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The research publication "Bottom-up Connectivity Strategies: Community-led small-scale telecommunication infrastructure networks in the global South", authored by Nicola J. Bidwell and Michael Jensen and launched in 2019, studied the benefits of, and challenges facing, small-scale, community-based connectivity projects. The report presented the findings gathered through visits to 12 rural community networks in the global South, in addition to information on a number of others compiled through desk research and interviews. The ultimate goal of the research was to contribute to creating a more enabling environment for small community-based local access networks to grow and flourish, given the vital role that they can play in providing connectivity for the billions who have been left behind by current strategies that view local access as the “last mile” as opposed to the “first mile”. Although the entire report was made freely available online as soon as it was completed, we have decided to launch this series of articles, each highlighting a particular aspect of the research.

In previous weeks we looked at the reasons for conducting this research and learned more about the community networks that were studied during the research, their motivations for building their own communications networks, the different technical and operational strategies and institutional models adopted by the community networks studied during the research, and the local and global benefits offered by community networks. This week we look at the impediments that prevent these benefits from being realised.

The detailed research on social impact shows unequivocally that community networks provide specific social and economic benefits along with the broader benefits of connectivity to people whose needs are unmet by national networks.

However, community networks also encounter problems in achieving their goals to provide access to connectivity to the most excluded people in society. These problems are caused by an absence of wider recognition of the special benefits of community networks, and lack of enabling policy, regulatory and investment environments, along with different types of discrimination embedded in the global culture of the telecommunications ecosystem.

The research illustrated that community networks can provide affordable access to many people who are excluded by national telecommunications networks; however, in the cases studied, not everyone in the community networks’ constituencies had access. Most barriers to people’s access are also included in the much larger set of barriers presented by traditional telecommunications networks, rather than being intrinsic to the community network paradigm. Nevertheless, these encompass exclusion because potential users cannot afford phone handsets or other devices to use the network, do not have written and/or technological literacies, or have needs and interests that are not targeted when designing services, for instance, because of their age.

All telecommunications systems amplify existing gaps between people and, because community networks provide benefits to people in their rural constituencies, they also advantage those that have access in varied ways. For instance, people who already have basic technological literacy are more able to gain skills in operating community networks and consequently to participate in decision making about community networks and/or generating income by applying the skills they gained.

The research data shows that challenges to inclusive decision making that were evident in some cases studied result from broader problems in technology. For instance, technical manuals and interfaces focus on certain languages which exclude many people from understanding networks. This exclusion, of course, characterises telecommunications networks as a whole, but the problem becomes more visible in community networks precisely because they are situated within communities that are residential, rather than specifically technical, and involve the skills of local residents.

Other examples of the ways that community networks reveal conventions and practices in telecommunications that exclude diverse people relate to age and gender. For instance, the research data shows that prioritising the technical skills of younger people can be incompatible with the age profile of rural populations, where people tend to be older.

Further, the global culture of telecommunications only ascribes higher value to certain sorts of work, and associates this work with men, not women. This contributes to situations where the work of social coordination, which is fundamental and vital to community networks and often undertaken by women, is not valued as much as the work of software and network engineering; thus, women are under-remunerated. In contrast to commercial telecommunications providers, however, community networks are often highly motivated to include diverse people in operations.

Unfortunately, despite their motivation and capacity to identify and address exclusion, community networks are impeded by factors related to enabling policy, regulatory and investment environments. Some challenges that community networks face in achieving inclusivity are the direct result of the current absence of enabling policy and regulations, others are more indirect. For example, exclusions relating to geographic dispersion of people occur less frequently for mobile networks than for the Wi-Fi networks that most community networks are forced to use.

The limited spatial coverage of a particular Wi-Fi hotspot can restrict connectivity to certain places, and these places may not be accessible to some people with social, cultural or bodily constraints. Sometimes this means that community networks reinforce local power structures because access points are located at authority premises, where only privileged people are permitted to use their modest amounts of bandwidth. Further, if the location of public Wi-Fi hotspots in a network is not gender-sensitive, then girls and women encounter specific barriers to access.

It is imperative to appreciate, however, that at the root of this problem are national policies and regulatory frameworks that preclude community networks from using technologies that have greater spatial coverage or lower costs. The relationship between policy, regulation and the exclusion of women and girls from access, which in turn amplifies gender differentials in freedom to access information, is a clear example of the way that community networks expose issues that are hidden, and in fact caused by, established telecommunications infrastructures.

Other challenges arise because community networks that are situated in economically deprived, remote rural areas and are also based on less familiar telecommunications paradigms are unable to access capital from traditional investors or lenders. All the cases studied show that community networks emerge from small beginnings and operate with meagre resources, including limited access to training, vehicles and printed material, and this, in turn, constrains their ability to maintain their networks and publicise their services as well as they would like. Thus, although many of the community networks in the study respond conceptually and organisationally to the needs of their constituencies, financial limits on their operations mean their growth and changes emerge slowly.

Lack of access to capital results from a combination of factors that are all, ultimately, attributable to comparing community networks with the traditional telecommunications model and discounting their unique value:

  • Compared with traditional telecommunications, community networks are seen as having higher actual or perceived levels of risk. This is because their distant rural locations are unfamiliar, they involve new technologies in apparently alien social contexts with novel sustainability strategies, and they may be run by people with limited management experience. The community network initiatives may also lack land or other assets to provide collateral as guarantees for loans. Even if collateral is available, the cost of commercial bank finance is usually too expensive as it is priced at levels which reflect high perceived risk.

  • When it comes to investment, community networks are judged according to specific measures of potential, specifically scale and replicability. Small networks are less attractive to traditional sources of finance or development assistance because the overheads for administering projects and funds disbursements are much the same, regardless of the size of the project. Thus, the proportion of overheads in the project is higher than for larger-scale projects, resulting in a relatively high cost of support. Also, many of the networks focus on providing connectivity in a particular location, with little or no interest in growing and replicating in ways that would create the larger projects that attract traditional funders seeking scale.

  • Community networks offer low surplus revenue. This is a disincentive for lenders and investors looking for higher returns in the telecommunications sector and limits community networks’ ability to service loans. The members and customers of community networks in rural areas of developing countries have very low incomes, and operating costs can be substantially higher compared with urban areas. This is commercial telecommunications providers’ key justification for not covering these areas. Further, unlike traditional telecommunications that value-price services for wealthier markets, many of the networks a) do not aim to make a profit and/or b) try to ensure that any fees for service are as low as possible.

  • Community networks often need to obtain soft finance and grant funding from development agencies and national governments, because of their difficulties in gaining start-up financial support. Again, however, they can encounter problems. Firstly, until recently there were very few specific global development funding streams for community networks, and to our knowledge no national ones. Now, while there are more funding streams, there are also more community networks competing for those streams. Secondly, project proposals are evaluated and monitored against the better-known connectivity strategies of commercial telecommunications provision. These tend to emphasise the technical aspects of implementation, which do not account for community networks’ inherent social qualities. Thirdly, outcomes are also evaluated against the connectivity strategies of commercial telecommunications provision, which do not account for the wide array of unique benefits offered by community networks.

Coming next week: Bottom-up Connectivity Strategies: What can we learn from the research to make advocacy for community networks more effective?

Find out more about the research methods here.

DOWNLOAD THE FULL RESEARCH "Bottom-up Connectivity Strategies: Community-led small-scale telecommunication infrastructure networks in the global South"  [PDF]

This report was produced as part of the broader Local Access Networks project that was carried out in partnership with Rhizomatica (an NGO supporting numerous community networks in Latin America) with financial support from the International Development Research Centre (IDRC).

Short accounts of other community network initiatives can be found in the sister publication also produced as part of this project – Global Information Society Watch 2018: Community Networks – which looks at networks in 43 countries.