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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, their motivations for building their own communications networks, the different technical and operational strategies and institutional models adopted by the community networks studied during the research, the local and global benefits offered by community networks, and the impediments that prevent these benefits from being realised. This week, in the last article in the series, we look at the recommendations that emerged from the research, which can be used to inform advocacy aimed at creating the enabling environment needed for community networks to reach their full potential in connecting the unconnected. We also include recommendations for future research to continue building the evidence base for advocacy efforts.

Our research visits allowed us to witness at first hand the issues faced by some of the more mature members of the community network movement. These struggling breaths may be different to those of the community networks that are now emerging, which may not face the same level of difficulties. In interviews, several people in community networks explained that in the face of the considerable odds, community networks are only recently beginning to demonstrate their potential and our research may have been too early. Yet, the vast number and array of benefits we analysed, along with opportunities to improve operations, suggest that undertaking research relatively early in their journey was precisely the right time to inform stakeholders and wider audiences in order to amplify and accelerate the realisation of community networks’ full potential.

The situation for community networks is already changing. Since the research started at the end of 2017, community networks have emerged in ever greater numbers across the  world, and their potential for meeting connectivity gaps has become better recognised in international forums discussing ways to address digital divides. As a result, some countries have begun to adjust their policy and regulatory environments to be more conducive to community networks. Nevertheless, there are many areas that must still be addressed before community networks will reach their full potential. Below are listed the most important recommendations emerging across the entire research.

Recommendations for policy and regulation

Policies and regulations need to be modified to eliminate barriers to entry for small networks and to provide them with more opportunities to emerge and flourish. This includes recognising that technology-specific regulations cause exclusion. For instance, regulations which restrict community networks to only the use of Wi-Fi can limit accessibility to the segments of the population who have either personal access to routers or socially, culturally and physically unconstrained movement. Enabling policy and regulatory environment improvements, therefore, primarily involve changes that:

  • Make licensed and secondary-use spectrum available and affordable to small networks, and make additional frequencies available, either on an unlicensed basis, or on affordable and flexible authorisation schemes. As indicated repeatedly throughout this report, lack of spectrum access for small networks precludes their abilities both to provide mobile voice services and to use lower-cost or more effective systems based on frequencies for backhaul that do not require line of sight.

  • Make backhaul/backbone infrastructure and capacity more widely available (greater coverage), such as through infrastructure sharing and ensuring access to international fibre capacity. The main operating expense of most community networks is the cost of backhaul, which is ultimately reflected in cost recovery from the end-user, and can also limit the number of upstream links that networks depend on to only one path out of the local network, which makes them more vulnerable to upstream network outages. So, reducing backhaul costs significantly impacts both affordability and reliability.

  • Ensure small-scale operators can interconnect with other operators in the country on an equal cost basis. Small networks have severe financial and other barriers to entry in gaining equal access to national voice network interconnection and numbering resources, national/international wholesale capacity and dark fibre where available.

  • Ensure universal service funds are available to support community networks. National governments usually have universal service funds to support the provision of connectivity in rural and under-served areas. Many governments have already accumulated large amounts of unspent funds, partly because of the limited capacity to evaluate and disburse funds, and also because of the paucity of effective projects to support. It is likely that this avenue of support will become increasingly fertile for community networks in future, given the recent response of regulators and policy makers and their sensitisation to the potential of community networks.

Of these above actions, the freeing up of radio spectrum is the most urgent and pressing issue that needs to be addressed as soon as possible.

Recommendations for investment and funding

Investment in, and support for, the development of community networks must respond to the wide array of unique benefits offered by community networks and the particular contexts in which these benefits arise. Remote rural contexts in the global South are poorly served not only by affordable and reliable traditional telecommunications but also by many other infrastructures, thus additional resources and longer-term approaches are often necessary. This response primarily involves changes that:

  • Recognise the varied, and often indirect, nuanced or intangible benefits of small-scale, bottom-up infrastructure building in evaluating impacts and success. Traditional measures associated with voice and internet access provision, such as number of subscribers or traffic volume, do not account for the many benefits that community networks offer that national commercial telecommunications models may not.

  • Extend timescales for project implementation and adapt expectations for outputs to reflect the social realities of community networks in developing countries. Timescales, project plans and milestones need to reflect local human resource constraints and cultural contexts in rural areas, and the additional time involved in the social relationships that constitute community networks.

  • Ensure teaching and learning materials, network management tools and local applications are in the languages that community members usually speak and read in everyday life. If basic literacy is an issue, audiovisual materials will be a priority.

Recommendations about inclusivity

Rural populations in the global South tend to be older and comprise a higher proportion of women, in stark contrast with urban areas and global populations of technologists and regulators. Thus community network projects often need to make special efforts to take into account the needs of women and other marginalised groups. Responses are required at all levels that:

  • Ensure women and people with disabilities are represented and visible in international, national and regional policy and movement-building forums.

  • Create mentoring opportunities which can enable more experienced women, of all ages, to share their experiences with women with less experience, of all ages, in all aspects of community networks from technical work to policy and advocacy.

  • Create programmes targeted at older people and women-only spaces to learn about technology use and network deployment within community networks. Where appropriate, opportunities for technically skilled women to directly support women-led networks should also be promoted.

  • Schedule decision making, training, network access and all other operations so that women are always included and plan activities to account for the split-focus that accompanies women’s, and other carers’, responsibilities.

  • Account for the labour involved in the many social aspects of community networks when remunerating work.

  • Situate network access points and administrative operations in places that are accessible to people of diverse genders, physical abilities, ethnicities, classes, castes, etc. It may also be important to explore with women’s organisations ways to ensure women’s safety and comfort in all work contexts within the community network.

Recommendations for future research

While this study has made some first steps in building a body of knowledge and understanding of community networks, it is clear that further research is necessary. Future research should include:

  • Broadening the range of types of networks studied.

  • Tracking the evolution, communication ecosystem and impact of networks over time.

  • Deepening insights about local innovations and businesses that emerge within networks.

  • Analysing responses to changing regulatory conditions, and investment and support opportunities.

  • Assessing opportunities for building local knowledge exchanges and associated content.

  • Designing and evaluating application services that can be built on the community network infrastructure.

With regard to the range of networks studied, although the cases covered in this report provide rich material on the value, motivations, potentials and constraints of rural community networks in the global South, it should be noted there were a number of restrictions in the scope of the research. Some limitations were due to pragmatic issues – restricted time and resources available, or limited contact with or knowledge of some networks until after the research plan was made. There are many fertile potential areas for further research to gain more complete understandings of community networks in the global South; however, among the initial areas of most interest are likely to be:

  • Mobile networks: Due to regulatory restrictions, community networks providing mobile services are still rare, although recent developments indicate that they are becoming more prevalent in some countries. The relatively high proportion of networks providing these services in the study is mainly due to the need to prioritise learning about voice services in rural areas in the global South. Also, most are quite recent deployments.

  • Networks using licensed spectrum, TV white space (TVWS) and dynamic spectrum assignment technologies: Again, due to regulatory restrictions, the number of networks using these systems is few, and the potential of networks based on use of these technologies still remains largely unexplored.

  • Small-scale fibre: Outside of a few urban areas, community networks deploying fibre are still virtually unknown in rural areas in the global South.

  • Small-scale entrepreneur-based models: While there are many smaller commercial networks in the urban global South, our research was only able to study one example of a network operated by a local small business in a more rural area.

  • Networks in more developed countries and other regions in the global South (such as Central America, North Asia, the Pacific or other island locations): These areas are not covered and may have different local conditions which need to be better understood. Understanding of the experience of the more mature community networks in developed countries is likely to contribute to better understanding of those in southern regions.

  • More recent deployments: The community networks studied were in part selected for their relative maturity. However, many more networks have emerged which may have different characteristics – for instance, taking advantage of more recent technologies, the experience of more mature networks, regulatory changes or other developments.

Finally, future research would be significantly enhanced by longitudinal studies. This particular study was originally conceived as a larger and longer research effort, but due to the limited funding available, the cases in this report were subsequently restricted to a study period of up to two weeks only. This precluded monitoring changes over time, or gathering more data about important factors. Such an abbreviated study cannot portray features of networks that are typified by highly emergent qualities that develop out of community life. The research analysis would be considerably strengthened by building on this initial work and conducting follow-up visits to examine how these networks develop over a longer period.

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.