned that community networks could fit as an innovative alternative. Based on successful interactions that we had, we are currently planning on getting a specific budget from the ITU’s Regional Development Office by suggesting different activities such as a workshop for regulators, the writing and editing of a manual for the regulation of community networks, as well as financing of pilot projects.

Community network international agenda

While fostering the creation of community networks in Mexico, we have partnered during the last year with other community networks around the world to establish an international agenda on regulation and prove that community networks are community-based, feasible and affordable alternatives to bridge the digital divide. 

The path, of course, has not been easy. It is very difficult to explain to regulators how these models have been created and how they work. The discussion, for years, has been that either governments or for-profit enterprises were the ones to find the solution to communicate rural areas. It has never been within the arguments that maybe, communities could find the connectivity solutions by themselves. 

For unconnected and unserved areas, the process has been the same in almost every country of Latin America. The most inhabited cities of each country are provided with all communication means, even, most of them, with optical fibre and 4G. Nonetheless, while capital cities normally have the largest coverage, there are countries with very low connection rates throughout the rest of their territory. Mainly in remote and rural areas, the digital divide is immense. [7]

When these international meetings at CITEL or ITU take place, regulators do have in mind that there is something that can be done, in terms of including the ones who are unconnected on the agenda, but it is not priority number one, as other matters that are also important are discussed. Moreover, mentioning spectrum allocation in any matter can be a delicate thing, because it is attached to economic motives. 

In a lot of countries in the Americas, spectrum allocation has become important in national legislation because companies pay millions of dollars to use different bands. Therefore, introducing the idea of giving some of that spectrum to social causes has become very difficult, because it forces countries to start showing some flexibility in their regulations and legislations. 

Experiences from countries that already have applied these types of laws are what have been giving us a solid background and foundations to all our arguments. Nonetheless, negotiations are always risky. You do not know how other actors might react and you also have to take into account if institutions within each country are strong enough to support the model. 

One of the most beautiful outcomes we have had from our experience is that we have, in some cases, built a bridge between regulators and NGOs. It has been incredible for us to deal with the kind people who have taken up the work towards enabling regulation language to support community networks as their own, or to find regulators that instantly want to give it a try. It gives us a lot of hope.

Moreover, it has been encouraging to find community networks who were, at first, convinced that there was no way of establishing a dialogue with their national governments and then slowly see a change in their attitude. Through these international events, we have been able to connect their community networks with their respective local regulators, and as a result, some have found a harmonised bond and agreement. Between both bodies, there is now a dialogue, creating mechanisms of working together, and consideration of the interests of all parties. 

So, to conclude, we are all interested in getting to that 53% of the population who are still unconnected. The regulators have been trying different means to provide connectivity for a decade now. Some have worked and prevailed, some others have not. What we all know is that community networks can be a good alternative and there are cases that prove it. However, what we need is to still work on that community network and regulator bond, which is being constructed on an ongoing basis. There are still many consensuses to be made and many discussions to be had. Through dialogue and experience sharing, we should get where we want to go. 

We would like to thank Canada’s International Development Research Centre for the travel fund  support that was given to us, which was administered through the Association for Progressive Communications.

[1] Connecting the Unconnected: Working together to achieve Connect 2020 Agenda Targets. Available at:…
[2] Ibid.
[4] Ibid.
[5] The ITU resolutions that are binding are the ones that result from the World Radiocommunication Conferences (WRC) and the Plenipotentiary Conferences because they imply the signing of a treaty.
[6] CITEL is the Inter-American Commission that deals with the development of telecommunications in the Americas region and has the same working schemes as the ITU, but on a regional level.
[7] Obviously, it depends on every country. The United States and Canada offer communication services to 100% of its territory and in Uruguay, for example, the coverage rate is the same but with the immense difference that telecommunication services are state-owned. 

Image provided by the author from the CMDT Argentina.


Karla holds a BA in International Relations from the Autonomous Technological Institute of Mexico (ITAM). She coordinates the international area of Redes por la Diversidad, Equidad y Sustentabilidad (REDES) AC and regularly participates in international telecommunication forums, representing Mexican indigenous communities and their community networks.