A pathway towards community access: From telecentres to community networks

Foto: Altermundi

By Florencia Roveri, Nodo TAU
Publisher: APCNoticias     04 June 2018

Access to the internet for local communities has been a challenge for decades for those working to achieve equal rights for all people, especially when dealing with groups that are affected, in one way or another, in terms of their access to such rights. In this respect there is a well-trodden pathway bringing together technological and community experiences in order to collaborate in the strengthening of such groups. Two milestones on this journey have been telecentres and community networks. In this article we will examine these two approaches, identified by communities as a way of obtaining access to technology.

In the decade of the 1990s, experiences emerged in numerous parts of the world that focused on extending the use of information and communication technologies (ICTs) to the entire population. These included cybercafés, telephone kiosks and telecentres. The telecentres in particular had a variety of formats and denominations such as basic telecentres, civic and multipurpose community telecentres, as well as technology centres or community telecentres.

These initiatives formed part of the boom of neoliberal policies that began to be applied in the last decade of the 20th century, deregulating the telecommunications sector in order to subject it to the rules of the market, in most cases with the marked involvement of foreign investors, who were not particularly interested in local technological development. This model of access extension, based on business reasoning, worsened the access possibilities of certain sectors. This was especially the case for people living in rural areas, geographically complex regions or on the edge of cities, deemed by companies as being expensive to connect and of low returns.

However, many governments adopted the challenge of massively extending access to the population, and developing different forms of public policies, along with strategies and varying types of relationship with the private sector and civil society. This was carried out through the creation of institutional mechanisms such as commissions, directorates, secretariats or programmes to design policies that sought to reduce the digital divide and incorporate the population into the prevailing and expanding information society. The Declaration of Florianopolis expressed and promoted this trend in the Latin American and Caribbean region in mid-2000. Telecentres arose as part of the challenge assumed by governments to provide universal access to ICTs, and respond to the imperatives of promoting development through the use and appropriation of such technologies. Policies for universal access, which require telephone companies to allocate a percentage of their profits to connecting unprofitable areas, were also part of this trend; however, even though such policies were promoted in many countries, they were not always implemented.

Community telecentres3

What are telecentres and what differentiates them from other spaces that provide access to the internet? Telecentres are public spaces to access technology set aside for a community in order to enhance its development and cohesion, providing access to equipment, connectivity and content. For the Telecentre.org Foundation, community telecentres are "places where people can use computers, the internet and other technologies and so integrate the information society on their own terms. Through the networks and organisations that work with telecentres, people who want to use technology to promote community development are empowered, whatever their development options or the place where they live."

In another definition "telecentres aim to provide realistic and economic access to ICTs for people living in rural and marginalised urban areas, by concentrating services and basic telecommunications infrastructure in one place within communities," as stated by Moisés López, who authored a thesis highlighting the experiences of telecentres around the world. López attributes the rise of telecentres to the fact that numerous organisations, "including cooperation agencies and non-governmental organisations, multilateral institutions and governments, detected the potential for social development inherent to ICTs, and the prevalent danger of a large part of the global population being denied access to these technologies.”

However, the same author warns that this impulse was carried out as a way to increase the global market and encourage international trade through the creation of new communication networks and services. "Economic motivations often overlap with social motivations when promoting ICTs in the most disadvantaged countries. But whether economic profits or the potential for social development prevail, the truth is that strategies are being designed to extend and guarantee universal access to these technologies, as a way to reduce the 'digital divide' from a community perspective, in order to save costs and create synergies between the different participating actors. In this sense, one of the initiatives that has awakened most expectations has been the development of telecentres," commented the Spanish author in 2002 when writing his thesis.

Numerous analyses of telecentres have underlined the community anchorage provided by the social organisations involved. In 2006, Fernanda Di Meglio and María Soledad Oregioni analysed the role that organisations play in the construction of the information society, especially in Latin America. This basically took into account the incorporation of telecentres as a tool to fulfil this purpose, and as a complement both of the state and international organisations that devise policies for this aim. The authors stated that "although there is no definition that contemplates the different types of telecentre, the characteristic that unites them all is that of a physical space that provides public access to ICTs for development at an educational, personal, social and economic level. This is based on the premise that not all people can access ICTs. However, while access is important, appropriation of technology is fundamental."

This research undertook a comparative study of two Latin American countries, Argentina and Peru, highlighting the Argentine experiences of Community Technology Centres, the Nodo TAU Telecentre Network, along with the experience of the Teleworking Association and the Scientific Network in Peru, a network of academic institutions created in 1991 that coordinated spaces for public access. The work also highlights the role of international organisations in the promotion and sustainability of experiences, particularly the work implemented by the Association for the Progress of Communications (APC).

At the same time, other studies have emphasised precisely the lack of community anchorage, which is one of the main criticisms of telecentres established using a top-down approach. In this sense, the main focus of the analysis is to assess whether the communities themselves participated in the setting up, maintenance and management of the telecentres or were mere users of models brought in by external agents.

In this context of internet development, with large sectors of the population without access to technology, a growing market and states in retreat, discussions have been taking place that are still pertinent today: How are the different actors involved in public policies coordinated? What are the possibilities, potentialities and limitations of social organisations in their joint actions with the state? What are the interests of the market and what reasoning forms part of these policies? And what is the role of organisations, international bodies and international financing, especially at those times when organisations occupy spaces that actually pertain to the state?

In the heart of the communities

Eduardo Rodríguez is a founding member of Nodo TAU, an APC member organisation that coordinated a network of 10 community telecentres between 2001 and 2008 in the city of Rosario, Argentina. "The essential element in terms of telecentres is the community," said Rodríguez. The experience of Nodo TAU was developed with groups that were already organised, had experience and were known to the local population. They also had people committed to their projects, who were the ones who carried out the management and coordination of the telecentres. "The telecentre is a space in which a community shares new technologies, from the use of PCs to connection to the internet. This is a physical space where people meet face to face. The goal is to bring a certain population closer to resources that have to do with ICTs, and who would otherwise have had no such access, because no one locates a cybercafé in the parishes or community centres that we worked with. That is the meaning of the telecentres."

Among the challenges faced by telecentres, Eduardo mentions those of a technological and community nature. "The telecentres appeared at a time of internet development in which connectivity was a huge challenge that was only resolved towards the end of that period." And it was not only because these places were not connected to the internet: some did not even have electricity. Among the other difficulties encountered, Eduardo also mentions coordination. "It was very difficult to maintain a person who was completely dedicated to a telecentre, and obtain the necessary resources so that such coordination was stable and sustainable. It involved a big effort and is one of the reasons why over time some of the telecentres failed. Other experiences in other countries managed to resolve this dilemma, perhaps due to conditions of greater isolation, of more exclusive resources, in more inhospitable places, in which people allocated resources for such use because there were no other options aside from the telecentre. But the city is more complicated; there is more supply, and there are other forms of access. Today the technological aspect from the point of view of hardware has been solved. What has not been resolved is the issue of connectivity. It is either low quality or non-existent. This continues to be a critical issue in city neighbourhoods, and even more so in rural areas and in the interior of the country. Who will invest in that connectivity?" The question remains pertinent. For Rodríguez, community wireless networks contribute towards resolving that problem.

Invited to compare the model for telecentres and that of community networks, Rodríguez defines the community network as "a wireless network that requires a complex level of organisation, depending on how much progress has been made," and highlights the novelty and potential of physically extending connectivity and taking it to critical places where access is difficult. "There are experiences in Africa, in Asia, in Latin America, where community networks provide the existing connection. There is nothing else available.”

He explained, “In the larger cities, the development of these networks is in the hands of people who are very dedicated to technology, but who sometimes find it more difficult to work at the community level. They understand the technological challenge, but sometimes when this is resolved they lose interest, and the networks are just abandoned. In the urban context it is very easy for this to happen, because you just move on a little and you have another option. There are different needs within a city compared to its periphery or a rural zone. The solution here would be to bring together those who are passionate about technological challenges with the specific needs of a community. And this could be through either working together with the community or providing it with technological training, which is what AlterMundi does in Córdoba, Argentina."

Rodríguez also underlines his concern about the network model: "They can transform into a network of individuals, each in their place sharing the connection and its contents. There I see a big difference with telecentres. Although the network requires a community effort in terms of deployment and maintenance, afterwards it can become a form of online sharing with each individual in their own place. Moving from face-to-face sharing to online sharing is not the same. You could view this as one of the principles of capitalism: isolate the individual. And in such isolation, all of a person’s needs, entertainment and even their desires are met, but they remain isolated. To sustain the community model, networks have to redouble their efforts in all instances that involve real collaboration. From ownership of the installation and the infrastructure right down to the contents.”

In this sense, Eduardo highlights the experience of guifi.net, an APC member in Catalonia which has developed community networks. "They were able to intervene from an ideological perspective in the very heart of the network. They did not only deal with the issues of connectivity, but the right to communication and the definition of what to do with that connectivity, with what sort of content, and what idea of security."

Community networks

The United Nations reported in 2016 that 47% of the world's population had access to the internet, meaning 53% still lacked such access. Thus initiatives continue with the aim of "fighting for the right to connectivity of populations that currently have either no access or only restricted access to the internet." To achieve this aim, attempts should be made to provide connectivity, with better quality connections and at a lower cost; to democratise content production and the circulation of discussions on the web; to train people in the use and development of telecommunications; to work towards obtaining regulatory frameworks that favour community experiences; or to try and do all the above at the same time. Community networks have the potential for all of this.

"These are networks that allow wireless access to different types of resources and services available either on the internet or via a local network, and which are characterised by being designed and implemented with the hope of contributing to the improvement of the quality of life of communities. At this point you can understand the importance of the community being an active part of the process of conception, implementation and maintenance of the network." This definition comes from the an issue paper on wireless networks for development in Latin America and the Caribbean written in 2008 by Lilian Chamorro and Ermanno Pietrosemoli within the framework of the TRICALCAR Project (Weaving Wireless Networks in Latin America and the Caribbean), an initiative supported by APC.

To achieve their mission, community networks face two major challenges: achieving community participation and commitment, and circumventing regulatory mechanisms necessary for their implementation, "so that the telecommunications services offered through this infrastructure can be provided by non-traditional providers (cooperatives, community consortiums, civil associations, neighbourhood groups, etc.), and resolving the necessary legal requirements in such cases," according to the same document. As Chamorro and Pietrosemoli point out, "the provision of telecommunications services in a community requires the acquisition of licences and permits for which conditions are established that cannot be met by community organisations. Consequently, access to licensing is limited to large operators. In many cases, the characteristics of these licences do not correspond to the needs that community networks wish to cover, rather they are adapted to those of private or commercial networks, thus restricting the possibilities of providing some services or sharing connection costs."

Markets and rights

For the private sector, the 53% of the population that is not yet connected is viewed as highly attractive in terms of business potential, a market, for whose inclusion they even argue the right to communication as an incentive. This is why initiatives such as Facebook's Free Basics (previously called Internet.org) or Google's Loon offer access to what they even call digital inclusion, but which is nothing more than a concerted strategy of business expansion, rather than an initiative to attend to the needs of those who are not yet connected. However, such initiatives not only do nothing to expand the population's right to communication, but they themselves affect the right to access, and in every sense of the term, as well as freedom of expression, by restricting access in other ways.

When Facebook's initiative to promote connectivity was announced in Brazil, civil society organisations warned about these limitations "as the company's proposal would initially bring serious limitations of effective access to the internet, potentially violating the principle of net neutrality and resulting in strong anti-competition effects in the long term," according to an article published by Observacom. As an alternative, the article's authors defined community networks as "self-managed networks” that form “a non-elitist, open, decentralised infrastructure that can be managed by the users. It is what we call a community provider model. This connection model is not based on a simple provision of internet access, but also provides the community in which it is introduced with social interactions around technology such as those that telecentres and internet cafés tend to provide.”

For these authors, this model promotes local development given that the availability of internet access contributes to social aims such as the dissemination of ideas, cultural and political manifestations, social habits, access to education, training and digital inclusion, and in both urban and rural areas. This access also enables the development of an internal network that offers local services, a virtual space for the community, and data sharing and creation of applications for those who are connected to the network. Consequently, these tools can strengthen community bonds, stimulate local life and take advantage of infrastructure even without access to the global network.

Network sovereignty

A community network brings into discussion issues such as access, changes in regulatory frameworks, and also network contents. What information do we need? What information can we access? What information do we share? These are questions that lead to informational sovereignty in contexts where manipulation is the subject of daily debate, and in which the informational needs of each community are disregarded for various reasons.

Community networks even invite us to review the original meaning of the internet and rethink the concept of access itself. Nicolás Echániz, a member of the AlterMundi collective, points out that "the use of the term access to identify this right is not coincidental. It implies the perspective of the user, who accesses a service or content that does not produce anything, does not belong to the user, and represents a consumer relationship. But there is another perspective: that of building from the base up the infrastructures and technologies that people require to satisfy their needs to be in contact with others, for cultural exchange, and to connect without being controlled. The right of access to the internet becomes the right to co-create the internet."

For Echániz, "the internet is – as is culture, the body or land – a territory in dispute; but it is not just any territory, it is a multidimensional phenomenon. There is a physical dimension (infrastructure), a logical dimension (protocols, standards, software) and a cultural dimension (contents, messages). The important thing for those of us who attempt to intervene in this dispute is to understand that at these three levels there are strategies, practices and technologies that enable or disable certain uses, freedoms and capabilities."

"That IPs are variable, that it is more expensive to upload content than to download it, that regional interaction is not favoured, and that the network ends in the user's home, who cannot take part in extending it and may even be penalised for doing so, these are some of the characteristics that distort the sense of the internet," he continued. "Free networks allow us to connect from one end to another in equal conditions, to publish and access services symmetrically and promote interaction between inhabitants of each geographical region. But above all else, in a free network, sharing is not only allowed but represents its very essence. Each member, instead of being the end point, represents a new opportunity to extend the reach of the network and its benefits."

AlterMundi creates its internet infrastructure using free software and very low-cost hardware. These networks offer connectivity in places where there is no access to the services of commercial companies. Moreover, they are very simple to manage and administer by people from the community itself, without the need for specialised knowledge in electronics or computers and at an accessible price. People have access to a local chat service, to the online transmission of local community radio, to make VoIP calls, to share files between peers and to play online games.

Network experiences

There are also other experiences that have promoted these principles and consolidated community networks in their territories. The previously mentioned experience of guifi·net, based mainly in Catalonia, is another "bottom-up, citizenship-driven technological, social and economic project with the objective of creating a free, open and neutral telecommunications network based on a commons model.” According to guifi.net, “The development of this common-pool infrastructure eases the access to quality, fair-priced telecommunications in general and broadband internet connections in particular, for everybody. Moreover, it generates a model for collaborative economic activity based on proximity and sustainability.”

The experience of another APC member organisation, Zenzeleni, is found in Mankosi, a community in the Eastern Cape of South Africa. This is a cooperative whose name in isiXhosa means "do it yourself". Its main impetus was to improve the costs of connection to mobile telephony. Zenzeleni uses mesh networking, a low-cost, low-energy system using scattered node devices rather than central masts or beacons. Each node communicates with the node that is closest, but data can step throughout the network by passing through as many nodes as necessary. These networks also have the option of a portal to a traditional network. Members of the network can share free phone calls even when the internet is down. An important feature of this network is that it works with solar energy and even provides electricity to homes.

The community of Mankosi falls under a tribal authority, which had to hold a meeting to approve the creation of the network. "Because each network starts in a certain area, you need to connect with other people in your area who also want to be part. Maybe you can persuade an existing group which started for some other reason, to take an interest in community telecoms.” This is how Zenzeleni's website explains one of the most profound aspects of the sense of community of these networks.

From telecentres to networks

In Mexico, the work of Rhizomatica helped connect up 17 towns in Oaxaca in the southwest of the country. This they did by setting up a cellular telephone system and incorporating in the project indigenous communities and other people dedicated to telecommunications using the Rhizomatica open system, who were awarded the frequency concession. This was a milestone in community telephony and a major achievement for the organisation.

In 2002, Erick Huerta, a member of Rhizomatica, was in charge of the Office of Access to Information and Communication Technologies of the National Commission for the Development of Indigenous Peoples. During those years, the Mexican government installed telecentres for use by indigenous peoples. "We saw that the problem with telecentres was methodological, the way in which technology was introduced to communities. We published a manual that was called 'Use of Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) for local development: Community appropriation of telecentres'. This was a very successful project based on a pilot scheme that was not successful at first. However, with the application of the new methodology it became sustainable. The situation of telecentres as a policy has been moving towards internet access policies implemented in public squares (plazas), schools and cybercafés. At times this proved to be very important and there are many accounts of good work being done," said Huerta.

Today, Rhizomatica is dedicated to community networks. "The networks have been set up with the objective of satisfying the needs of communities, so that they are able to provide themselves with a service or lower costs. We have urban or rural networks that take a Wi-Fi connection and distribute it: this is the most basic model, while there are others, like the one we use, which incorporates mobile phones. The challenges are many: technical training in access to adequate and easy technology, as implemented by LibreMesh, and the challenge for networks to be able to be considered as operators, because they do not have the licences to offer such services." This was a stumbling block that Rhizomatica was able to overcome, which shows that in the current ecosystem dominated by market reasoning, advocacy work in regulatory and political frameworks is as important as community work, methodological definitions and technical training.

When comparing community networks with telecentres, Huerta finds more differences than similarities. "In the case of telecentres, I think one of the challenges was that everything focused on training in how to use them. The current networks go beyond that stage because we are talking about capabilities for the creation of infrastructure. The telecentre basically provided the equipment and the internet connection. At that time, both were associated. Today, equipment has become independent and most people possess it. You do not need a computer, just a phone and with that you can do a lot of things and connect to the network. I think that is the main difference. The community network primarily provides the internet service, although it can also develop content and reach more sophisticated levels."

Huerta argues that community networks are more like what the small internet service providers (ISPs) were in their early days, when they provided internet services to organisations. "I would compare community networks with those internet services that were being provided at that time through small operators. APC was a pioneer in this field and was founded on these schemes. You have to review those experiences, understand what happened, and how the market weakened them. The story of these community networks is very different because we are talking about a layer of infrastructure that is much more durable and has not evolved as much as the software."

Looking to the future, the inclusion of communities continues. "Thinking about the future, I believe that if we can articulate these networks in an appropriate way, then we can have a very large network controlled by the people," Huerta concludes.

Community technologies

In different technological contexts, communities have found and continue to identify strategies for access to information and communication technologies through which they can meet their needs, and they do so together with other actors determined to commit themselves to the path of inclusion and social development. Social, non-governmental and international organisations, governments and even the private sector have created or joined forces with different initiatives.

In these contexts, the experiences of telecentres and community networks combine two points of focus that prove decisive when analysed: their ways of approaching the community and their methods to resolve technological issues. Although telecentres and community networks are anchored by definition in their communities, this must be reviewed in each experience, taking into account the self-determination of the communities in each case.

And in terms of technology, although both experiences show differences and similarities, when they are encouraged to promote the development of communities, they can face similar challenges and contradictions. The present tension between models that are respectful of and defensive of rights and which approach technology as a resource of public interest or welfare, and other models that promote commercial reasoning, private sector appropriation and centralised control, locate this analysis in the area of governance. In this respect, such tensions are resolved in decisions and regulations that are either in favour of communities and their rights, or support concentrated commercial sectors. Thus the pathway towards social appropriation of technologies continues to be constructed.

Florencia Roveri has a degree in Social Communications from the National University of Rosario, Argentina. She has been a member of Nodo TAU since 2003. She is the author of Argentina national reports for the annual Global Information Society Watch (GISWatch) report coordinated by APC. She is also involved in the coordination of training workshops on popular communication tools and digital rights. 


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