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All over the world, different communities have organised and taken action to connect to the internet, a process that links the issue of access to struggles to achieve rights and overcome inequalities. In this context, its essential that governments and regulators do their part, by promoting participatory mechanisms that create an enabling regulatory environment for new community network initiatives, as well as supporting existing initiatives. This has just happened in Argentina, through the Roberto Arias Connectivity Programme and its approach to digital inclusion. We have republished and translated this article by AlterMundi, an APC member in Argentina, to share information about this groundbreaking programme.

On 10 June 2021, the government of Argentina announced the establishment of the Roberto Arias Connectivity Programme, the result of a sustained joint effort by different collectives and organisations involved in promoting community-based internet access networks in Argentina and the special projects department of the national communications regulator, ENACOM. This was a process in which AlterMundi had consistently engaged throughout 2020 and up until the actual creation of the programme in mid-2021.

For three years now, collectives involved in technology and communication sovereignty and development have undertaken discussions with the government to create standards and tools that enable alternative models of access to connectivity.

In December 2019, AlterMundi organised a gathering of organisations and collectives to reflect on a path to access from a community-based perspective. Long days of discussions and work in the mountains of Córdoba gave rise to the Cumbre Argentina de Redes Comunitarias (Argentine Summit of Community Networks – CARC), which became recognised as a strategic player in contributing to the right to communication and technological sovereignty.

In their first communiqué, the organisations comprising CARC stated: "Our networks represent the 'first kilometre' of infrastructure if we consider internet access as a right and strive for communities to claim technology as their own." They also defined various strategic areas to engage with the government. These included a request for the creation and development of policies with clear and efficient mechanisms to allocate resources from universal service funds to community networks, regardless of their geographic location.

A few days before the announcement of the global COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting lockdown in Argentina, different stakeholders and institutions met with ENACOM to work towards agreements leading to the consolidation of an agenda that the government was in a position to finance through Argentina’s Universal Service Trust Fund.

The goal is to fund projects to build and deploy community networks in different regions of the country that still lack connectivity a whole 25 years after internet service was first introduced in Argentina. As a result of this meeting, numerous demands and proposals were defined to expand communication rights and address connectivity as a pending debt that telecom companies had not fufilled throughout all these years.

The Roberto Arias Access Programme seeks to address some of these urgent demands in digitally excluded territories of our country, where we continue to fight for access as a fundamental right. The programme is named after Roberto Arias, a community communications activist who led up numerous projects alongside the Mapuche Indigenous community. As the founder of the Pocahullo FM radio station and the Argentine Community Radio Forum, Roberto is a role model when it comes to commitment and grassroots work with Indigenous communities.

This programme is a potential path towards enhancing access through alternative ownership models, as it promotes and supports the management and strengthening of community internet access networks run by non-profit organisations, with the costs of the services provided covered by the members of the community.

These networks propose other ways of “connecting the unconnected” and alternative technologies, based on free/libre, open source and collaborative software, a valuable contribution in times of overwhelming global concentration of both data and platforms, and the many debates and risks that this implies.

AlterMundi promotes building networks following three principles: community, freedom and decentralisation. These themes reflect a way of understanding technological sovereignty based on communities, enabling social actors to overcome the limitations imposed by commercial networks and content.

This is possible thanks to a system of free/libre and open source software and hardware exempt of restrictions that allows users to make improvements and modifications adapted to their particular needs and contexts.

These networks offer a different perspective on business models. The Roberto Arias Programme seeks to guarantee the right to connectivity as a higher priority than the pursuit of profit, the driving motive behind the criteria that companies have followed when establishing the current map of connectivity in this country.

All the information to access the programme is available online at the ENACOM website.

Further information was shared in the online webinar "Community Networks for Rural Organisations":