Connecting the underserved: Innovation through knowledge sharing, “imagination” and a “community mindset”

One of the themes that dominated this year’s Internet Governance Forum (IGF) was how to address the “connectivity gap”, with over half the world’s population still unconnected and the rate of new connectivity beginning to slow. In particular, remote, rural and indigenous communities face significant barriers to sustainable internet access due to a lack of available infrastructure and low population density, which undermines economic incentives for commercial operators. 

As these challenges have become more apparent, so too has the urgency of addressing them. Opening the Day 3 workshop “Innovative Approaches to Connecting Underserved Areas”, moderator Sebastian Bellagamba insisted that “we need to go faster because the cost of not being connected keeps increasing for people” and the link between internet access and socioeconomic development is more evident than ever. 

And yet, while most can agree that this is a deeply relevant issue, the question of what to do about it remains complex and disputed. One consistent theme that emerged over the course of this session, however, which brought together community network operators, policy advocates and business representatives tackling this issue from different angles, was the fundamental importance of imaginative, flexible and context-specific solutions that centre the particular needs of these communities.

To kick things off, Bellagamba posed a broad question to the panellists: “What would be the most innovative approach that you think we need in order to make [connection] happen fast? We need to connect 100% of the population. How will we do it?” 

Turning to the table, the range of responses revealed that the notion of a singular “solution” is flawed – strategies must necessarily be varied, flexible and inventive. John Dada of Nigerian-based Fantsuam Foundation, an APC member organisation, explained the initial challenge of addressing the “twin problems of access and power” in his region and then the subsequent challenge of rebuilding and sustaining the Fantsuam community network in the wake of civil war and political instability. Matthew Rantanen from the Southern California Tribal Chairmen’s Association and the Tribal Digital Village Network raised the pervasive problem of “access to affordable backhaul,” stressing that, in today's environment, “in order to be able to function... and be competitive you need to get access to affordable bandwidth.” 

Karla Velasco, a policy advocate who works with REDES A.C. and APC member Rhizomatica in Mexico, further emphasised affordability, but focused specifically on access to spectrum for community networks through flexible regulation, while Gonzalo Lopez-Barajas of Telefónica in Peru stressed the importance of finding profitable economic models and reducing deployment costs through partnerships between grassroots organisations and big operators. 

Loreto Bravo of Rhizomatica, meanwhile, highlighted human resources and capacity as a critical aspect of sustainability: “Who will fix it when it is broken? Who will be involved in the more technical aspect, in the administrative part?” Ritu Srivastava of the Digital Empowerment Foundation, an APC member in India, seconded this human focus, describing her organisation’s “very frugal approaches to connecting the rural” and framing innovation in terms of “how people are engaging with the network” to make it sustainable. 

Lastly, Bill Murdoch of Clear Sky Connections, an organisation focused on indigenous connectivity in Manitoba, Canada, stressed the need “to consult with the communities, consult with the political leaders, consult with the grassroots people and to define the end goal,” particularly in indigenous contexts where community trust in government intervention is understandably lacking. 

Following up on this cataloguing of tactics and obstacles, which revealed some similarities as well as myriad differences between projects, Bellagamba asked where best to direct our focus. What is the biggest priority in this sea of challenges and opportunities: regulatory, economic or technical issues? On this topic, the panellists were generally in accord – none of these challenges can be tackled in isolation or, as Rantanen offered, “I hate to say you have to do a lot of it at the same time.” 

The balance of these three aims, however, again depends on the context. Velasco, for example, explained that in Mexico, “we have the regulation part complete. We have the technical part, but we are lacking the economic part,” whereas in conversation with a Ghanaian civil society organisation, she discovered that their main challenge was technical; they lacked available infrastructure and “even to own a mobile device” was considered “a luxury”. So, she continued, “it really depends on the country you are in. You have to look at it from every possible perspective, which is very, very difficult.” 

In an interesting shift of focus, Bravo advocated for a more “anthropological perspective” towards connectivity projects, one which takes into account the “cultural aspects… the role of traditions, of the relationships between people” when setting up networks.

By drawing attention to differing social frameworks and diverse economic models in communities, Bravo hinted at an underlying complexity in the debate around connectivity and community network development. Should we be looking at these projects as an extension of market-based models and emphasise profitability, or should we be framing connection differently – as a public good and resource that transcends this economic logic? Or perhaps, some combination of the two, as necessary? While there were evidently variations in perspective on the fundamental goals of connection, it nonetheless became clear that many different stakeholders will need to be involved and find common ground to even make it possible, from a technical, political and economic standpoint. 

In order to do this, more knowledge sharing, documentation and cooperation between initiatives regionally and internationally must happen. For many of the participants, panels like this are a crucial step on that path. “It is very important to create these kind of spaces inside communities, between communities, inside the academic world, inside of technical communities,” said Velasco. It is in this way that momentum around this issue will continue to build. 

As Rantanen helpfully summarised, “Every time a community network gets on a panel and talks to an audience, it opens up doors and opportunities and creates awareness.”

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