Spectrum for community networks: Opening up a crucial conversation

There is a profound connectivity “gap” in many parts of the world, leaving over half the global population without internet access – 3.58 billion people currently have internet access, out of a total of 7.7 billion. This connectivity gap exists in urban, rural and remote unserved and underserved areas of many countries, particularly developing and least-developed countries.

One very critical policy and regulatory issue for community networks is the issue of access to and use of spectrum, which includes common barriers such as spectrum scarcity, inefficient use of spectrum, and the expense of spectrum access. Spectrum is a resource that is needed to connect the unconnected, and one which community networks need to be able to use it to survive. This was the premise behind the roundtable “Spectrum for Community Networks: A 'Must' That Is Hard to Get”, which took place during day 1 of the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) 2018. The objective of this workshop, co-organised by the Internet Society and APC, was to discuss spectrum as a resource that community networks and other small-scale operators need access to, and to open up a conversation on ways to overcome the barriers and make a better use of the opportunities available – or to create those opportunities if necessary.

The participants explored the many facets of access to spectrum, addressed key policy and technical issues, and looked at ways in which community networks can work with partners to remove barriers and connect more people in order to improve their lives. "Access has simply become too valuable to exclude anyone," Steve Song emphasised during one of his interventions in representation of the African group of the technical community. According to Song, one way of moving things forward requires community network advocates to follow a now well-established tradition of demanding transparency and open data in government. “The telecom sector is desperately overdue for transparency in not just spectrum assignments, but where fibre networks are. Because if you are building a community network, the first thing you want to do is find access to a fiber network, ” he said. “Mobile network operators claim coverage that is sometimes based on their desire to negotiate good roaming agreements as opposed to truth in advertising," he added, which underscores the need for "the ability to actually validate claims as we try to connect everyone."

“We need a million community networks”

“Why don't community networks scale?” someone asked in a previous session. Steve Song raised this question again and explained that viewing "scale" as the solution to everything is a myth: “If you took a glass jar and you were trying to fill that jar with sort of fist-size stones, you could fit maybe three or four stones in that jar, and the jar would roughly look full. But if you fill that jar with water, it's still actually more than 50% water. That is roughly the state of telecom regulation. We regulate for these large stones, and it's never going to fill the jar. We need regulation for these sort of pebbles and, indeed, for sand. That's the only way we are actually going to achieve 100% connectivity for everyone."

"In order to achieve universal access, it's not that we need one giant community network. We need a million community networks. Just like we have a billion Wi-Fi devices. [...] So I think creating regulatory frameworks that accommodate big stones, small stones, and the sand is actually the strategy we need,” Song stressed, adding that this is what was pursued in a recent submission to the South African government on the disposition of 800 MHz and 2.6 GHz spectrum, trying to open up these opportunities for smaller regulatory interventions that can have massive impact.

Peter Bloom of Rhizomatica referred to the case of Mexico, where spectrum is set aside for rural areas and community networks have a guaranteed right to spectrum, something that hasn't reduced or in any way affected the investment in large networks: “The regulatory space is the space of capture, that's kind of how it's always been treated. And I don't think we need to continue strengthening that viewpoint. We need to break that down and break it apart and figure out how other people can enter into the space.”

Steve Song also shared a valuable piece of advice with the people at the session and those attending remotely: “The teachable moments in your countries are the moments when regulators offer consultations. When they issue a call for input on their licensing strategy or regulation strategy, it's complex, it's difficult. It takes a lot of getting to know. There are people in this room, we want to help you. We want to assist you in that process. So reach out to us. Our names are here. And we will help you.”

Carlos Rey-Moreno, who moderated the roundtable along with Jane Coffin from the Internet Society, closed the discussion on a positive note. When discussion first began around the background paper for the session, “it was about opening up a conversation that was totally closed. I think this conversation is opening up. Having all of you here, from panellists to audience, to the people on the internet, in discussing and thinking and considering these new options about how what is not being used efficiently can be used to better create connectivity, I think we agree. I think the next step needs every one of us to take this conversation forward in our constituencies, in our countries, in our frameworks. It is an opportunity. We need to believe this is a way forward to actually act in every single window that opens for us.”

Watch the video of the workshop here:

Transcript of the workshop available here

Background paper available here.

Image: Screenshot of the workshop video.

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