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Community networks offer a means by which remote communities that are currently disconnected can organise in order to develop local solutions that allow them to access the internet. However, within such networks the gender gap is ever present. And it is on these two areas, community networks and the gender gap in technology, that grants have been focused by the Regional Fund for Digital Innovation in Latin America and the Caribbean (FRIDA), an initiative of the Latin America and Caribbean Network Information Center (LACNIC), which since 2004 has contributed to the development of the information society within the region. Among the current winners of the grant programme is Colnodo, an APC member organisation in Colombia. We spoke to Julián Casasbuenas, director of Colnodo, Lilian Chamorro, an engineer and project leader, and Olga Paz, director of technology appropriation, about what this recognition means for their work and for the region’s development.
APCNews: FRIDA recently announced the seven winning projects of the 2018 grants programme and Colnodo is one of the recipients. What does this recognition mean for you and your work?
Colnodo: Our “Community Networks as a Social Programme” project was selected as one of the winners, which implies the possibility of applying what we have been doing in community networks, but in a different area and population. This also involves designing and working on different models for the sustainability and appropriation of the network using a gender focus. It represents the opportunity to work with other organisations, communities and stakeholders in the area of community networks. This allows us to exchange experiences and engage in a dialogue with a view to making public policy proposals that favour the implementation of community networks, the aim being to close the gap in internet access at the country level.
It is important to note that in Colombia only 60% of the population has access to the internet, particularly those of us who live in cities and who are professionals and wage earners, among others. This figure only refers to data regarding access, but not appropriation and strategic use of the internet. With this funding support it will now be possible to strengthen the dialogue with the National Spectrum Agency and the Ministry for Information and Communication Technology in terms of their role as decision and policy makers, and the ways they could create an enabling environment for the use of spectrum for the deployment of non-profit community networks. In the work we have undertaken in the last few years, we have managed to strengthen a critical mass and place this issue on the agenda of key spaces such as the Colombian Bureau of Internet Governance, which is crucial as wireless networks represent an important opportunity to access information and communications technologies (ICTs).
APCNews: Community networks and gender equity are two of the strategic areas on which FRIDA is focusing. Tell us more about these areas of work and their significance.
Colnodo: The digital gender gap also exists in the area of wireless networks. In this sense, the participation of women in network design, along with the implementation, operation and leadership of networks is fundamental and urgent. It is therefore vital to strengthen the capacities and skills of women in these areas, as well as to develop appropriation processes that facilitate and promote their participation in order to involve them in the entire value chain, from planning to sustainability and evaluation of the network. It is very important that there is a balance where the men who are part of this process are receptive to the participation of women, and that spaces for discussion that allow women’s voices to be heard are opened and maintained .
Thanks to APC's subgranting programme, we have carried out training processes in different areas of the municipality of Buenos Aires, located in the Cauca department in southwestern Colombia, where we are setting up a community wireless network. We have trained 56 people, of whom more than 30 are women. Within the framework of this initiative, we have been strengthening skills in the use of ICTs for entrepreneurs, young people and teachers so that they can make more strategic use of the network, enhance its usage and pass on what they have learned to other people in the community.
APCNews: With this award you will now set up a community network in a small town in Colombia using TV white space (TVWS) technology. Why this choice of community and technology?
A rural area in the municipality of Maní, in the Casnare department in eastern Colombia will be connected up. This is an area dedicated to livestock farming and the production of various crops. The aim is to validate this type of network model in productive areas where the internal conflict is not so prominent and to take lessons on how to replicate this type of initiative in different parts of the country. The use of TVWS technology is free in Colombia; it was licensed in 2017 and it’s possible to use it for community projects. We are going to test this technology in rural areas in order to validate its performance and make the best use of it in community network initiatives and the sustainable development of rural and urban areas in Colombia. We chose this community as it provides an opportunity to work in an area with different geographic and socio-economic conditions. It’s also important to mention that this work has been requested by the community and in that sense it means they are committed, which is vital in order to guarantee the participation of diverse stakeholders in the area to achieve the social and financial sustainability of the network.
Community networks are a very important alternative to close the digital divide and offer internet access in remote rural areas or in peripheral urban areas where there are no other connectivity alternatives. They also provide an opportunity to design and implement sustainability strategies where communities are managers of their own networks and integrate them into their development plans. It is also important to mention the collaborative work we have done with APC members such as Rhizomatica, AlterMundi, Zenzeleni and Pangea. We’ve received a lot of support from the Internet Society and we are active in a community where knowledge, experiences and lessons learned are shared among different stakeholders throughout the world. We’re also very enthusiastic about extending these initiatives to community mobile telephony networks.
Colnodo is an association of non-profit non-governmental organisations founded in 1994. Its goal is to facilitate communication and the exchange of information and experiences among Colombian social organisations at the local, national and international level through low-cost electronic networks.
In pursuing this goal, Colnodo has developed programmes that place priority on issues such as human rights, women’s empowerment, governability, democracy and public participation, sustainable development, the democratisation of knowledge, digital inclusion and the strategic use of ICTs for development.