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This article is also published on Medianama. The online symposium on the value of Internet Openness at the time of COVID-19 is a joint outcome of the Internet Governance Forum coalition on Net Neutrality and Community Connectivity. This is the tenth article in the series. Read all the articles in the symposium here.

Near the end of 2019, the World Health Organisation was informed that unusual cases of pneumonia had been identified and mortality rates were on the increase in the city of Wuhan, China. Now, over five months into a worldwide health crisis, environmental experts say this this novel illness, a mutation of the SARS virus dubbed COVID-19, is a symptom of rapid changes in humanity’s interaction with the natural environment. These range from human extraction of natural resources to territorial expansion into crucial natural habitats and declines in biodiversity and ecosystem resilience. Somewhat ironically, the result of this overwhelming expansion into the natural world has been a contagious virus whose spread can only seemingly be slowed by physical distancing. As a result, some governments are enforcing lockdowns in order to reduce transmission and fatality rates.

COVID-19 is exacerbating previously existing precarious situations in the Global South such as for those living in informal settlements with little space to distance or clean water to sanitise. Informal and day labourers rely on daily work to survive and must make hard choices about whether to risk their health to earn their daily bread or stay home and go hungry. Meanwhile, businesses and education facilities have been encouraged to shift their activities online and there have been millions who have done so, creating a new “normal” of online meetings, classes, app-enabled home deliveries, etc. The narrative of this shift online has generally been one of success — of people and institutions taking advantage of online spaces to keep afloat, and of ISPs and mobile operators keeping their networks up to the task of handling huge increases in data traffic. However, this is not the full story. In both highly developed and less-developed countries, there continue to exist major gaps in access to, and affordability of, connectivity. Under- and un-connected people and localities are unable to keep up as things have moved online during the pandemic, adding a layer of complexity for disadvantaged homes, whose daily realities also include hunger, environment destruction and violence.

What happens to communities in rural and underserved urban areas lacking access to the internet? What happens to those without access to machines and devices or whose lives do not fit into a digital model of e-learning and e-commerce? As these questions are being raised, the issue of the digital divide has come back into stark focus. Individuals, businesses and whole nations are grappling with the new reality that much of public and private life is moving online, at least for the foreseeable future. For those without meaningful connectivity, as in high-quality, persistent and affordable home and community internet connections, vast realms of social life become inaccessible or overly costly. Whereas before the digital divide strongly impacted livelihoods and communication, a lack of connectivity now means total disconnection from essential activities such as schooling, health information, and political participation. Even amongst countries with relatively high levels of connectivity, there has been a tremendous clamour to ensure that un-connected and under-connected areas be brought online.

While connectivity is enshrined as a basic human right, there is still much to be done in order to ensure meaningful and affordable connectivity for all. The current pandemic represents an ideal moment for public, private and community actors to come together to solve the digital divide challenge. Unfortunately, years of pro-business and short-term investment recovery strategies have predominantly guided broadband policy, contributing to current global digital inequalities and making it hard to quickly deputise other non-commercial actors to rapidly ramp up connectivity. Another observation is that as authorities around the globe have been preparing for 5G rollouts in urban centres, creating access to huge swaths of spectrum and other incentives and subsidies, they must now grapple with the new reality demanded by their citizens, and one in which the private sector’s capacity for investment in 5G has been greatly diminished. In order to remain relevant, both the public and private sectors recognise they must quickly pivot to new strategies for connecting everyone.

But the public and private players are not the only actors on the scene, and in many cases their responses have been sluggish and inadequate. Community networks are important players as well, offering their grounded capacity of self-administration, decision-making and information management to help community members protect and organise themselves in the face of an unprecedented crisis. Community networks have the added advantage of focussing on the value and culture of sharing within a community and generating relevant and localised content, especially in situations when people are being overwhelmed by information and misinformation. In the following paragraphs, we will explore and share some of the ways community networks are confronting the COVID-19 pandemic, rooted in care, decentralisation and community-based action and solutions.

At the most basic, human level, we have observed the vital role of community networks to break down the isolation that has led to retraumatisation, depression and an increase of cases of gender-based violence. This observation is within a larger context of overload that women experience with regards to work, motherhood and education. In rural Brazil, in the community network Portal sem Porteiras, women are communicating and relating through podcasts, sharing accurate information about the virus, countering fake news, and extending support to each other. And in Marrecas, Brazil, women who are part of the network have organised themselves to produce and sell face masks, an initiative that has been mirrored by TunaPanda in the informal settlement of Kibera, in Nairobi, Kenya. In these instances, community networks have proven to be a space of self and collective care to feel, heal, share, and discharge. The possibility of sharing how we feel day by day and creating collective virtual dynamics has been vital to the health of community members. Beyond this space for sharing, there are other community initiatives of digital care led by women farmers where complaints are received anonymously and temporary relocations are made, and collectives such as MariaLab have created web pages for reporting domestic violence.

COVID-19 is primarily a health crisis, and community networks have responded in kind. One example is the Tosepan Titataniske Union of Cooperatives, which is based in the municipality of Cuetzalan, Puebla, in Mexico, that launched the Tayolchikawalis initiative. Based on “actions for a strong heart”, it is a way to respond to the pandemic at the health level but that also addresses socio-economic concerns. The communication campaign transmits the importance of revitalising the countryside through planting. Part of this campaign uses broadcasted audio productions created by radio volunteers and a website created to convey accurate and appropriate community-related content. Finally, Common RoomZenzeleni and TunaPanda have also been customising COVID-related information to be used in various portals to fit the local context and language. For example, through storytelling and creating a video and meme competition, TunaPanda demystifies what Covid is all about. They have also made available information on mental health with the support of volunteer doctors.

Due to the strict enforcement of physical distancing, many communities in rural and remote areas have found themselves further isolated and cut off from the rest of society. Abradig, a group that has been installing hybrid digital shortwave radio systems in very remote areas of the Amazon, has shown how low-cost equipment using solar energy has become more important than ever. Communities closed their borders to protect themselves from the pandemic, but this system allows them to coordinate health responses and keep track of clinic inventory. In another example from Brazil, CooLab created the #LiberaOWiFi campaign which trains people to open their WiFi networks safely so that unconnected people can access the internet, creating digital solidarity amongst neighbors and helping everyone stay connected during isolation.

Many community networks are found in vulnerable and precarious contexts, and can offer vital support to isolated or poorer communities. People working in community networks are going beyond access and provide access to support around holistic well-being of their communities. However, some community networks have cautioned that lockdowns are limiting the movement for members to maintain the physical infrastructure, much of which is done by volunteers. While some have shown the capacity to offer holistic responses, many struggle to deal with larger structural issues such as hunger and unemployment that have been enhanced due to COVID-19, and along with their networks, communities themselves have important needs for targeted social protection from government.

Community networks can embody the etymology of communication —“making common”— and we are witnessing their value in a pandemic. Some emerge as a life-centering ecosphere that decentralise communication, diversify infrastructure, and help reinforce balance and communities’ right to self-determination. They operate on the principle of making technology more approachable, use open hardware and software, and promote sustainable energy use.

While the world economy is heavily affected by COVID-19, it has shed light on the preparedness and vulnerability of all systems, including community networks, to provide adequate and rapid response. Prior to the pandemic, policies did little to enable community networks in the Global South. Without informed and inclusive policies, community networks often operate in grey areas or in some cases, lack regulatory compliance, thereby impeding communities from maintaining and growing their local networks. Persistent issues such as the difficulty to upgrade network equipment due to lack of funds and major barriers to access hardware are now compounded by the lockdown, as it prevents the “technical expertise” from reaching sites.

A parallel from the health system and open-source innovation can be drawn around the design for critical ventilators, which allowed local community members with technical know-how to step in, replicate and produce life saving devices for hospitals. During a moment when connectivity is more vital than ever, now is the time for governments to quickly put in place enabling regulatory environments and policy practices that grant communities the right to set up and run their own communication infrastructure so that everyone can address their basic needs and exercise their basic rights.

Disclosure: The community networks mentioned in this article were contacted directly to solicit their feedback on their rapid local response to COVID-19. While these local responses are currently not funded by the current “Connecting the Unconnected” project, we would like to disclose that community network partners were funded in sub-grant projects in 2019.  The project partner information can be found here. We acknowledge the hard work of our community network partners who are mentioned in this article (Common Room, Zenzeleni, Tosepan/TIC Mexico, Coolab, Abradig, Tunapanda, Portal sem Porteiras, Instituto Bem Estar Brasil), and many others on the ground who are working to connect their communities during these difficult times.

“Connecting the Unconnected: Supporting community networks and other community-based connectivity initiatives” is a project being implemented by APC in partnership with Rhizomatica that aims to directly support the development of community networks, with funds from the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida). The ultimate aim of the project is to contribute to an enabling ecosystem for the emergence and growth of community networks and other community-based connectivity initiatives in developing countries. It is part of a multi-year, multi-donor strategy envisaged to address the human capacity and sustainability challenges, along with the policy and regulatory obstacles, that limit the growth of community-based connectivity initiatives.