Bottom-up Connectivity Strategies: Why is research on community networks necessary?

Publisher: APC     18 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 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.

Introduction

There is increasing concern over the worldwide slowdown in the growth of voice and internet users. The networks being deployed by national operators are now only expected to connect 60% to 70% of the world’s population by 2025. This indicates that the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which anticipate attaining universal connectivity by 2030, are unlikely to be achieved.

Despite decades of deployment, it appears increasingly likely that current strategies will not be able to address the needs of billions of people in developing countries who have ineffective communication services due to limited coverage or lack of affordable services.

Fortunately, however, network equipment continues to become more affordable and easier to deploy, resulting in increasing numbers of networks emerging where community members build and operate their own telecommunication infrastructure, often managed on a cost-recovery basis, rather than for commercial gain.

Although there is no commonly accepted definition, these networks are usually called “community networks” because local communities are involved in some way in deploying, owning and operating the physical infrastructure that supports voice or internet connectivity. Many APC member organisations have recently become active in supporting these types of networks. This trend has strong parallels with APC’s birth as an organisation almost 30 years ago, when it emerged in response to similar needs to build local internet infrastructure, prior to the development of the “commercial internet” that most people use today.

Nationwide commercial services owned by private operators have up until recently been seen as the only effective means of addressing needs for connectivity. However, although this strategy is now coming under scrutiny, most governments are not yet aware of the potential impact of independent small-scale community-based networks. As a result, these networks are still relatively scarce, or invisible, because regulatory environments are generally hostile to them and are not yet adapted to foster their growth and replication.

Aside from the absence of enabling regulatory environments, community networks, particularly those in the rural global South, also face other difficulties. Financial resources for their initial deployment are often very limited and there are other factors such as lack of affordable or reliable energy supply, and high costs for backhaul connectivity. Yet, despite these difficulties and their lack of visibility, community networks also appear to have many advantages over traditional large-scale commercial networks, including:

  • More local control over how the network is used and the content that is provided over the network.

  • Greater potential for attention to the needs of marginalised people and the specific populations of rural communities, including women and older people.

  • Lower costs and retention of more funds within the community.

  • Increased potential to foster a sense of agency and empowerment among users and those involved in the network.

To document the benefits of, and challenges facing, small-scale, community-based connectivity projects, APC researchers visited 12 rural community networks in the global South in 2018 and studied a number of others through desk research and interviews. The primary goal of the research is to provide information that can be used for evidence based policy making that will contribute to creating a more enabling environment for small community-based local access networks. In addition, the research aimed to identify opportunities for these networks to be more effective and, hopefully, to encourage more organisations to support the development of these networks in future.

 

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

Find out more about the research methods here.

DOWNLOAD THE FULL RESEARCH REPORT "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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