Community networks and COVID-19 in the Americas region

Image: Portal sem Porteiras, by Karla Velasco

By REDES A.C. in collaboration with APC

Translated by: 

This article presents a compilation of responses from community networks in the face of COVID-19, based on a dialogue held on 20 April 2020, organised by the Association for Progressive Communications (APC), as well as based on different articles published by the community networks themselves in Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Colombia, Ecuador, the United States and Mexico. A previous version of this text, focused specifically on Latin America, can be consulted in Spanish.

Regionally, the Americas have been deeply affected by COVID-19. Countries like the United States and Brazil have been among the most affected worldwide. The consequences derived from the spread of the virus and the measures established for its containment and mitigation have been especially harsh for sectors of the population that have limited access to education, formal employment, health and the use of ICTs, especially the internet.

Measures to contain the virus have focused on keeping the population at home, promoting teleworking and online classes. Thus, the internet has become an essential tool to cope with confinement. However, this reality is impossible for approximately 35% of the population in the Americas, around 349 million people, who remain disconnected.

In response, community networks [1] have responded to the challenges posed by the pandemic. It is particularly important to understand the value of these initiatives in promoting the openness and sustainability of the internet in the region and beyond. In this document, we provide some concrete evidence, based on some of the experiences shared by community networks in Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Colombia, Ecuador, the United States and Mexico.

Argentina

In the City of Buenos Aires, Argentina, the organisation Atalaya Sur shared that among popular neighbourhoods, for example where the Atalaya Sur Villa 20 Community Network has been developed, crisis committees have been formed to solve economic, health and sustainability problems that are emerging. By not having internet in their homes, many people do not have the possibility to work or study, so Atalaya Sur has enabled relevant educational content for the residents of the neighborhoods. This content is that which is distributed by the Ministry of Education of the Nation, and they are hosting them locally on the network. Regarding the network they manage, consumption rose 50% from one day to the next and, as it has a restricted bandwidth, the connectivity of families has been affected in the first stage. In the second stage, the bandwidth that reaches each of the neighbors was stabilised, but this must be constantly monitored because more and more people are joining the network.

Members of the Popular Communication Board of Salta and Jujuy commented that in the regions of Salta and Jujuy, in the north of the country, the emergency situation has further evidenced the gap between urban and rural areas. In these territories, there are many communities that do not have any type of access to the internet, and cellphones are expensive. Therefore, children cannot take classes online. Those who manage to have some kind of precarious signal have only one device to connect, mostly cellphones with inadequate capacity to take classes. Although Argentina has a national scenario of change, the crisis exposes inequalities in access to technology, since neither data nor cellphones are enough to satisfy the needs of the people in these regions. To face this, the communities of Jujuy have organised among themselves and through La Voz del Cerro de San Salvador, the community radio of La Rinconada, Radio Pachacuti in Cochinoca, supported by many local popular communicators and the Argentine Community Networks Summit (CARC) as well as donor organisations such as the Internet Society (ISOC) and the Association for Progressive Communications (APC), have installed mesh internet networks in late August, which are connected to local community radios.

AlterMundi, an organisation located in the province of Córdoba that manages a network that connects six towns, shared that one of the devices that supports the network was damaged in March. This is why its bandwidth has been drastically reduced and the network is constantly saturated. With the idea of increasing the capacity of the network, they contacted EPEC, the province's electricity and internet company, to be able to connect to their optical fibre that reaches the towns. They have proposed, as a strategy to accelerate and simplify the solution, that the cost of this connection be deducted from the payment made by EPEC to the Universal Service Fund. Although the government has shown openness regarding this alternative, there is still no proposal or approval for this to be carried out. In the same way, to contribute to the online classes of the schools located in the towns, the network decided to open its nodes at specific times so that students can get access to download the educational content they need. Likewise, as in the case of Atalaya Sur, the possibility of implementing local service has been explored so that students do not need to connect to the internet and can download content from a local server.

Brasil

In Brazil, the situation has become very delicate as COVID-19 cases have grown exponentially, making it the second country with the most confirmed cases and deaths of COVID-19 in the Americas. Home education has been very limited, since only 46% of rural households and 79.4% of urban households have internet access. At the city level, Coolab has created the #liberaowifi campaign to train people to open their WiFi networks safely so that more people who need it can connect to them, for free.

The Portal sem Porteiras community network located in Monteiro Lobato, near São Paulo, has created an online radio station to broadcast within the community's mesh network where doubts are addressed and fake news are denied. However, the network does not cover the entire community, so one of its needs is to expand to reach the entire population. Similarly, the network is threatened by legal problems with its internet provider, who cancelled the connection for two weeks, since in Brazil community networks are not explicitly recognised within the regulatory framework. It has therefore become difficult to explain why the internet is being shared freely and collectively within the community.

In Marrecas, a community in the Campos dos Goytacazes municipality, Rio de Janeiro state, in addition to having a community network, a community radio is also being devised as an effective communication strategy. Economically, the community is being negatively impacted, since transport between regions was reduced, limiting its economic activity. This is why, from the solidarity economy movement, one of the proposals has focused on the production and sale of masks by seamstresses from the city of Campo dos Goytacazes. In addition, Instituto Bem Estar has been thinking about alternatives to create remote community networks. One option would be to send the preconfigured equipment and tutorials to install the networks without requiring the physical presence of trainers.

Canada

In Canada, people on the remote coast of James Bay are struggling to connect with each other and receive up-to-date medical information. In remote communities like Kashechewan and Fort Albany, there is no cellphone service. Limited bandwidth is now carefully rationed between homes and the few public services, such as health clinics, that remain open. Thanks to the non-profit Western James Bay Telecommunications Network, people can still access essential online services. Similar conditions exist in the remote Matawa First Nations of Marten Falls, Eabametoong, Neskantaga, Webequie and Nibinamik. There, Matawa First Nations Management has started to roll out an 800-kilometre fibre optic network. But until construction is complete, communities rely on over-subscribed satellite links. People are unable to access real-time applications that support telemedicine, distance learning and telework.

Indigenous service providers such as those mentioned struggle with limited access to backhaul and mobile spectrum that connect their communities to the rest of the country. They face high prices for bandwidth and residential services, including data caps. Increasing fees are being charged for equipment upgrades and installation, and for accessing hydraulic poles on which to hang fibre optic cables. They must compete with national for-profit corporations for limited funding opportunities designed for regions long ignored by these same companies.

Colombia

On the other hand, for existing community networks in Colombia it has been valuable to be able to count on the infrastructure and community organisation they have to face the crisis. The situation has definitely shown how important and necessary community networks are. However, electrical storms have caused damage to some equipment and it has been difficult to fix or replace them due to the quarantines established by the government and the restrictions on mobility that the communities themselves have implemented to contain the virus. Thanks to the training given in past years, the communities have been able to advance in the repairs and maintenance so that the networks continue to function and provide service. Likewise, there is great interest on the part of many communities to install networks in their territories, for which numerous requests have come to Colnodo and other organisations, to which it has been difficult to respond and follow up, so it has been necessary to propose strategies to support and address these requests.

Additionally, ApropiACYT, an organisation that works on the deployment of local networks and the co-creation of open content in the education sector with the support of ISOC Colombia, has stressed the importance of using open source tools and free software to meet the needs of communities, as well as ensuring the protection of users and their data. Large companies such as Google, Facebook and Microsoft, among others, have taken advantage of the pandemic to promote their free services, and both teachers and students have accepted the terms of service without looking at its implications. For this reason, the technological and pedagogical empowerment of the communities is necessary, through the implementation, support and expansion of the network infrastructure and own content, which also responds to the challenges of the current situation. For example, since the quarantine began in Colombia, visits to the school servers of 1,500 students have gone from 200 to 2,000 daily visitors on average, with moments in which there have been more than 350 concurrent users, which has caused saturation of the infrastructure.

Ecuador

In Ecuador, the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of the Ecuadorian Amazon (CONFENIAE), in the absence of connectivity in the Amazon, managed to support the installation of a radio system for the Suraka community last August, with the help of Rhizomatica, who trained network installers. This has benefited five base communities in Sapara territory (Tistsanu, Suraka, Nima Muricha, Pumayaku and Pinduyacu, all in Pastaza) to maintain good connectivity and communication during the health emergency and other contingencies in the territory. Radio systems were also installed in Shiwiar territory, in the communities of Kapirna, Kawau, Yandanaentsa, Ikiam and Kurintsa.

Mexico

The case of Mexico is not very different from the previous ones, since there is also a lack of knowledge of the characteristics of COVID-19 and the official measures that are being taken, fuelled by a large amount of fake news. The social and economic crisis that is brewing in the country, especially due to the high percentage of informal commerce, implies serious consequences for the population. 

This is why the Union of Tosepan Cooperatives, which is based in the municipality of Cuetzalan, Puebla, launched the Tayolchikawalis Initiative that seeks to generate “actions to have a strong heart” as a way to respond to the pandemic at the health level, but also socially and economically. The assertive communication campaign conveys the importance of revitalising the countryside through planting and strengthening community health actions. From Radio Tosepan Limakxtum, capsules and special programmes have been created to inform the population in the Nahuatl language. The website tayolchikawalis.org was recently launched to offer communities truthful and relevant content for the communities in the region.

On the other hand, the school year began in September and rural teachers have used community networks so that children can fulfill their studies and tasks through local networks. The local network wixarika.org in Tuxpan, Bolaños municipality, has its own server where a web platform was installed for students and parents to access the digital content of their classes. Every day the programmes and videos of “Aprende en Casa II” can be downloaded from the YouTube channel of the Ministry of Public Education (SEP), edited and uploaded to the local network. From there, the students and their families download them to their cellphones, laptops or televisions, where they can see them and carry out the activities. In Abasolo, Chiapas, the response has been similar and that is why the Jnoptik Intrabach collective has created material about offline intranets, with educational content so that other communities can deploy them to face COVID-19. Moreover, in Xochitepec, Guerrero, the community decided in an assembly to rehabilitate a computer centre, cooperate for a local server and an antenna that gives access to the internet, as well as adapt education materials to Tlapaneco, their language. Thanks to this initiative, there are already 65 students enrolled, from first grade elementary to first grade secondary, who receive distance classes through Zoom.

Telecomunicaciones Indígenas Comunitarias A.C., an organisation of indigenous communities that have 2G cellular networks, established a protocol to continue with its support activities in the installation and maintenance, and enabled public health numbers as toll-free numbers. It is currently negotiating an additional spectrum concession with the Federal Telecommunications Institute (IFT) for a link that allows the main links in certain areas to migrate to a licensed band, as there are interference problems in the free-use bands that cause loss capacity of the networks and, consequently, saturation due to their use having increased as a result of the quarantine.

United States

The United States has been terribly affected by COVID-19, being the country with the most infections and deaths worldwide. When it comes to connectivity, while most Americans are able to connect to the internet in some form these days, many are unable to connect at the high speeds necessary to take advantage of the full potential of the internet. Those who live in remote, rural and tribal communities, in particular, tend to have much less access to internet connections. Similarly, the low affordability of services prevents many people from connecting to the internet or accessing adequate speeds at home.

In the United States, seven out of ten rural tribal residents (approximately 1.3 million people) lack access to broadband. Thus, one of the government measures that has benefited the deployment of community networks amid the virus has been that the FCC has opened a Rural Tribal Window for tribes in rural areas to directly access unassigned spectrum in their native lands through the 2.5 GHz band, which is suitable for both mobile coverage and point-to-point links. MuralNet, a non-profit technology initiative, has supported different indigenous communities across the country to create and maintain their own internet networks. Likewise, activists such as Darrah Blackwater of the Najavo People have taken this opportunity to accompany network installations in communities within the territory and thus improve the connectivity panorama.

On the other hand, inhabitants of urban areas have also faced serious difficulties in not being left behind and being able to be online. In the case of New York, the NYC Mesh community network has increased bandwidth in areas where it has noticed an upward curve of users starting to work and study from home, as network use has doubled in recent months.

The role of women within the networks

Isolation has increased and exacerbated cases of domestic violence. Likewise, the overload that women experience in work, maternity and education is a very difficult burden to bear. Unemployment and the economic burden generate stress and anguish that in many cases become catalysts for situations of violence. In response, these are some of the initiatives that have been taken by community networks.

In Brazil, in the Portal sem Porteiras network, women are communicating and interacting through podcasts. In Marrecas, women have organised for the project to produce and sell masks. In Vale do Ribeira, indigenous community farmers managed to maintain their income and sales of their agro-ecological production thanks to the self-organisation facilitated by the community network as well as the relationships with their feminist networks, since the city council cancelled the transport that subsidised their productions. Collectives such as MariaLab have created self-care and domestic violence reporting materials that have been disseminated through the networks.

Containment nets have been vital. In Argentina, networks of artisan women have come together and organised to think about how products could be sold online. In Salta, there are barter networks between women where food and clothing, among others items, have been exchanged, which has been very beneficial. Also, some women have organised revolving funds to help, month by month, those who need it most.

When we approach these experiences, we see that community networks are not just another means of connectivity, but rather that they have proven to be a space of care to be healthy, share, discharge and feel. The possibility of sharing or creating virtual collective dynamics of containment has been very important for the health not only of women, but of the entire community.

 

[1] Community networks are bottom-up networks built collaboratively by groups of individuals who develop and manage new network infrastructures as common goods. They are networks owned and managed collectively, based on community needs, and for community purposes, not for profit.



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