Brazil acknowledges community networks as viable option for connectivity

Photo: paula le dieu, used under CC BY 2.0 licence (https://flic.kr/p/3d3xgp)

By Marta Kopp
Publisher: APCNews     03 April 2020

In terms of internet users, Brazil has the fifth largest telecommunications market in the world, with more than 140 million people connecting to the internet as of 2017, according to the German statistics database Statista. However, given that Brazil’s population is roughly 210 million, this also means that upwards of 60 million people are not connected. Those who are not within reach of the services offered by large telecommunications operators are disproportionately those who live in rural and remote areas.

Moreover, Brazil has some 71 million households, and as of February 2020, only 32 million had a broadband connection. The most common way to connect to the internet in Brazil is via a mobile device, with 2019 seeing upwards of 90 million smartphone users.

Additionally, when telecommunications services are available in remote areas, the cost is often exorbitant, or the quality of the internet is poor. As such, when Brazil’s telecommunications regulatory body, Anatel, announced community networks as a viable option for internet service in the country on 15 January, it meant that there was finally a regulated third option for Brazilians to reach connectivity. Anatel functions independently from governmental oversight bodies and is primarily responsible for supervising and regulating all telecommunications activity within the country.

This public acknowledgement of community networks provides for both regulation for existing community networks and the creation of future networks. The question is then, now that community networks are an option, what happens next?

The Brazilian context 

An APC research report published in 2019, Bottom-up connectivity strategies: Community-led small-scale telecommunication infrastructure networks in the global South, has shown that the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal of achieving universal connectivity by 2030 is unlikely, with 60-70% connectivity seeming far more likely.

However, community networks are a viable option for achieving universal connectivity at some point in the future, since they allow telecommunications infrastructure to be built in locations that large-scale operators might have typically ignored.

As a result, the same research shows that 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.”

Further research from the Internet Society shows that 20% of people in Latin America live in rural areas that are not a part of larger telecommunications infrastructure, and this is exacerbated in communities with fewer than 2,000 inhabitants. Community connectivity, then, provides an opportunity for cheaper options that better suit the needs of the community. As such, NGOs and activists have been pushing for government recognition and regulation of community networks for years. One of these NGOs is Rhizomatica, an APC partner organisation that works to increase global access to telecommunications through self-owned autonomous networks.

Brazil is one of the most economically polarised countries in Latin America, and the telecommunications sector is not exempt from this. Over the past few decades, despite policies that lifted 28 million people out of poverty, an Oxfam report claims that during the same period, the wealthiest 10% of the country accounted for upwards of 60% of all economic development. Community networks often provide the only available and affordable infrastructure in the region, so in this regard, community networks are immensely important for achieving global connectivity.

That being said, while community networks provide an opportunity for regional groups to build an autonomous system that fits their precise needs, it should be noted that the need for such systems arose because large telecommunications operators do not offer their services in remote and rural areas. As Bidwell and Jensen mention in Bottom-up connectivity strategies, “The motivation and potential of rural community networks to address factors that contribute to exclusion contrast with those of commercial telecommunications systems… The incentive to address factors that exclude is stronger in community networks. The enormous exclusion of people by commercial telecommunications that value-price their services for only populations that can afford them is a feature of their persistence.”

Other challenges facing community networks emerge because the communities that would most benefit from grassroots communications initiatives are often those who live in areas without access to the materials required to build independent infrastructure. “All the cases studied show that community networks emerge from small beginnings and operate with meagre resources, including limited access to training, vehicles and printed material, and this, in turn, constrains their ability to maintain their networks and publicise their services as well as they would like.”

On the ground 

Hiure Queiroz works with Coolab, a Brazilian cooperative laboratory that aims to promote and fund, when possible, autonomous communications infrastructures, built and sustained by communities themselves. Hiure lives in a rural community and is intimately familiar with the realities of connectivity in such regions. “In the most peripheral regions, especially the rural ones like the one I live in, there is not always a small company that provides internet links and they are usually in a region of restricted coverage within the community and for a price four to eight times more expensive than in urban areas, that is, they even get closer to the populations for such an expensive price and sometimes they cannot offer the service to someone who is two or three kilometres from the radius where they serve in the community.”

Telecommunications companies took advantage of the fact that they were the only legal option before Anatel acknowledged community networks as a viable alternative for connectivity. The community networks were effectively illegal, and this presents the most obvious impact on community networks in Brazil. However, Hiure noted, “We had already received this information almost a year ago, when we contacted Anatel by email to tell us the way we could be legally operating, now they published this information on the site and I thought it was very nice that they made it public.” Making the community networks legal provides a path for those interested in creating and operating their own communications infrastructure. “This reveals itself in an immense difficulty for community networks because these companies usually advertise in the community that community networks are illegal… The lack of regulation leaves community networks in a very difficult position without knowing how best to connect to the Internet.”

Bruna Zanolli is a feminist activist from São Paulo and works to combine feminist principles with digital technologies to reduce the accessibility gaps in telecommunications technologies. She points out that there was already a regulatory framework for small providers, and regulation does not necessarily do much on its own. “The community networks, such as the small providers, did not need a licence to operate but have to register on the Anatel web portal with an engineer. The thing is that Brazil is a country well known for its great laws, but a huge lack of enforcement, and public inspections are mostly an act in order to maintain the establishment. With that said, I don't believe this will make it particularly easier for communities, because they mostly lack equipment, financial resources, connectivity means and technical expertise. Indeed, most communities that need connectivity don't even know the concept of a community network and are familiar even with the commercial ISPs or with governmental digital inclusion programmes based on satellite connectivity such as GSAC.”

“There are two options for connecting to a community network,” says Marcelo Saldanha. “One, connect with a licensed engineer and get an SLP licence, and wait for Anatel to agree. The second is to operate with a licence exemption, without an engineer – just keep Anatel informed of what you’re doing and where.” Marcelo works for Instituto Bem Estar Brasil, an NGO focusing on the universalisation of internet access and APC partner, and he is of the opinion that legality certainly makes a difference, regardless. When asked if this regulatory update will change things, he said there is no doubt about that. “In the regulatory framework, all the indicators always benefited the market and anything different was considered illegal,” he adds.

Thiago Novaes, a researcher with extensive experience in community radio and digital technologies, is less optimistic. “In my view there will be no impact at all. In Brazil, there is a resolution which allows community networks to operate without any permission, but Anatel's Mosaico system [the online form] is too complicated and doesn't really help communities to make their initiatives to be recognised.” Additionally, Bruna points out that it is still a challenge to buy internet wholesale in Brazil and is unconvinced that the law will be enforced without precedent. She adds, “Most ISPs in fact refuse to offer service once they realise you are redistributing the signal. So I'm not sure if the law will have any direct impact before some cases go to court.”

How does Brazil compare to other countries in Latin America? 

There are many active networks in Latin America, but governmental regulation differs by country. Thiago is sceptical about Brazil’s regulation of community networks, especially compared to Argentina and Mexico. “In Argentina, even though they copied Brazilian resolution 680, AlterMundi has been decisive in creating a common view between government and community networks: they sit and discuss together ways to evolve their policies,” he says. “In Brazil, we live with a government that has a very top-down view on policy. In April 2019, all spaces for civil society participation in the expansion of public policies were revoked”. AlterMundi is an NGO based in Argentina and an APC member organisation, and it supports Wi-Fi networks in five villages in rural Córdoba. Hiure also flags the regulatory differences between the two bordering countries, mentioning that while “in Argentina a specific regulation has been created for community networks,” in Brazil it was more like “an 'adaptation' to the standards that already existed.” “I think they still don't understand what a community network is. And that makes all the difference,” he emphasises.

In Mexico, licensing for community networks is specifically recognised as having value in indigenous communities. “In Mexico, the licence they got is based on their ethnic recognition: as indigenous communities, they have the right to access spectrum. In Brazil, the indigenous peoples are facing huge difficulties in keeping their lands free from invasion,” says Thiago. Bruna adds that sections of the 850 MHz frequency band have been governmentally allocated for indigenous communities in Mexico to build their own networks. In her view, it means “sustainability and government support that helps the community networks to grow in other spheres.”

Marcelo believes that Anatel’s actions over the next year will be extremely important for community networks in Brazil to reach their full potential. “The speed of positive change is directly bound by how civil society will take into account the points that need to change, like fixed low prices for spectrum usage, regulation about the non-exclusive use of spectrum, low prices for equipment homologation, the decriminalisation of community networks that are not yet legal, and the right to interconnection.” Marcelo also highlights that it is important to take the time to ensure a more permanent regulatory framework so that it is legitimately beneficial in the long run. He mentions the public budget and the regulation of other information and communications technology (ICT) policies as being integral to the future of community networks and connectivity as a whole, saying that “a more permanent and secure path to discuss community networks and ICT policies in the political environment” is needed.

What's next?

While Thiago agrees that effective telecommunications regulation is essential for Brazil to make progress in the realm of affordable mass connectivity, he is worried about the current state of funding for ICT policies. “We need a proper telecommunications policy, with a budget and goals. The Ministry of Science is leading a few initiatives at schools, providing them with internet, but our main community network reference document (PERT) will have no use if funds are extinguished.” Additionally, Thiago emphasised, “It is important to understand that this ‘regulatory framework’ emerges at the same time our telecom universal service funds are about to disappear: 1.2 billion will probably be reallocated instead of supporting community networks.” He remains sceptical about this recognition to be anything more than a superficial move, which won’t do much to help communities get connected.

Hiure has first-hand experience with the complexities of regulating and registering community networks in Brazil. “We did the whole rite, created an association with legal records, registered bylaws and acquired the SLP licence, all this was very costly," he says. "In the end we were still being threatened by our internet provider to suspend the contract and impose a fine on us. We appealed to Anatel saying that we followed all the rules in that announcement, and they came back to us saying that they can't do anything and that we should seek justice in case we felt injured. For now, what I felt was that the steps this ad suggests only added more work for community networks without much gain in practice.” For Brazilians to see community networks as a viable option, and for this regulatory change to do what it intended, it is essential that the process of creating and maintaining such a network is clear and accessible, and not held up by complex bureaucracies.

Additionally, as mentioned in APC’s Bottom-Up Connectivity Strategies, in certain regions, larger commercial providers have started reducing their fees and extending their coverage to compete with community networks. While this could appear to solve some of the problems facing rural communities, it ignores the real problem, which is the broader state of telecommunications policy. “It is imperative to appreciate, however, that at the root of this problem are national policies and regulatory frameworks that preclude community networks from using technologies that have greater spatial coverage or lower costs. The relationship between policy, regulation and the exclusion of women and girls from access, which in turn amplifies gender differentials in freedom to access information, is a clear example of the way that community networks expose issues that are hidden, and in fact caused by, established telecommunications infrastructures,” the report states. ICT infrastructure is not designed with rural and remote areas in mind, and while connecting them may seem a simple solution, the reality is more complex.

The Global Information Society Watch report from 2018 touches on this precise issue – communities in the Amazon, for example, cannot use typical communications infrastructure because of the lack of roads, as well as the fact that widespread telecommunications infrastructure would likely take years to implement, and contribute to environmental degradation. In the protected area of Alto Juruá in the Amazon, two-way radio was seen as the best way for locals to communicate with each other, and a network of eight two-way radios was implemented in the area beginning in 2014 using pre-existing infrastructure. In regions like this, community networks are far more likely to meet the specific needs of the community in question.

Ultimately, while Anatel openly acknowledging community networks is a step in the right direction, that is what it is – a first step. Thiago puts it rather succinctly: “We're living a nightmare in Brazil: we need international support and funds to do our work in the next years.” Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s president, has signed bills into law that expand Brazil’s telecommunications sector, but they also further deregulate the telecommunications sector as a whole, and give more power and access to massive telecommunications operators. “Brazilian telecoms and media corporations are well known for their corrupt alignment with governments, since the dictatorial regime, which makes optimism harder,” Bruna explains.

When asked what she would like to see change in the future, her answer was, “To have specific non-state public frequencies regulations in different services bands without tough bureaucracy would be my ultimate dream. Followed by well-enforced rules that imply big telecom companies and ISPs must give direct funds to community networks that work to narrow their services gaps, including diversity and equality as core pillars: more women, people of colour, indigenous people, rural inhabitants in the decision-making processes as well as in the implementation of the connectivity in their territories.”

Community networks are important because they acknowledge that while connectivity is crucial to narrowing the digital divide, the values and traditions of the community are often embodied within the creation and functioning of the networks. Marcelo, in this vein, wants to see policies and regulations take a more holistic approach to community networks. He is of the opinion that community networks need to be more involved in broader society, and involve the tech community, local governments, and generally be a part of technological progress in Brazil, and help to ensure a more sustainable future. Given that community networks represent a departure from large-scale corporate control, hopefully with support and funding, this provides a legitimate opportunity for more Brazilian communities to choose how they want to connect going forward.

 

The answers to interview questions have been edited for context and clarity.

 

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