By Débora PradoPublished on
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The first-ever Universal Service Fund (USF) grants focused on community networks in Argentina, an occasion recently celebrated by AlterMundi. As part of the Roberto Arias programme, the country's regulatory authority, ENACOM, announced on 9 May the approval of applications by the José de la Quintana and Los Molinos community networks to improve and extend their initiatives.
This unprecedented event places Argentina as one of the first countries in the world to include communities in the USF, and this can mark the beginning of a series of similar grants, as many other community networks bridging the digital divide in Argentina have also made similar applications, such as Construyendo Dignidad and Tierra Fértil.
In recent years, Argentina announced groundbreaking policies to support community networks through the implementation of state financing initiatives such as the Roberto Arias programme. It seeks to “address some of these urgent demands in digitally excluded territories of our country, where we continue to fight for access as a fundamental right”, as pointed out by AlterMundi.
AlterMundi has been supporting several communities in applying for the state programme through its Semillero or "Seedbed" project, an initiative to foster the exchange of knowledge and support community networks to deal with state bureaucracy and apply to the Roberto Arias programme.
Argentina is not alone
The Roberto Arias programme was seeded in participatory processes and incorporated community networks as beneficiaries of Argentina’s USF. This is not a coincidence. The strong community networks movement has provided the necessary conditions for the design of a more inclusive access policy and regulation. In fact, the programme is named after Roberto Arias, a community communications activist who led numerous projects alongside the Mapuche Indigenous community.
Similar shifts can be seen in Kenya, where community networks are growing in size and number. Their clout led to a positive regulatory change in 2021 with the introduction of the Community Networks Service Provider licence in the Communications Authority Unified Licensing Framework. Following, in 2022, the authority published the draft Universal Service Fund (USF) Strategic Plan 2022-2026, which included community networks, and which was recently approved.
The Malawi Communications Regulatory Authority (MACRA) also included community networks in its Universal Service Fund (USF) Strategic Plan for the period 2022-2027 recently. This five-year plan aims, among other things, "to expand the broadband coverage by licensing community internet service providers to provide connectivity to a certain underserved area".
What is happening in these countries is actually part of recommendations from diverse stakeholders.
The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) – the United Nations specialised agency for information and communication technologies – has pointed out to that USFs need to include community networks on various occasions. Recommendation ITU-D 19, one focusing on telecommunication for rural and remote areas, for instance, states that community access is particularly important in these areas and "should be supported by Universal Service Funds as an essential component of rural communications”. The WTDC/ITU Digital Trends in Africa 2021 report also recommended the review of the USF models and approaches to include "new community networks access models and public community access points for undeserved and rural communities", as a step needed to reach affordable and meaningful connectivity in Africa.
On the research side, the paper, “Failure and Promise: Anecdotes from the field on updating Universal Service Funds policies”, aims to analyse why, at the moment, most USFs are locked in by businesses and big telcos, while identifying "possible opportunity areas for changes to the scope of universal service regulations and management of universal service and access funds that may benefit community network projects". The paper will ground a workshop on this topic during this year’s Internet Governance Forum to continue the conversation.
Last year, the report, "Financing mechanisms for locally owned internet infrastructure", showed that community connectivity providers are connecting communities that have been left without the internet access, while keeping assets and wealth within communities. Almost all of them, however, struggle to access capital.
Civil society organisations have also been highlighting the importance of more supportive policies and regulations for community networks, including a review of USF strategies. Recently, representatives from the Local Networks (LocNet) initiative discussed USFs as an alternative to support community-led initiatives facing financing challenges with several member- states from the Communications Regulators' Association of Southern Africa (CRASA), during the “Forum on community networks and digital inclusion”, held on 19 July 2023. Earlier in the year, APC and partners also had the opportunity to discuss this topic on at the ITU’s joint workshop, “Challenges and opportunities of the use of USF for bridging the digital divide”.
"It is positive to see not only the interest from the ITU and regulators to use USF resources for complementary connectivity initiatives, but also that some countries are already implementing plans to operationalise it. From LocNet we are available to support others interested to follow the lead from Argentina, Kenya and Malawi,” said Carlos Rey-Moreno, representing the Association for Progressive Communications (APC) and one of the coordinators of LocNet – 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 connectivity.
For non-profits, public support is key and the changes in countries like Argentina, Kenya and Malawi can be an opportunity for other countries adopt a more holistic approach to digital inclusion and make USFs available to community-led models.
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.