Access in 2018: From in-depth research and movement building on community networks, to policy advocacy and regulatory frameworks for alternative connectivity initiatives

Publisher: APCNews     19 September 2019

People who are digitally excluded on the basis of where they live, gender, class, disability or identity have affordable and sustainable connectivity that allows them to share and communicate. This is a compendium of the highlights from APC's Annual Report for 2018.

Produced first-of-its-kind mapping of community networks from 43 countries across the world

pThe 2018 edition of Global Information Society Watch (GISWatch), produced with the support of the International Development Research Centre in the framework of the Local Access Networks project, focused on the powerful opportunities that community-owned networks offer for connectivity around the world. It was launched at the 2018 Internet Governance Forum (IGF), with the presence of several APC members who highlighted “the many ways to ‘do-it-yourself’ to end digital exclusion.”

The 2018 edition gathered 43 country reports and 8 thematic reports that captured the existence, development, scaling and characteristics of community networks in different contexts, including an understanding of the power relationships and dynamics in the framework of particular community networks and their gender and social impact. APC’s research has been critical not only in bringing to the fore globally, regionally and locally the isolation of marginalised communities by mainstream connectivity models, but also positioning people’s owned networks as one of the main solutions to address this gap.

APC members working on community access issues authored chapters for the publication and had the chance to share their experiences and discuss success factors and barriers for creating local networks, including organisational members AlterMundi, Colnodo, Digital Empowerment Foundation (DEF), Fantsuam Foundation, guifi.net, Instituto Nupef, Persatuan Kesedaran Komuniti Selangor (EMPOWER), Rhizomatica, Sulá Batsú and Zenzeleni Networks, as well as Steve Song and individual members Andrew Garton and Leonardo Maccari.

The research that APC and partners conducted has been fundamental to understanding the challenges that community networks face in designing and implementing strategies so that people-led networks can blossom and grow.

Image: GISWatch launch at IGF 2018 by Arturo Bregaglio.

Strengthened alliances and knowledge development on community networks

The Local Access Networks project is an initiative by APC in partnership with Rhizomatica and the Internet Society aimed at exploring the viability of community-based local access infrastructure projects as a means to connect the unconnected. This project gained momentum in 2018 as the community networks movement continued to grow. Through in-depth research, policy advocacy, movement building and support for existing alternative connectivity initiatives, this project considered the possibilities that these networks offer for more inclusive, autonomous internet access for underserved communities, particularly in the global South.

Regional and global alliances of community networks, including APC’s members and partners, and over 150 local access practitioners and advocates were strengthened through at least 15 networking and collaboration opportunities provided through APC’s local access project and its partnerships.

APC’s support in providing technical, policy, regulatory, economic and social (particularly on gender and access) assistance to community networks and initiatives that identified progress in and barriers to their deployment, development and sustainability has lead to the creation of at least three new community-driven autonomous networks in Latin America: RedINC in Colombia with support from Colnodo, and two in Brazil – Boa Vista and Campo Verde in Para state, in collaboration with LASSE at Universidade Federal do Pará. 

Throughout 2018, APC also published a monthly Community Networks and Local Access Monthly Newsletter, which continues in 2019, sharing the latest news about community network projects and technology around the world. This contributed to a better-informed community of practitioners with better resources for implementation and operation of more resilient locally-owned telecommunications infrastructure, as well as strengthened the community networks movement.

Meanwhile, APC member organisation Derechos Digitales made use of the small grant programme funded by the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida) to research regulatory environments for community networks in Latin America. Digital Empowerment Foundation worked on mapping the regulatory environment of community networks in India, Myanmar and Philippines, and Fantsuam Foundation worked on identifying policy and regulatory challenges for community networks in Nigeria.

Image: Coolab, Brazil.

Linked up stakeholders from 20 African countries at Third Community Networks Summit 

As part of their work to help expand the profile of community networks and consolidate knowledge around alternative models of connectivity in Africa, APC member Zenzeleni Networks organised and hosted in September 2018 the Third Annual Community Networks Summit in the region, in partnership with APC and the Internet Society. 

Attended by small-scale community operators and other stakeholders from 20 African countries, the event was an important capacity and movement-building moment for community networks in the region, which provided technical, sustainability and governance training. The summit attracted over 30 women, a significant increase from the previous year, and gave many participants their first opportunity to participate in a conference and to discuss the future and capability of telecommunications in Africa.

Image: Internet Society.

Raised awareness on the relevance of electromagnetic spectrum

APC published an interview series under the title “What’s new on the spectrum?”, with experts and community network advocates from around the world addressing issues related to electromagnetic spectrum allocation, policy and use. APC’s member in Brazil, Nupef Institute, continued working on its collaborative website https://espectro.org.br, which brings attention to issues around spectrum in English, Portuguese and Spanish. 

The Innovations in Spectrum Management - Enabling community networks and small operators to connect the unconnected report by Internet Society, authored by Stephen Song, Carlos Rey-Moreno and Michael Jensen, provides new lenses to understand the vocabulary, framework and current landscape for spectrum management. It also makes a detailed survey of the current status of spectrum management in frequency bands used to provide connectivity in Argentina, Brazil, Canada, India, Mexico, South Africa and the United States. Furthermore, it outlines the basis for an evolving spectrum management ecosystem where complementary approaches can be used to remove barriers and provide support to community networks and small operators. 

Image: Adriana Labardini Inzunza, Salma Jalife, Peter Bloom and Elisa Castillo pictured with locals who help run the Santiago Nuyoé community network.

Made strides on policy change towards innovative and people-centred approaches to access

Confronting one of the main barriers facing local access infrastructure and community network advocates around the world, various APC members and staff advocated for more enabling policy frameworks at local, regional and global levels in 2018. Developing a more conducive regulatory landscape represents a key step in supporting the growth and expansion of people-centred networks.

One important example of this was Zenzeleni Networks advocacy for a more accessible and inclusive spectrum policy in South Africa. In partnership with APC, representatives from the community-owned network held a public consultation about the assignment of high-demand spectrum and organised a workshop with government stakeholders outlining policy recommendations for the Department of Science and Technology.

APC also published a number of joint submissions and papers on local access issues with members. Zenzeleni Networks, APC and the University of Western Cape produced a written submission for the Electronic Communications Amendment Bill consultation in South Africa; APC submitted joint comments with the Internet Society on the technical and policy framework for white space devices in Canada; and Pangea founder Leandro Navarro authored an issue paper, published by APC, on using the commons model for networks infrastructure.

A UN resolution on the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) follow-up recognised community networks as an emerging topic in response to APC's intervention at the 2018 session of the Commission on Science and Technology for Development (CSTD).

Image: Image from the video on the Latin American Community Networks Summit by AlterMundi.

Embodied community networks in governance and policy discussions

Through APC’s engagement and participation in more than 30 events – key regional and global forums including CSTD, WSIS Forum, global and regional IGFs, ITU, as well as CITEL and CRASA, along with submissions on access-related policy and regulatory processes nationally and regionally – we contributed to increased understanding of APC's people-centred perspective on access, innovative regulatory approaches and public policy recommendations. 

APC and its members ensured that community networks were a central topic at multiple high-level internet governance meetings throughout the year, including the Latin America and Caribbean Internet Governance Forum (LAC IGF), which was initiated by APC along with LACNIC and Nupef Institute. Several APC members acted as panellists and organised sessions, including one of the forum’s main panels, moderated by APC with members Colnodo and Rhizomatica, which focused on challenges, achievements and experiences on managing community networks in Latin America.

At the global Internet Governance Forum (IGF) in Paris, representatives from AlterMundi, guifi.net and Rhizomatica participated in the Dynamic Coalition on Community Connectivity, while APC staff and partners organised and contributed to the session on accessing spectrum for community networks. Fantsuam Foundation, Digital Empowerment Foundation and Rhizomatica were also panellists in a session on innovative approaches to connecting underserved areas. In addition, a number of APC members contributed to the report produced as the official outcome of the IGF Dynamic Coalition on Community Connectivity's work in 2018.

APC also engaged in other key events such as the African Internet Society Chapters Advocacy Meeting, from 19-21 June in Ethiopia, and the Workshop on "Community networks and reaching the unserved”, organised by the East African Communications Organisation, from 24-25 September in Tanzania. 

Image: Screenshot from IGF 2018 Dynamic Coalition on Community Connectivity session video.

Provided a gender perspective on access 

As highlighted in APC’s article, "Helping women and non-binary communities gain access: Reflections from the Best Practice Forum on Gender and Access on the potential of alternative models of connectivity", including a gender approach to access is key to ensuring equal representation and voice. 

APC published several articles on access on the GenderIT.org website, including "Building a movement around community networks and gender equality” and “Gender and community networks: Busking in policy spaces”, both by Kathleen Diga and Nic Bidwell; "Talking community networks at AfChixTech Women Summit 2018” by Kazanka Comfort of Fantsuam Foundation; “What are we looking for?: Research on community networks” by Tigist Shewarega Hussen; and “Gender and community networks: Candid reflections 10 years later,” by Kathleen Diga.

APC contributed extensively to the capacity building of women and other marginalised social groups, given the ties of most of our members with existing grassroots initiatives. Ongoing support was provided to grassroots networks in countries such as Namibia and Honduras, among others. The support from project team members was a key factor for AfChix to be selected as one of the winners of the WomenConnect Challenge in 2018 for building the capacity of African women to deploy and operate community networks.

In partnership with Zenzeleni Networks, Mesh Bukavu and TunapandaNET, APC organised the Workshop Series: Community Networks that took place at the African Summit on Women and Girls in Technology 2018 in October 2018. The workshop introduced women and girls to the foundation concepts of community networks and provided basics of how to apply these concepts for starting and managing women-led community networks. It also provided a space for women government leaders and policy makers to think of ways they can help in advocating for gender responsive policies that support women who are championing community networks in Africa.

Image: Colnodo.

Colnodo implemented wireless community networks to connect underserved populations

In 2018, Colnodo developed an ICT appropriation project with a gender focus, through a community wireless network in Buenos Aires-Cauca, a rural area of Colombia. This initiative had the support of APC and the accompaniment of the Internet Society, with the aim of connecting, communicating and improving the quality of life of the inhabitants of this Colombian municipality. 

The municipality of Buenos Aires is located in the northern region of Cauca, with a multiethnic population of approximately 32,645 inhabitants composed of Afro-Colombian communities, mestizas and indigenous reservations and councils.

In the midst of meetings and workshops, Colnodo was able to identify the needs of the community, especially in aspects of ICT training and available means of communication. The planning, design and installation of the cellular and internet telephony network was carried out with the active participation of the community, which was essential to implementing a training plan and basic digital literacy process aimed at the community.

Image: Screenshot of the video by Colnodo "Red comunitaria INC (indígenas, negros, campesinos) - Conectando al Cauca”.

Zenzeleni Mankosi expanded to a second community-based network, the Zenzeleni Zithulele Cooperative

2018 was a year of growth, learning and adaptation for Zenzeleni Networks in South Africa. Through a grant from the South African Department of Science and Technology and the Technology Innovation Agency, they were able to seed a second community-based network, the Zenzeleni Zithulele Cooperative, located in a village about two hours’ drive from the original Zenzeleni Mankosi Cooperative. 

This happened in parallel with the opportunity of connecting some local businesses as anchor tenants, which allowed Zenzeleni to switch from their previous TENET connection to commercial fibre. These two changes enabled them to upgrade their backhaul, expand the connectivity in the villages and secure a steady and fast connection for many more people. It was also an important step in testing Zenzeleni's sustainability model.

Zenzeleni is currently in the process of defining and consolidating its vision, developing systems and training to operate in a way that will allow them to remain rooted in their original values, and finding ways to expand the benefits they bring to the community.

Image: Screenshot of the video Zenzeleni Networks Mankosi Ltd.

To watch out for

In 2019, the work of APC and its network on local access initiatives is set to grow both in reach and impact. Much of this momentum will stem from APC’s follow-up to the Local Access Networks project, entitled "Connecting the unconnected: Supporting community networks and other community-based initiatives”. Undertaken in partnership with Rhizomatica and supported by a Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida) grant, the 2019 year-long project will focus on supporting 12 community networks in Africa, Asia and Latin America, with the aim of contributing to an “enabling ecosystem for the emergence and growth of community-based connectivity initiatives in developing countries.” The project will have a special emphasis on women-led initiatives and integration of a gender perspective at all levels of project conceptualisation, planning and implementation. APC will offer a number of grants to the participating community networks, including Community Network Learning Grants, Pathfinder Grants and APC Labs Technology Development Grants, with the intention of strengthening the community networks movement through learning and capacity building. 

In 2019, APC will publish “Bottom-up Connectivity Strategies: Community-led small-scale telecommunication infrastructure networks in the global South”, a research report that documents the benefits of, and challenges facing, small-scale, community-based connectivity projects. For this, APC researchers visited 10 rural community network initiatives located in the global South for in-field site visits and four further networks were examined via desk research in 2018.

https://2018report.apc.org/



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