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People who are digitally excluded on the basis of where they live, gender, class, disability or identity, have affordable and sustainable connectivity that allows them to share and communicate.
Implementation of new community-driven autonomous broadband wireless network projects
Over the past four years, APC strengthened community networks in the global South. Our work built capacity in communities, encouraged peer learning and knowledge exchange, and successfully influenced policy makers.
In 2017 we launched “Connecting the unconnected” in collaboration with Rhizomatica, and with support from the International Development Research Centre (IDRC). “Connecting the unconnected” offered hands-on support and catalysed capacity building on the ground, and successfully advocated for enabling conditions for community networks in global policy forums, strengthening the community network movement regionally and globally. The scope of the project was broadened through an additional grant from the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida) in 2019, which included a subgranting component, further strengthening the capacity of community networks across Latin America, Asia and Africa. Additional funding has been secured from several donors, including the IDRC, ensuring the continuity and sustainability of our work with local access and community-based initiatives in the years ahead.
In 2019 alone the capacity of over 200 local access practitioners and advocates was built through networking and collaboration opportunities, including regional peer exchanges, three regional community network summits and 12 national multistakeholder events.
APC built the institutional capacity and sustainability of community networks through training regulators and offering hands-on support to grassroots initiatives, including through learning and peer grants, a travel fund, and funding set aside for innovation in community networks.
While we trained national regulators on policy that enables community networks in countries like Togo, Egypt, Costa Rica and India, at least three new community networks were launched with the support of the project in Latin America (RedINC in Colombia with support from Colnodo, and two in Brazil – Boa Vista and Campo Verde in Para state, in collaboration with LASSE at Universidade Federal do Pará). In 2018 Zenzeleni Networks, an APC member and one of the project's founding community networks in South Africa, seeded a second community network through the support of the country's Department of Science and Technology and the Technology Innovation Agency.
Meanwhile, our travel exchanges enabled mainly rural community network partners to meet and visit each other for the first time, building trust and mutual support. The travel exchanges encouraged peer-to-peer collaborations, such as solving solar energy issues and learning about the cooperative model of internet access. By the end of 2019, around 35 community networks had been directly supported in various ways through grants provided by the project.
Uptake of policies and programmes that promote innovative and people-centred approaches to access
APC reframed the policy debate in key access areas such as spectrum management through research. We documented the benefits of small-scale, community-based connectivity initiatives and the challenges they face, and produced a first-of-its-kind mapping of community networks from over 40 countries across the world.
Access to spectrum is a crucial part of internet access for community networks. In 2018 three project team members – Stephen Song, Carlos Rey-Moreno and Michael Jensen – reconceptualised the framework and current landscape for spectrum management by authoring a report published by the Internet Society called Innovations in Spectrum Management: Enabling community networks and small operators to connect the unconnected. The report surveys the status of spectrum management in frequency bands used to provide connectivity in Argentina, Brazil, Canada, India, Mexico, South Africa and the United States, and outlines the basis for an evolving spectrum management ecosystem where complementary approaches can be used to remove barriers and provide support to community networks and small operators.
In 2019 we published research in support of evidence-based policy making that will create a more enabling environment for small, community-based local access networks. The study, “Bottom-up Connectivity Strategies: Community-led small-scale telecommunication infrastructure networks in the global South”, was the result of a series of interviews and visits to 12 rural community networks. It drew high-level international attention, and resulted in the UN Refugee Agency launching a feasibility study on refugees and community networks in East Africa.
The global community network movement's understanding of the policy spaces they work in was also unpacked through research on regulatory environments for community networks in Latin America (by Derechos Digitales), India, Myanmar and the Philippines (by Digital Empowerment Foundation), and Nigeria (by Fantsuam Foundation), while Pangea founder Leandro Navarro authored an APC issue paper on using the commons model for networks infrastructure. Meanwhile, work by Stephen Song has influenced the growing interest in open telecoms data at the World Bank, UNICEF and the African Telecommunications Union.
The 2018 edition of Global Information Society Watch (GISWatch) captured the experiences of community networks in 43 country reports. These reports mapped the challenges of community networks in diverse contexts, including technical, social, regulatory and sustainability challenges. Eight thematic reports introduced the edition, dealing with issues such as policy and regulatory frameworks for community networks, technology options, financial sustainability, local content, feminist infrastructures, and how our stories about community networks reveal systemic power relationships. The edition has served as a useful reference for others looking to understand community networks better (for example, Rich and Pather in their journal article “A response to the persistent digital divide: Critical components of a community network ecosystem”, published in 2020 in Information Development).
In addition to building knowledge about community networks, our monthly newsletter on community networks and local access has served as a practical and useful resource for community access initiatives. Through several workshops with our peers in 2019 we also started to develop a repository of policy and regulation country profiles that can be found here.
We presented powerful arguments and convinced civil society and policy makers on the critical role that community networks can play in connecting unconnected communities, ensuring a people-centred approach to access
APC’s policy advocacy work has been critical not only in highlighting how commercial connectivity models isolate marginalised communities, but also in positioning people-owned networks as one of the main solutions to address this gap. Through APC’s engagement and participation in key regional and global forums, along with submissions on access-related policy and regulatory processes, we contributed to an increased understanding of a people-centred perspective on access, innovative regulatory approaches and public policy recommendations. In 2019 alone we participated in more than 20 regional and global forums, including the Commission on Science and Technology for Development (CSTD), World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) Forum, African Union Commission, global and regional Internet Governance Forums (IGFs), the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP), as well as the Inter-American Telecommunication Commission (CITEL) and Global Symposium for Regulators (GSR-19).
In 2019 we also participated in numerous national sessions and conferences in, among others, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Sweden, Tunisia, Colombia, Spain, Tanzania, the UK and Germany. Meanwhile, community network peers prepared multistakeholder events in each of their countries. These created a platform for the community networks to engage with different stakeholders, from those who were interested in starting community networks to those who could play a role in supporting community networks such as academia, policy makers and regulators.
Our consistent participation in ITU processes has laid the groundwork for significant policy changes in the future. We have organised workshops on local connectivity solutions at the WSIS Forum, convened by the ITU, made submissions to the ITU Study Group 1 Question 5 on Telecommunication in rural and remote areas, and to the ITU Council Working Group-Internet, organised at the ITU Telecom World. We participated in the ITU Global Symposium for Regulators 2019, the Plenipotentiary conference, and also made submissions to the UN High Level Panel on Digital Cooperation. In partnership with ISOC and Rhizomatica, we also worked at the World Telecommunication Development Conference (WTDC) to promote the adoption of a resolution in favour of community networks.
Our advocacy ensured that community networks were a central topic at global and regional IGFs throughout the four years.
This included the global IGFs in Geneva, Paris and Berlin, and regional IGFs in Latin America and the Caribbean, Asia and Africa. At the 2017 IGF in Geneva, APC participated in several workshops on community networks, as well as the Dynamic Coalition on Community Connectivity (DC3). APC’s paper on a methodology for researching community networks was presented and published in the DC3 2017 annual report.
APC also contributed to the IGF session on Connecting and Enabling the Next Billion. At the global IGF in Paris in 2018, representatives from AlterMundi, guifi.net and Rhizomatica again participated in the Dynamic Coalition on Community Connectivity, while APC staff and partners organised and contributed to the session on accessing spectrum. Fantsuam Foundation, the Digital Empowerment Foundation (DEF) and Rhizomatica were also panellists in a session on innovative approaches to connecting underserved areas.
Our work continued at the 2019 IGF in Berlin, where community network peers presented their work at the Best Practices Forum on Gender and Access, and we participated in the Best Practices Forum on Local Content and held sessions on community networks, among other Day Zero and post-IGF events.
Our policy advocacy resulted in a UN resolution on the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) recognising the importance of community networks in 2018, and the African Union promoting community networks in the following year.
The WSIS resolution in 2018 was achieved through a number of high-level submissions on local access developed with members, as well as through our participation at the CSTD.
Another key policy advocacy milestone came in 2019, when the African ministers in charge of Communication and Information and Communication Technology (CICT) and Postal Services directed the African Union to promote community networks.
Meanwhile, we substantively contributed to policy and regulation processes at national levels to ensure favourable conditions for community networks to develop in South Africa, Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Zimbabwe and Canada.
Our subgranting programme built knowledge on regulatory environments impacting on community networks, trained internet access champions, introduced marginalised women to computers for the first time, and advocated for institutional policy change to help people with disabilities access higher education.
Several APC members promoted meaningful internet access through our core Sida-funded subgrants programme. For example, in 2016 PROTEGE QV held a workshop to investigate the reasons behind the poor quality of internet access in Cameroon. It trained 20 ambassadors to advocate for faster and more affordable internet connectivity in the country. In 2018 Colnodo held 27 face-to-face workshops with people from isolated rural villages from the municipality of Buenos Aires, Cauca, in Colombia.
The aim of the workshops was to encourage the appropriation of wireless technology for community access in those villages. Over 60% of the participants in the workshops were women, some of whom had never used a computer before. In Nigeria, Fantsuam Foundation researched the policy and regulatory challenges faced by community networks in 2017, while a similar study was conducted by Derechos Digitales in Latin America the following year. In 2019, the Centre for Information Technology and Development (CITAD) assessed the institutional policies for the digital inclusion of people with disabilities in higher education institutions.
Much of this work by grantees was hands-on. With sleeves rolled up, they built routers, positioned masts, made documentaries of community access projects, wired cabling, coded, set up servers, and developed shared cultural repositories at the local level.
Strengthened participation and advocacy for women's meaningful access
Through APC's interventions, more women now play an active role in community networks across the world.
While APC members such as Colnodo encouraged the appropriation of wireless technology by rural women through the subgranting programme, “Connecting the unconnected” used its peer-exchange funds to build the capacity of women working in community networks at the local level, and appointed a gender and women’s engagement coordinator to specifically address the exclusion of women from the community network space. What we call “women’s circles” are now a key thread to connect women through community networks and the use of technology in the local context.
In partnership with Zenzeleni Networks, Mesh Bukavu and TunapandaNET, we introduced women and girls to the foundational concepts of community networks and provided basics of how to apply these concepts for starting and managing women-led community networks in our workshop series on community networks at the African Summit on Women and Girls in Technology 2018.
Zenzeleni Networks also organised and hosted the Third Summit on Community Networks in Africa, in partnership with APC and the Internet Society in the same year. Attended by small-scale community operators and other stakeholders from 20 African countries, the event was an important capacity and movement-building moment for community networks in the region, and provided technical, sustainability and governance training. The summit attracted over 30 women, a significant increase from the previous year, and gave many their first opportunity to participate in a conference and discuss the future of connectivity in Africa.
The support from project team members was a key factor in AfChix being selected as one of the winners of the WomenConnect Challenge in 2018 for building the capacity of African women to deploy and operate community networks.
In 2019, our gender and women’s engagement coordinator actively promoted a gender perspective at the Fourth Summit on Community Networks in Africa, including creating a women-only space for women in Africa to discuss issues that are relevant to them as women on the continent. In the same year she supported a feminist hack party in Colombia following a community networks summit in Latin America.
A special edition of GenderIT.org was also published on women in community networks, with eight articles in four languages. The edition had a mix of opinion pieces, research articles, interviews, podcasts, and an illustrative story. It captured the experiences of all of the regions where “Connecting the unconnected” is operating.
We influenced high-level institutions through our advocacy on gender, sexual rights and access, and built the capacity of activists to demand meaningful and safe internet access for women and the LGBTIQ community.
Over the four-year period, APC delivered submissions with a focus on gender and sexual rights to several high-level mechanisms, including to the Gender Working Group of the UN Broadband Commission. At the 35th UN Human Rights Council session in 2017, the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) drew on APC's analysis of gender and access issues in its report "Bridging the Gender Digital Divide from a Human Rights Perspective". The report called for addressing underlying social and cultural barriers to women's meaningful access and use of the internet and adopting a multifaceted approach towards eliminating online gender-based violence. We also co-organised a side event with the OHCHR and the permanent missions of Sweden and the United States on bridging the gender digital divide from a human rights perspective, to give visibility to the gender digital divide as a symptom and cause of violations of women's human rights, and to mobilise the international community to address this divide.
Through leading the IGF Best Practice Forum on Gender and Access, APC with members and partners including Point of View, Digital Empowerment Foundation, Rhizomatica and EMPOWER, secured a formal data partnership with the ITU-UN Women initiative called EQUALS: The Global Partnership for Gender Equality in the Digital Age. The Best Practice Forum is an open, iterative and bottom-up process that involves a survey, regular online meetings, and the organisation of discussions at events including national and regional IGFs. Over the four-year period, the Forum focused on barriers to meaningful access for women, such as cultural norms, online threats, affordability, decision-making power, capacity and content. Challenges faced by specific communities of women were addressed, such as women with disabilities, refugee women, young and elderly women, LGBTIQ women, women in rural areas, and indigenous women. In 2019, the Forum focused on the digital economy, and included input from community networks.
Our advocacy for meaningful access for women and people of diverse sexualities has built the capacity of activists to insist on policy change. For example, besides the above interventions, in 2016 we partnered with the Internet Society (ISOC) to explore gender and access by co-convening the “Workshop on Mainstreaming Gender in Internet and Development in the Asia Pacific Region” in Bangkok. Participants agreed to convene a working group on gender and the internet for the Asia-Pacific region to identify innovative ways to accelerate the access to and use of the internet for women and persons with non-binary identities.
In 2017, APC organised and moderated a pre-event panel and supported the attendance of five women's rights and sexual rights activists to participate at the Stockholm Internet Forum, which focused on the theme “Framing Access and Power”.