By Débora PradoPublished on
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The Communications Regulators' Association of Southern Africa (CRASA) invited representatives from its 13 member states to take a deep dive into community networks as an alternative to promote digital inclusion in the region and invited the Association for Progressive Communications (APC) to facilitate it. During the “Forum on community networks and digital inclusion”, held on 19 July 2023, participants discussed the importance of community networks in providing universal services, reflected on concrete case studies, and debated ways to support these initiatives through financing mechanisms, policy and regulation.
CRASA is an association focused on the postal and information communications and technologies regulatory environment in the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC), which comprises 16 member states, 13 of which are part of CRASA: Angola, Botswana, Democratic Republic of Congo, Eswatini, Lesotho, Malawi, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, United Republic of Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe. The meet took place in Harare, Zimbabwe, with online participation from other countries.
The forum was co-organised by CRASA’s committee on Universal Service Funds and consumer rights. It reflects the continuing good relationship that APC maintains with CRASA, with whom APC has organised similar events in the past to raise awareness on approaches to address digital exclusion.
“Given rising concerns about persistent digital exclusion, interest in community-centred connectivity approaches is growing, and it was an honour that CRASA invited LocNet to share our experience with its members,” pointed out Carlos Rey-Moreno, from the APC. He, along with Josephine Miliza, Joseph Bishi and Steve Song, presented the learning from the Local Networks (LocNet) initiative, a collective effort led by APC and Rhizomatica in partnership with people and organisations in Africa, Asia and Latin America and the Caribbean to support community-led initiatives.
Communities making change happen
The case studies presented and discussed at the forum showed that the region is already home to exemplary cases of people overcoming inequalities to promote connectivity in their communities.
Among them, the achievements from Murambinda Community Network – the first community network in Zimbabwe – shared by Joseph Bishi were celebrated by the country’s Posts and Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (POTRAZ) during the event.
From South Africa, Zenzeleni Networks NPC is an award-winning community network currently supporting broadband connectivity in rural Eastern Cape, connecting more than 24,000 people and 21 institutions in its ambit, offering prices substantially lower than other operators. Revenue from local internet sales remains within the communities in which it operates.
BOSCO Uganda, a non-for-profit organisation registered with the Uganda Communication Commission, reaches communities and refugee settlements through 54 internet centres in the northern region of the country. Additionally, BOSCO addresses the shortage of electricity in the area by providing access to solar electricity systems to help school-based education and create job opportunities for youth. It has deployed five mini-grid solar power systems, supported by a grant from the Accenture Foundation.
From the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the Pamoja Net case study showed that more than 5,000 people have now benefited from free access to this community network in the island of Idjwi. Research by La Difference, the country-based organisation supporting this initiative, revealed that 98% of users felt that Pamoja Net had contributed to a positive change in their lives, whether it was a new ability to connect with family and friends, to conduct educational research, to send job applications or to save money.
The case studies were an entry point to show that communities left behind by traditional approaches to digital inclusion are building community-centred alternatives to connectivity. At the same time, they face many challenges and could benefit from supportive policies and regulations to overcome the inequalities they face.
Cultivating an enabling environment for communities
By supporting initiatives from partners like the Murambinda Community Networks, Zenzeleni Networks NPC, BOSCO Uganda and La Difference, among others, within LocNet, APC and Rhizomatica have witnessed that community networks can bridge connectivity inequalities. Community connectivity providers, however, still face a lot of barriers because most regulatory frameworks do not include them. This creates obstacles for these operators to have access to affordable licensing, wireless spectrum, backhaul or even open and transparent data about the telecom infrastructure in their localities.
Almost all of them also struggle to access capital, as pointed out by the report, "Financing mechanisms for locally owned internet infrastructure". The forum was an opportunity to discuss some of the report’s recommendations, including those focusing on the role of government and policymakers to create an enabling regulatory environment that allows them to operate cost-effectively and encourage investment through fiscal incentives, subsidies and technical assistance.
One of the alternatives discussed was making the Universal Service Fund (USF) – created precisely to subsidise the promotion of universal access to telecommunications services – available to community-led models, as recommended by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) on several occasions, and advancing in countries such as Argentina, Malawi and Kenya.
Following the discussions on challenges, achievements and recommendations, civil society organisations should continue to cooperate with policymakers and regulators in the region. “LocNet will continue building and sharing evidence that allows regulators and other potential financiers making informed decisions about the most efficient way to allocate their resources to address digital exclusion, which will hopefully lead to other countries following the lead from Argentina, Malawi or Kenya,” explained Rey-Moreno.
The Local Networks (LocNet) initiative is a collective effort led by APC and Rhizomatica in partnership with people and organisations in Africa, Asia and Latin America and the Caribbean, aiming to support community networks and to contribute to an enabling ecosystem for their emergence and growth. The initiative's projects include the “Connecting the Unconnected: Supporting community networks and other community-based connectivity initiatives” project with support from the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida); and also the “Supporting Community-led Approaches to Addressing the Digital Divide” project with support from the UK Government’s Digital Access Programme. To keep up to date on this topic, subscribe to the Community Networks and Local Access Monthly Newsletter.