Bottom-up Connectivity Strategies: Meet the community networks studied during the research

Publisher: APC     26 March 2020

The research publication "Bottom-up Connectivity Strategies: Community-led small-scale telecommunication infrastructure networks in the global South", authored by Nicola J. Bidwell and Michael Jensen and launched in 2019, studied the benefits of, and challenges facing, small-scale, community-based connectivity projects. The report presented the findings gathered through visits to 12 rural community networks in the global South, in addition to information on a number of others compiled through desk research and interviews. The ultimate goal of the research was to contribute to creating a more enabling environment for small community-based local access networks to grow and flourish, given the vital role that they can play in providing connectivity for the billions who have been left behind by current strategies that view local access as the “last mile” as opposed to the “first mile”. Although the entire report was made freely available online as soon as it was completed, we have decided to launch this series of articles, each highlighting a particular aspect of the research.

Last week we looked at the reasons for conducting this research. This week we will take a closer look at the different local access initiatives that were studied during the research.

The initiatives studied

The provision of connectivity infrastructure in the community networks we studied is little different from traditional commercial mobile networks and fixed wireless internet service providers (WISPs) operating in urban and rural areas in more developed countries. The community networks operate at a smaller scale, but the technical models are similar – wireless and wired routers or mobile phone base stations interconnect the members of the community, and backhaul links connect them to the rest of the internet or to other phone networks using fibre or copper cables, wireless or satellite links.

However, in contrast to national voice operators, the community networks providing mobile voice services do not operate a centralised core network for switching and routing calls. Instead they take advantage of recent advances in technology which can provide for low-cost switching services at the site of the base station.

For community networks that build internet services, as with larger commercial networks, wireless routers are deployed as Wi-Fi hotspots in public areas, and/or in businesses, government offices or the residences of community members. They are either interconnected in a star-topology, where a central point provides links to each Wi-FI hotspot, or they are deployed in a mesh topology, where Wi-Fi hotspots may obtain their connectivity via neighbouring devices.}

In contrast to most traditional large-scale internet providers, Wi-Fi hotspots in the community networks are often augmented with public access facilities, or in some cases, public access is the primary service, reflecting the low availability of access devices in some locations, most notably in the deep rural areas of the DRC and northern Uganda. Voice telephony gateways are also provided in some of the Wi-Fi based networks, and similarly, the mobile networks often used internet links to carry their off-net voice traffic.

While they may be small relative to traditional national networks, the community networks still varied tremendously in coverage area and size – some service just a few dozen households in a settlement, while others provide connectivity for thousands of users spread across a dozen or more villages. Of note here is that a number of the larger and more mature community networks have developed specific organisational structures which act on behalf of the individual networks. These, sometimes called umbrella organisations, include TIC AC in Mexico, AlterMundi in Argentina and Zenzeleni NPC in South Africa. They support the operation of the community networks in a number of ways:

  • Operating shared network infrastructure (such as high sites/backhaul links and voice gateways) on behalf of the individual networks.

  • Centralising technical and administrative support, which reduces the need to replicate some of these often scarce resources in each local network.

  • Acting on their behalf in relations with government and partners, and to support the development of community networks in the country more generally.

Deployment costs in community networks also varied considerably, depending on the nature of the network. While network equipment costs have continued to drop as the technologies advance, resulting in mobile base stations costing less than USD 5,000, and carrier grade wireless routers costing around USD 100, the solar power systems that are often needed substantially increased the cost of deployment.

Similarly, towers can be costly items, especially when they need to be high enough to reach over trees, hills or distant locations, equipped with lightning protection or transported over difficult terrain from distant origins. However, in a few community networks there were opportunities to use existing telecom towers where regulations require operators to share passive infrastructure. Buildings for use as high sites and administrative premises were also often provided by the community at no cost.

Table 1 summarises the initiatives studied in the research, grouped by country. The networks examined either provide Wi-Fi-based internet connectivity or mobile voice and/or internet services. The relatively low number of small-scale mobile deployments worldwide is notable, particularly because in most rural unconnected contexts, mobile voice services are in higher demand than internet access. The rarity of mobile deployments is largely the result of lack of access to the licensed radio spectrum on which these services depend.

Similarly, for non-line-of-sight situations, such as forested or hilly locations, lower frequencies are more effective, especially for backhaul, but are usually not made available at affordable rates, if at all. These problems are due to regulatory restrictions determined by national policy makers who are generally unaware of the need or the range of options for providing small-scale networks with affordable radio spectrum. As a result, because Wi-Fi uses licence-exempt frequencies, and can start at a very small scale, with a commodity wireless router for example, Wi-Fi hotspots connected to an upstream broadband connection are the most commonly found type of community network. 

Table 1. The community network initiatives studied 

   Country

           Initiative

     Location(s)

                                       Description

Argentina

AlterMundi/ QuintanaLibre

5 villages/small towns around José de la Quintana, Córdoba province

Households in multiple village-based informal groups install their own mesh Wi-Fi routers to connect with each other and to a shared mesh network operated by QuintanaLibre with a high site and low-cost long-distance backhaul, as a non-profit association.

Brazil

Associação Portal Sem Porteiras

Rural area near Monteiro Lobato in São Paulo state

Households manage their own mesh Wi-Fi infrastructure to connect to a shared mesh network, local content, public hotspots with usage fees, a high site and commercially provided backhaul operated as a non-profit association. Part of the Coolab collective supporting community networks.

Brazil

Quilombola Community Network

Barrio in Penalva town, Maranhão state

Semi-urban mesh Wi-Fi hotspots and public access facility connected by satellite in informal settlement operated by an agricultural producer association supported by university research group Nupef.

Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC)

Pamoja Net

Rural settlements across Idjwi Island in Lake Kivu

Public Wi-Fi hotspots and fixed links for NGOs and businesses provided by rural development NGO, Ensemble Pour la Différence. Has recently begun testing Open Cellular GSM base stations for voice and data.

India

Gram Marg

25 villages in Palghar/Thane districts, Maharashtra state

Public Wi-Fi hotspots and fixed wireless links for public institutions established by research organisation IIT Mumbai, in partnership with CSR programmes, local authorities and private ISP supporting village entrepreneurs.

India

Wireless for Communities (W4C)

Many locations in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh states

Public Wi-Fi hotspots, mobile public access facilities and fixed wireless links for public institutions supported by NGO Digital Empowerment Foundation (DEF).

Indonesia

Des Hotspot

Calang town, Banda Aceh

Residential and business Wi-Fi hotspots provided by a small informal business.

Indonesia

Puspindes/ RelawanTIK

Penggarit village, Pemalang, Central Java

Wi-Fi access provided by local authority with ICT technical support from NGO RelawanTIK.

Indonesia

RelawanTIK/ Common Room

Ciptagelar village, Sukabumi regency, West Java

Public access facility in an indigenous community supported by Bandung-based NGO Common Room and the local regency (local authority).

Indonesia

Ungu Community LTE

Bonkondini village, West Papua

4G/LTE data-only mobile service operated as an informal community-based network supported by University of Washington State research and Mission Aviation Services.

Mexico

Telecomunicaciones Indígenas Comunitarias
(TIC AC)

16 villages and small towns in Oaxaca state

Mobile voice networks in multiple indigenous communities, operated as a non-profit civil association with a mobile licence, supported by local authorities, initiated by NGO Rhizomatica.

Peru

Mayutel/Red de Telemedicina del Río Napo

15 communities along the Napo River, Maynas province

Wi-Fi backbone linking clinics and mobile voice/data base stations established by Spanish NGO EHAS. Voice and data mobile network in partnership with a specialised rural operator providing access to the Telefónica network.

Philippines

VBTS Konekt Barangay

7 villages in Aurora province, Central Luzon region

2G voice networks operated as community cooperative infrastructure, established as a research partnership between the University of the Philippines, University of Washington and University of California, Berkeley, and supported by local authorities.

South Africa

Zenzeleni

Villages in Eastern Cape province

Public Wi-Fi hotspots and fixed links for businesses and public institutions operated as village cooperatives supported by Zenzeleni NPC (non-profit corporation). Initiated as a research project by the University of the Western Cape (UWC).

Thailand

Taknet/ Net2Home

Villages in Tak province, near border with Myanmar

Affordable mesh Wi-Fi hotspots operated as a partnership between local entrepreneurs, the Thai Network Information Center (THNIC) Foundation (the ccTLD operator) and intERLAB, Asian Institute of Technology (AIT).

Uganda

Battery Operated Systems for Community Outreach (BOSCO)

Villages, settlements and small town around Patonga districts near Gulu

Wi-Fi links for public access centres and schools. Focus on solar power, youth business training, refugee areas. Supported by a Catholic Church-based NGO.

 

Coming next week: Bottom-up Connectivity Strategies: Why do communities decide to build their own communications networks?

Find out more about the research methods here.

DOWNLOAD THE FULL RESEARCH "Bottom-up Connectivity Strategies: Community-led small-scale telecommunication infrastructure networks in the global South"  [PDF]

This report was produced as part of the broader Local Access Networks project that was carried out in partnership with Rhizomatica (an NGO supporting numerous community networks in Latin America) with financial support from the International Development Research Centre (IDRC).

Short accounts of other community network initiatives can be found in the sister publication also produced as part of this project – Global Information Society Watch 2018: Community Networks – which looks at networks in 43 countries.



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