Bottom-up Connectivity Strategies: Community-led small-scale telecommunication infrastructure networks in the global South

 

Publication date: 
June 2019
Author: 
Research conducted by Nicola Bidwell and Michael Jensen
Publisher: 
APC

There is increasing concern over the worldwide slowdown in the growth of voice and internet users. The networks being deployed by national operators are now only expected to connect 60% to 70% of the world’s population by 2025. This indicates that the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which anticipate attaining universal connectivity by 2030, are unlikely to be achieved.

Despite decades of deployment, it appears increasingly likely that current strategies will not be able to address the needs of billions of people in developing countries who have ineffective communication services due to limited coverage or lack of affordable services.

Fortunately, however, network equipment continues to become more affordable and easier to deploy, resulting in increasing numbers of networks emerging where community members build and operate their own telecommunication infrastructure, often managed on a cost-recovery basis, rather than for commercial gain. Although there is no commonly accepted definition, these networks are usually called “community networks” because local communities are involved in some way in deploying, owning and operating the physical infrastructure that supports voice or internet connectivity. Many APC member organisations have recently become active in supporting these types of networks. This trend has strong parallels with APC’s birth as an organisation almost 30 years ago, when it emerged in response to similar needs to build local internet infrastructure, prior to the development of the “commercial internet” that most people use today.

Nationwide commercial services owned by private operators have up until recently been seen as the only effective means of addressing needs for connectivity. However, although this strategy is now coming under scrutiny, most governments are not yet aware of the potential impact of independent small-scale community-based networks. As a result, these networks are still relatively scarce, or invisible, because regulatory environments are generally hostile to them and are not yet adapted to foster their growth and replication. Aside from the absence of enabling regulatory environments, community networks, particularly those in the rural global South, also face other difficulties. Financial resources for their initial deployment are often very limited and there are other factors such as lack of affordable or reliable energy supply, and high costs for backhaul connectivity. Yet, despite these difficulties and their lack of visibility, community networks also appear to have many advantages over traditional large-scale commercial networks, including:

  • More local control over how the network is used and the content that is provided over the network.

  • Greater potential for attention to the needs of marginalised people and the specific populations of rural communities, including women and older people.

  • Lower costs and retention of more funds within the community.

  • Increased potential to foster a sense of agency and empowerment among users and those involved in the network.

To document the benefits of, and challenges facing, small-scale, community-based connectivity projects, APC researchers visited 12 rural community networks in the global South in 2018 and studied a number of others through desk research and interviews. The primary goal of the research is to provide information that can be used for evidence-based policy making that will contribute to creating a more enabling environment for small community-based local access networks. In addition, the research aimed to identify opportunities for these networks to be more effective and, hopefully, to encourage more organisations to support the development of these networks in future.

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

Disclaimer: This report was initially published under the title "Connectivity Strategies Where People Matter: Community-led small-scale telecommunication infrastructure networks in the global South," which was later changed to the current one.

Table of contents

SECTION 1. SUMMARY .............................................................................................. 8

  • Introduction ........................................................................................................ 9

  • Research methods ............................................................................................ 10

  • Results and conclusions .................................................................................... 11

  • General considerations ..................................................................................................... 11

  • The initiatives studied ....................................................................................................... 12

  • Motivations for establishing community networks ......................................................... 15

  • Technical and operational strategies in community networks ...................................... 16

  • Institutional models .......................................................................................................... 18

  • Local and global benefits offered by community networks ............................................ 19

  • Impediments to the benefits of community networks .................................................... 23

  • Final remarks and recommendations ................................................................. 25

  • Recommendations for policy and regulation ................................................................... 26

  • Recommendations for investment and funding .............................................................. 27

  • Recommendations about inclusivity ................................................................................ 27

  • Recommendations for future research ............................................................................ 28

SECTION 2. COMMUNITY NETWORKS: OPERATIONAL AND TECHNICAL RESEARCH ........ 29

  • Background ....................................................................................................... 30

  • Research strategy ............................................................................................. 33

  • The initiatives studied ....................................................................................... 35

  • Types of connectivity provided ......................................................................................... 38

  • Underlying motivations and support for setting up community networks ........... 39

  • Motivations for establishing community networks ......................................................... 39

  • Organisations with supporting roles in community networks ........................................ 43

  • Institutional models and sustainability strategies .............................................. 46

  • Provisioning models .......................................................................................................... 49

  • Umbrella and support organisations ................................................................................ 50

  • Levels of community involvement .................................................................................... 51

  • Indirect outcomes: Impacts on the connectivity ecosystem ............................... 52

  • A conceptual framework for financial sustainability ...................................................... 54

  • Sustainability challenges .................................................................................................. 55

  • Recommendations ............................................................................................ 63

  • Improving policy and regulatory environments ............................................................... 63

  • Recommendations for future research areas .................................................................. 65

  • The study group initiatives in detail ................................................................... 68

  • AlterMundi/*Libre, Córdoba province, Argentina ............................................................. 68

  • Associação Portal Sem Porteiras/Coolab, Monteiro Lobato, São Paulo state, Brazil ... 71

  • BOSCO – Battery Operated Systems for Community Outreach, Uganda ...................... 72

  • Des Hotspot, Banda Aceh, Indonesia ............................................................................... 75

  • Gram Marg/IIT Bombay, Maharashtra, India ................................................................... 77

  • Mayutel/Red de Telemedicina del Río Napo/TUCAN3G, Peru ........................................ 79

  • Pamoja Net, Ensemble Pour la Différence, Idjwi Island, DRC ......................................... 83

  • Puspindes/Common Room and RelawanTIK, Central Java, Indonesia ......................... 85

  • Quilombola Network, Bairro Novo, Maranhão, Brazil ...................................................... 88

  • TakNet/Net2Home, Mae Sot, Tak Province, Thailand ..................................................... 90

  • Telecomunicaciones Indígenas Comunitarias (TIC AC), Oaxaca, Mexico ...................... 93

  • Ungu Community 4G/LTE, Bokondini, West Papua, Indonesia ....................................... 97

  • Village Base Station (VBTS) Konnect Barangay, Aurora, Philippines ........................... 100

  • Wireless for Communities (W4C), Digital Empowerment Foundation (DEF), India ..... 103

  • Zenzeleni, Eastern Cape, South Africa ........................................................................... 105

  • Technology use details .................................................................................... 106

  • Access network technologies ......................................................................................... 106

  • Technology use insights ................................................................................................. 113

SECTION 3. THE SOCIAL BENEFITS OF RURAL COMMUNITY NETWORKS IN SIX COUNTRIES AND RECOMMENDATIONS FOR THEIR DEVELOPMENT ................................................ 118

  • Introduction .................................................................................................... 119

  • Benefits and capabilities ................................................................................. 120

  • Expressing and extending self- and collective efficacy ................................................ 120

  • Ownership and walking together .................................................................................... 122

  • Contributing to local economies .................................................................................... 124

  • Facilitating employment and remote work .................................................................... 127

  • Transacting online or circulating money locally ............................................................ 128

  • Extending online time for learning and just-in-time information .................................. 129

  • Intermediating, disseminating and producing information .......................................... 130

  • Human connectedness: Care and communality ........................................................... 132

  • Involving children and teens, and regulating their access ............................................ 134

  • Local awareness, visibility, safety, security and privacy ............................................... 137

  • Creatively connecting technology to local settings ...................................................... 139

  • Challenges and recommendations ................................................................... 141

  • Inclusion in the benefits .................................................................................................. 141

  • Involvement in, and awareness about, decisions .......................................................... 147

  • Resources for maintaining networks and services ....................................................... 149

  • Geographies of access and involvement ....................................................................... 153

  • Temporalities of involvement and access ..................................................................... 157

  • Access and involvement across generations ................................................................ 160

  • Women and technical work ............................................................................................. 163

ANNEX I: SHORTLIST OF ESTABLISHED COMMUNITY NETWORKS IN THE GLOBAL SOUTH .................................................................... 169

ANNEX II: METHODOLOGY USED IN EXPLORING THE SOCIAL BENEFITS AND CHALLENGES OF COMMUNITY NETWORKS ............................................................ 172

  • Introduction .................................................................................................... 173

  • Background to the methodology .................................................................................... 173

  • Identifying community network cases ........................................................................... 174

  • Selecting community network cases ............................................................................. 175

  • Categories of participants .............................................................................................. 175

  • Problem statement .......................................................................................... 176

  • Potential social impacts ................................................................................................. 177

  • Social and gender concerns in community networks ................................................... 178

  • Research objectives ........................................................................................ 178

  • Research design .............................................................................................. 179

  • Community network practices ........................................................................................ 179

  • Feminist standpoint theory and grounded analysis ...................................................... 180

  • Adaptation ....................................................................................................................... 180

  • Sampling ......................................................................................................... 181

  • Cases, community networks and sites .......................................................................... 181

  • Participants in cases ....................................................................................................... 182

  • Research instruments ..................................................................................... 183

  • Orientation and community network overviews ............................................................ 184

  • Individual interviews ........................................................................................................ 184

  • Diary accounts by community network users ............................................................... 185

  • Focus group discussions (FGDs) ................................................................................... 186

  • Brief interviews and emergent group discussions ........................................................ 187

  • Documents ....................................................................................................................... 187

  • Observations .................................................................................................................... 188

  • Procedures ...................................................................................................... 188

  • Liaising and planning with community networks .......................................................... 188

  • Recruiting diverse participants ....................................................................................... 189

  • Scheduling and locating FGDs and interviews .............................................................. 190

  • Interpreting ...................................................................................................................... 191

  • Recording ......................................................................................................................... 192

  • Analysis and synthesis .................................................................................... 193

  • Grounded analysis ........................................................................................................... 193

  • Reporting and recommendations ................................................................................... 194

  • Research ethics ............................................................................................... 194

  • Confidentiality .................................................................................................................. 194

  • Beneficence ..................................................................................................................... 195

  • Limitations ...................................................................................................... 195

  • Relationships ................................................................................................................... 196

  • Access .............................................................................................................................. 196

  • Representation ................................................................................................................ 196

  • Appendices ..................................................................................................... 198

  • Appendix 1: Topic guide for individual interviews with community network initiators/leaders ............................................................................................................. 198

  • Appendix 2: Topic guide for individual interviews with community network operators and volunteers ................................................................................................................. 200

  • Appendix 3: Topic guide for focus group discussions with users of community networks ........................................................................................................................... 202

  • Appendix 4: Diary accounts of users of community networks ..................................... 205

 

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

 

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