Gender and community networks: Busking in policy spaces

Artwork by Flavia Fascendini

By Kathleen Diga and Nic Bidwell Publisher:    

This column series begins with looking at community networks through the prism of community and gender. The first column sets up what is a community network and what is its "value" or importance in the current media and technology landscape, and the shifting importance of gender within this discourse.

In this interview, Kathleen Diga, Nic Bidwell along with Namita Aavriti have a conversation with Steve Song. Steve provides thought leadership on, and practical implementations of, access to communications infrastructure and its impact on social and economic innovation and growth. Steve founded the Village Telco project – an initiative to build low-cost community telephone network hardware and software that can be set up in minutes anywhere in the world – no mobile phone towers or land lines are required. The Village Telco uses the latest open source telephony software and low cost wireless mesh networking technology to deliver affordable telephony anywhere. Steve Song has been advocating for local and community networks for several years and been working in this field especially in Africa for over a decade.

As the social and gender impact facilitator and advisor in APC's Local Access Networks project, Nic Bidwell explores how and why people coordinate, interact with, and are affected by, their local community network for six initiatives in the global South, and later in this column will write about gender in relation to research in community networks. Kathleen has worked for over 10 years in the information and communication technology for development (ICT4D) research space, and she is currently coordinating the publication of the Global Information Society Watch (GISWatch) 2018 on local community networks across the world. Namita Aavriti is a writer and researcher, and currently the editor of She recently completed the mapping of research in the sub-field of gender, feminism and technology.

In this conversation we look particularly at the context of regulatory policy for community networks largely – is it favourable or not, or is it still an uphill task to convince the telecommunications sector of the value of autonomous and local community networks? While in the previous column we began a tentative exploration of how community networks at the ground level change or impact on gender relations in communities, here we look at whether there is diversity and inclusion of women in the policy space around regulation and community networks, and more broadly telecommunications and access.

GenderIT: There is a regulatory policy space emergent around community networks that is about connecting the unconnected, such as in rural areas where incumbent operators have not and will not provide internet.
What is important in terms of a regulatory framework for community networks? What policy or changes would help enable alternative connectivity in rural areas? What specifically can be done in regards to spectrum for improving access to community networks?

Steve Song: The most important change needed to existing regulatory frameworks to enable community networks is simply to recognise their value in the access ecosystem and to design regulations that foster their existence. Most community networks today exist in spite of telecommunication regulation rather than because of it. The attention and work of communication regulators is understandably dominated by large network operators with the result that regulations, fees, licenses are all oriented to their scale and business model.

As we begin to see the limitations of large-scale commercial network in terms of providing affordable access to economically poor and/or sparsely populated areas, it becomes increasingly important for regulators to recognise the importance of small-scale operators to fill in geographic or sectoral gaps in access as well as to acknowledge the role that alternative organisational structures such as non-profits, cooperatives, and local authorities can play in delivering sustainable access solutions.

From a regulatory perspective this involves lowering the barriers to getting started and giving organisations time to establish themselves. When we plant a sapling in the forest, we don't just toss it to the ground and hope it survives, we create a safe nutrient-rich environment that is free from predatory species that will give the sapling time to put down roots and become healthy enough to thrive and ward off predators on its own. We want similar regulation for small scale operators. In practical terms this means affordable access to wireless spectrum. WiFi is a great example of a technology that has a very low barrier to use in terms of both cost and its license-free status but more access to spectrum for small-operators is needed. Fees should be reduced for organisations with turnover below a given threshold or even waived for organisations that are not profit-seeking such as cooperatives. Other issues such as mandatory intercepts, know-your-customer regulation needs to be evaluated in terms of their applicability to small operators.

GenderIT: Women are involved both within community networks as well as the more national or regional policy space, but what have you observed in terms of women participation? Can you give some examples of active women in this sphere of policy influence?

Steve Song: The tech sector is dominated by men and, in many countries, cultural stereotypes continue to reinforce that inequality. This plays out in community networks that are often started by someone with the technical expertise to build communication infrastructure. As the movement to reclaim the role of women as engineers and computer scientists grows, community networks often play an important role in deliberately addressing issues of gender in the design and operation of networks. Pioneers like Josephine Miliza of TunaPandaNet in Kenya or Kazanka Comfort of Fantsuam in Nigeria are role models for the leadership of women in the tech sector but community networks still have a long way to go.

In terms of regulation, this is a space that has seen very little attention from civil society at all. Access regulation is something that is only now gaining any traction with organisations that have traditionally been involved in internet issues. This is compounded by the existing bias of the sector with the result that I can think of very few women active in addressing access regulation. A notable exception would be Karla Velasco Ramos of the Mexican non-profit REDES who works with Rhizomatica on access regulation for unserved communities. The spectrum space as well is clearly male dominated, but I can’t really offer specifics there.

GenderIT: What are some of the (political) dimensions that contribute to their invisibility. Is it perhaps about how telecommunications and law, broadly technology are seen as a 'male' domains, and the ways women negotiate these spaces.You have recently conducted regulator training in southern Africa (in Mauritius) and also been part of meetings such as the Dynamic Spectrum Alliance meeting. What kind of participation takes place in such meetings and spaces?

Steve Song: I wish I felt competent to answer this question. This is clearly a hugely significant factor but one that varies a great deal from country to country. For example, I was struck at the recent meeting in Mauritius by the generally equal gender representation and participation from the Mauritian regulator and government, which we were told was indicative of Mauritian society where gender equality is a national political priority.

At the Communications Regulators Association of Southern Africa (CRASA) meeting I saw both extremes. Women such as Bridget Linzie of CRASA and Nthabiseng Pule from the Lesotho regulatory agency were completely comfortable in themselves and engaged men confidently as peers. However, there were other women at the event who said nothing unless specifically asked.

GenderIT: Are we there in terms of equal women representation at the policy and regulatory level to promote community networks? If not, any suggestions to improve firstly the openness to community network and also to representation around gender.

Steve Song: We are definitely not there yet. I think that programs/initiatives that deliberately prioritise the participation of women and/or more generally seek out their engagement on access regulation would help as would celebrating achievements of women who pioneer civil society engagement in access regulation.

Some sort of antidote to mansplaining might help too. In many ways this is one of the worst spaces for mansplaining / engineer-splaining / lawyer-splaining / economist-splaining / ITU Bureaucrat-splaining. I too have been on the receiving side of it many times in the last decade. The issue of spectrum management is like the old story of 5 blind people describing an elephant. Everyone is absolutely sure their perspective is definitive. Everyone is busking to some degree, present company included, because it is pretty rare to find people with a real grasp of the engineering physics of wireless spectrum and the economics of spectrum allocations/assignments and its impact on the market and the legal policy and regulatory mechanisms, and this is not to mention social impact and gender issues. You get what I mean by busking – often busking in the male of the species leads to speaking louder and more emphatically when challenged. Of course I only know this in theory (laughs).

What spectrum regulation requires is political, legal, economic, and engineering expertise to do well, which means it takes people of diverse expertise working together and listening to each other.

I confess that the LOCNET project represents the first time I have thought seriously about women and their representation and role in spectrum regulation. Perhaps that is a step in the right direction too.

Thank you Steve, for your time and thoughtful responses.

This interview was originally published by

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