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The research publication "Bottom-up Connectivity Strategies: Community-led small-scale telecommunication infrastructure networks in the global South", authored by Nicola J. Bidwell and Michael Jensen and launched in 2019, studied the benefits of, and challenges facing, small-scale, community-based connectivity projects. The report presented the findings gathered through visits to 12 rural community networks in the global South, in addition to information on a number of others compiled through desk research and interviews. The ultimate goal of the research was to contribute to creating a more enabling environment for small community-based local access networks to grow and flourish, given the vital role that they can play in providing connectivity for the billions who have been left behind by current strategies that view local access as the “last mile” as opposed to the “first mile”. Although the entire report was made freely available online as soon as it was completed, we have decided to launch this series of articles, each highlighting a particular aspect of the research.

In previous weeks we looked at the reasons for conducting this research and learned more about the community networks that were studied during the research and their motivations for building their own communications networks.  This week we look at the technical and operational strategies of the community networks studied during the research.

The technical strategies or institutional models adopted by the networks reflect the different conditions present at each location, which mainly result from variations in the following factors:

  • Regulatory environments

  • Income levels, literacy, and other “development” indicators

  • Availability of supporting infrastructure – backhaul capacity, energy

  • Awareness of technical options and access to technical/management skills

  • Sense of community agency, local culture and traditions

  • Support from local authorities and/or external organisations.

Of all these factors, the regulatory environment has the most far-reaching impact as a “threshold factor” which affects the technology strategy of the network, the institutional model and also its longer-term impact.

Most of the initiatives studied during the research have been at a disadvantage in providing connectivity because the national policy environments have not been conducive to these networks. This is especially the case for providing mobile voice services. Access to radio spectrum is insufficient, while licensing or interconnection requirements and government fees/taxes are not adjusted for small networks, which creates relatively much higher burdens on them. For example, in Brazil, government taxes and levies on the satellite service doubles the cost of the bandwidth used by one of the community networks for the backhaul connection to the internet, the largest cost component of running the network.

Also, community networks have usually not been given the same government support that is given to national operators for extending their services into underserved areas. Of relevance, here is the fact that the community networks actually generate additional traffic (and revenues) for the existing commercial networks. For example, analysis of calling patterns in the community mobile networks deployed in Mexico and the Philippines shows incoming call traffic is four to 10 times higher than the outbound traffic originating from the community networks.

As a result of inhospitable regulatory environments, most of the community networks have been confined to using unlicensed spectrum and are dependent on limited sources of funding in the start-up phase, or for expansion. The networks are thus slower to grow or replicate and few provide voice services.

The networks studied provide many examples of the innovative strategies that have been adopted to address the need for connectivity in the face of these difficult conditions. The proverb “Necessity is the mother of invention” is particularly apt here. Some of the noteworthy innovations and strategies that were found in the community networks are listed in the table below.

Notable strategies of the community network initiatives studied



Special strategies



Partnership with local university for free off-peak backhaul capacity. Locally manufactured parabolic antennas to reduce costs. Design/manufacture of LibreRouter wireless router for community networks, with LibreMesh operating system software which can also replace software on off-the-shelf commercial routers. All members/users attend technical workshops, can provide in-kind contributions.


Associação Portal Sem Porteiras

A non-profit association using a Sociocratic decision-making methodology. Member of a collective of technical support for community networks in Brazil. Provides public hotspots, technical development, support and content-sharing platform.


Quilombola Community Network

Indigenous women’s association of traditional palm harvesters providing livelihood support and managing conflict with large land owners/cattle ranchers. Usage fees more than cover satellite costs, surplus used for printing. Participatory mapping used to identify the communities.

Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC)

Pamoja Net

Youth upliftment and integrated development focus, free off-peak Wi-Fi access is cross-subsidised by income generated from business and NGO users. Network is a response to a request by the traditional leader. Community radio station support.


Gram Marg

Testing different institutional models – public-private partnership with local authorities and village entrepreneur model. Locally developed TVWS equipment. Subsequent regulatory restrictions on use of TVWS required backhaul links to be replaced with 5.8 GHz Wi-Fi, resulting in blackspots (no coverage) and greater costs for the higher towers needed for line-of-sight Wi-Fi.


Wireless for Communities (W4C)

Roving public access vehicle for nomadic groups, e-commerce/entrepreneurship support for women, connectivity and distance education for local authorities and schools, connectivity and telemedicine for clinics, community radio station connectivity, “network in a box” developed for quick and easy deployment.


Des Hotspot

Electronics hardware repair/copy service adds small-scale WISP service to repackage retail fibre broadband into lower bandwidth, more affordable services for residences and small businesses.


Puspindes/ RelawanTIK

Provision of access is part of a broader ICT adoption programme and mandate for local authorities, including government-mandated requirements for local authority websites and content development. Supported through a nationwide group of “ICT evangelist” volunteers.


RelawanTIK/ Common Room

Public access provision is part of a civic rural/urban digital development collaboration and support programme using art, culture and multimedia supported by the regency (local authority).


Ungu Community LTE

Test bed for a new open source low-cost LTE-based mobile network. No voice services are provided in order to avoid competition with licensed voice provider.


Telecomunicaciones Indígenas Comunitarias (TIC AC)

Legislated access to small quantities of licensed mobile spectrum for indigenous populations. Close support from indigenous assemblies and strong community-based decision making. Low-cost software-defined radios used for mobile base stations. Interconnection, backhaul, technical and administrative support and licence management is operated as a shared facility for all the village networks. Indigenous local assemblies were involved in the legal test cases to help change legislation.


Mayutel/Red de Telemedicina del Río Napo

Mobile network supported by Peru’s universal service fund (FITEL) with specialised rural mobile operator. Ninety-metre-high towers constructed to reach isolated locations with effective lightning protection systems. Close links between NGO activities in the field and support from academic and research institutions in Spain and Peru.


VBTS Konekt Barangay

Leverages a partnership with one of the two national mobile operators (Globe) for access to their spectrum and interconnection. Voice and SMS services only currently. Randomised control trials taking place to compare impacts with unconnected villages.

South Africa


Network supported by the local tribal authority. Regulator provided exemption from licence requirement. Business development embedded in the model with the communities learning how to start and manage their own businesses.


Taknet/ Net2Home

Repackaging of retail fibre broadband into smaller, more affordable services. Weather and environmental/air pollution sensor network adds additional value by detecting patterns of smoke pollution from burning rice fields.


Coming next week: Bottom-up Connectivity Strategies: Institutional models adopted by community networks

Find out more about the research methods here.

DOWNLOAD THE FULL RESEARCH "Bottom-up Connectivity Strategies: Community-led small-scale telecommunication infrastructure networks in the global South"  [PDF]

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

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