Bottom-up Connectivity Strategies: What are the local and global benefits offered by community networks?

Publisher: APC     30 April 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.

In previous weeks we looked at the reasons for conducting this research and learned more about the community networks that were studied during the research, their motivations for building their own communications networks, and the different technical and operational strategies and institutional models adopted by the community networks studied during the research. This week we look at the local and global benefits offered by community networks.

Aside from the well-documented benefits of access to voice and internet services that connectivity offers to rural populations in the global South, as well as the commercial benefits to existing national networks from the traffic generated by the communities, the social impact research conducted during the study showed that community networks have many other benefits. Some 77 different benefits were articulated in studying just six cases (in Argentina, India, Indonesia, Mexico, South Africa and Uganda) and many of the positive contributions to the telecommunications ecosystem and to local social and economic development are specific to community networks.

Wider affordability of communications, direct savings made on the cost of existing communications, and the roles of community networks in the local circulation of money are the benefits that tend to attract policy makers and development agency attention.

However, it is important to observe that while financial benefits are important to people in low-income community networks, these are by no means the aspects they value the most. It is equally important to appreciate that beyond the benefits to the social and economic development of rural populations, community networks also provide insights into factors within, or acting upon, the telecommunications sector that hinder access for all, whatever telecommunications model is applied. Moreover, the community networks paradigm offers unique practical ways to compensate for the effects of these factors on their populations and, thus, provide valuable lessons for stakeholders seeking to connect the unconnected.

Direct and indirect economic benefits

Key benefits to local economies are accrued from wider affordability of communications, direct savings made on the cost of existing communications, and community networks’ various roles in facilitating the local circulation of money. In the rural areas studied, where the only other means of internet access is through mobile operators, many people spoke of the importance of low-cost communications. For example, many of the frequent users of Zenzeleni in South Africa interviewed indicated spending between 10% to 40% of what they had previously spent on mobile data; and users in Mexico indicated the affordability of their community network’s GSM provision, where alternative communications involve costly landline, satellite and radio phones, Wi-Fi services, and the expense of transport involved in travelling to the locations where they are available.

In addition to cost savings and affordability, cheaper services enable people to use the internet more effectively, with direct impact on income-generating activities, extending beyond retaining money within communities through cash payments to the community network, instead of to non-local telecommunications companies or financial intermediaries such as banks or credit cards. These benefits include:

  • Fairer trade, by accessing market information to enable people to negotiate prices.

  • Increased turnover in selling via e-market places.

  • Better informed consumer decisions.

Community networks also make important contributions to the local circulation of money via the social links and spin-off services they support. These include:

  • New local trade within rural communities based on relationships forged through community networks.

  • Direct income generation by people on-selling their connectivity in some cases.

  • Ad hoc, small cost-saving arrangements between local people facilitated by the community network.

  • Improved performance of local businesses, e.g. local transport services.

  • Increased business for other local service providers, e.g. local printing services.

  • Fostering community-oriented business attitudes locally.

  • Introducing people to each other and creating new relationships.

Thus, along with cost savings and wider affordability, community networks have many other intrinsic benefits for the local circulation of money.

Other benefits from unrestricted access and better access to information

Affordability is vital for people in low-income communities in order to benefit from the wider economic and social value of national networks in enabling links beyond the local communities, such as for personal contact, education and business activities. However, the traffic-based usage charges of national mobile networks, especially as these charges occur irrespective of whether the traffic is local or not, can have a chilling effect on the extent of use. In contrast, the lack of charges associated with the traffic generated by the user of a community network means that community networks are more likely to encourage greater use generally, and enable activities that were not economically justifiable (affordable) with a traditional mobile network. Participants, for instance, not only referred to using the internet in informal and formal education, but also how they learned better using resources when they did not have to worry about the cost of their data consumption, for instance, to learn using bandwidth-consuming video.

The research data illustrates many different benefits to individuals and public institutions, particularly local authorities, of using a community network to access information frequently, for extended periods, in a timely manner and/or in social situations. These encompass benefits in formal and livelihood-relevant contexts including, for instance, access to up-to-date healthcare and agriculture information; support for teachers and students at all educational levels, for classes, assignments and research projects; opportunities to search for employment; research about professional or higher education opportunities; and informal remote peer exchange of information across social media platforms. These benefits are further extended by increased numbers of communication channels to disseminate information locally, most frequently through WhatsApp groups.

The affordability of community networks not only offers the many benefits of frequent, extended or timely communication with people and institutions who would not otherwise enjoy them, but in doing so greatly enriches the local communication ecology. The data gathered shows benefits such as sending applications for jobs and tertiary education, working from home, providing proof of remote work to employers, coordination for administration and governance, online financial transactions and reducing travel costs for employment and local administration. These benefits combine with the particular social qualities of community networks. Thus, the data also illustrates that community networks significantly contribute to:

  • Disseminating information using broadcast SMS over GSM.

  • Linking local information channels, such as local radio, drama groups and printing services.

  • Information sharing and intermediating communication for people with accessibility constraints.

Rural community empowerment

Rural communities in the global South are particularly vulnerable to outmigration, especially of young men and skilled workers, a sense of disempowerment, and helplessness about their ability to improve their lives. Community networks can help empower rural people in using, deploying and innovating technologies. All six of the cases studied for social impact illustrate considerable capacity building, including women, children and older people. For instance, people with little prior exposure learned about technology by relating it to their everyday experience because the community network emerged in their own local environments.

While there are many barriers to women’s technical involvement in technology projects in general, some of the cases studied are starting to specifically support women’s  involvement in set-up and operations. Women in these networks explained that they had gained confidence by learning about technology together, being inspired by women role models, and had new opportunities for meeting other women beyond their own villages.

Also, for some participants, gaining skills in building and operating their networks enabled them, or people they know, to establish their own small businesses or gain employment. Some of the cases also illustrate that community networks afford opportunities for local creative industries that innovate software or hardware solutions suited to particular rural contexts.

Because building, operating and using a community network involve more than just the technical aspects of telecommunications, benefits extend deep into the fabric of local society. Like traditional networks, community networks provide communication channels that people can use to, say, help avert loneliness. Additionally, most of the cases studied also showed that community networks offer avenues to address the social fragmentation that can accompany increased use of digital communications. For instance, community networks have acted to bridge different parts of society, such as between newcomers and migrants; supported people's cultural identity; improved local security and safety; provoked and informed local discussion about privacy; and supported intergenerational cooperation.

Strikingly, the research data on the social impact in just six cases shows that the success of community networks has also amplified people’s sense of their individual and collective capability and their confidence to set new objectives for themselves and/or their communities. Local coordinators, and often users, spoke of considerable pride and satisfaction in their achievements in establishing their own network. Their descriptions of their endeavours showed that local networks contribute to, and can extend, self and collective efficacy and agency. People expressed a sense of empowerment and selfsufficiency in being able to make decisions about telecommunications and undertaking operations.

Addressing exclusion

The research data for most cases shows that the community networks paradigm fosters local commitments to ongoing learning, continuous improvement and readiness to change their operations. While community networks provide more affordable access than traditional telecommunications networks, at this early stage in their evolution there also remain barriers to access for some people. However, three unique benefits of community networks suggest they will resolve this situation in the months and years to come:

  • Unlike commercial telecommunications, the local nature of community networks makes the specific factors that contribute to exclusion easier to identify.

  • The incentive to address the factors is far greater than for commercial telecommunications that operate at a distance from their users and value-price their services only for populations that can afford them.

  • The collaborative, rather than competitive, approach between different community networks around the world, and the dramatic recent increase in channels of communication between them, promotes sharing experiences and co-creating practical ways to address factors contributing to exclusion. 

Indeed, our research shows that these unique characteristics of community networks will provide valuable lessons for many different stakeholders seeking to better serve rural populations, including commercial providers.

 

Coming next week: Bottom-up Connectivity Strategies: What is stopping community networks from reaching their full potential?

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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