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For our fifth interview in the spectrum series, we spoke with Karla Velasco Ramos and Erick Huerta, who both do extensive work on community network advocacy and development in Mexico. Erick is the assistant general coordinator and Karla is the international area coordinator at Redes por la Diversidad, Equidad y Sustentabilidad A.C. (Redes A.C.), a civil society organisation focused on indigenous and community communication and sustainable community development. Erick is also policy and advocacy coordinator with APC member Rhizomatica.

In conversation with APCNews, Karla and Erick spoke about the need to include human rights organisations in high-level ICT policy meetings, the importance of giving indigenous communities and women a greater voice in spectrum management debates, and the necessity of more flexible, efficient and equitable spectrum regulation. 

APCNews: Could you give us an overview of the work of Redes A.C. and how it relates to spectrum?

Erick Huerta: In Mexico in the year 2000, and after the formation of a new government, an office was created and tasked with implementing the San Andrés agreements: the Office of the Presidency for the Development of Indigenous Peoples, which later gave rise to the National Commission for the Development of Indigenous Peoples. These agreements included establishing the duty of the state to foster conditions for indigenous peoples to acquire, administer and operate communications media. One of the essential strategies was to promote international regulations on the issue, so that the country itself was obligated to implement and apply the provisions of the agreements. From this period onwards, an indigenous agenda in telecommunications was promoted and that was when the coordinator of Redes began to participate in the Mexican delegation.

Karla Velasco Ramos: Although Redes A.C. did not exist at the time, Erick, who was initially a pro bono contributor and later an advisor to the office, was involved in this process and later continued the work by setting up Redes A.C. Since then, the government has recognised Redes A.C. as a specialist in telecommunications development issues and this is how we have provided advice on international issues, highlighting the case of Mexico.

APCNews: Karla, in a recent blog post in APC you said that presenting the issue of spectrum in meetings "can be sensitive, as it is related to economic issues". Can you elaborate on what the barriers are to achieving a more open and rights-based discussion on spectrum?

KVR: We can identify three barriers: the first is privilege, the second is technical and the third is cost (affordability). In terms of privileges, many years ago at the beginning of discussions about spectrum, the technology and devices that existed were completely inadequate, unable to self-adjust so as to avoid damaging interference, and thus requiring an exclusive segment of the spectrum to operate, which was what determined the predominant licensing model, with rights for the exclusive use of such segments. However, technology has evolved and has shown that with intelligent equipment capable of coordinating so as not to create interference, the spectrum can be used simultaneously. Nonetheless, the regulations have remained the same and those who benefit from this regulatory system refuse to regulate the spectrum in any other way. And they continue to argue that spectrum is a limited resource, when in fact the opposite is true.

As organisations, we must demonstrate that there are experiences, such as those of Mexico, which have shown that with flexibility and creativity, spectrum can be used efficiently, without having to place so many limits on access to it.

Regarding the technical barrier, we can state that regulation of the spectrum is very technical and there are few experts regarding this issue. Many technical arguments are required to determine its regulation, and there are very few people with the expertise within civil society to discuss these issues. Human rights arguments are not enough and need to be accompanied by technical considerations. However, technical experts usually work for governments or companies and are few and far between in civil society.

The cost barrier means that it is also very expensive for human rights organisations to participate in events such as those of the ITU [International Telecommunication Union]. There are normally several meetings each year and in different locations: having a limited budget makes it difficult for an NGO to participate in these forums. Likewise, if there is no clear agenda, the participation of an organisation in such forums may not serve any purpose.

APCNews: Although civil society organisations and NGOs are not always present at ITU meetings, Redes A.C. has been part of the Mexican delegation for the last 14 years. What has its participation achieved, and why is it important for organisations like yours to participate in these high-level meetings and address the fair use of the spectrum?

KVR: The answer to the first question refers to how Redes A.C. started its international advocacy process. Thanks to the presence of Redes A.C. not only in the ITU but also in the Inter-American Telecommunication Commission (CITEL), it has been possible for governments, especially in the Americas region, to acquire a broad understanding of what community networks are all about.

One of the main achievements is that various resolutions and recommendations mention the importance of indigenous media, such as Resolution 46 of the World Telecommunication Development Conference (WTDC).

Likewise, Recommendation ITU-D 19, which refers to "Telecommunication for rural and remote areas", establishes community networks as strategies for coverage.

Furthermore, the ITU has provided training to indigenous peoples and, thanks to our participation in CITEL, we have been able to foster public policy recommendations. You can find more information on our website as to what we have achieved in terms of regulations.

We believe it is important that organisations like ours participate in high-level forums, but as long as they have a clear agenda. That is, if those organising such forums have a clear objective of what they seek within the discussions. The participation of civil society is enriching and unquestionably necessary. We believe that multiple stakeholders should always be involved in such discussions.

APCNews: Karla, in your article for APC you highlight that there is starting to be more positive collaboration between NGOs and regulatory bodies, and also community networks and governments, in meetings that deal with spectrum. What is the impact of this cooperation and what is the best way to promote more results in this direction?

KVR: The impact of this cooperation is very positive as it opens a communications channel between organisations and governments, which helps regulators to understand the experience of community networks. For example, thanks to this consultation the regulations were modified in Argentina, and community networks are now recognised. We hope that this approach will continue so that more organisations can find a more open communication channel with their regulators.

APCNews: This year, Redes A.C. has worked on a research project with the Internet Society (ISOC) on the regulation of community networks in the Americas. Tell us more about this project: what have you learned from interviews and surveys with regulators?

KVR: Yes that’s true. The project is now available in Spanish and we hope that in December we’ll be able to upload the English version.

This project was a response to the need to highlight the potential of community networks in terms of expanding connectivity and the associated positive externalities in social, cultural and economic matters. Moreover, it also highlights the regulatory elements that can optimise such development. In this project we outline some regulatory experiences that have allowed obstacles to the full implementation of community networks in Latin America to be eliminated.

Regarding our interviews, it was the first time that, through an official mechanism within the region, information was compiled regarding the regulation of community networks. After various months of effort, we managed to get a response from 14 countries. This was extremely gratifying for us and for the project.

What we learned in these interviews is that there is a regulatory trend towards models for licensing, pricing and spectrum allocation that facilitate coverage in unserved areas.

And although most countries do not have a specific licence for community networks, some of them consider simplified licensing models for rural or remote areas.

EH: In terms of spectrum, although only one country has a segment set aside for non-profit operators, several countries mention the establishment of frequencies with simplified modalities of allocation in underserved areas, along with discounts or lower rates in the use of spectrum in such areas, and the secondary use or specific assignment of frequencies for use in remote areas.

KVR: We also learned that in the region there has been limited development in certain regulatory models to stimulate coverage in remote areas, such as social coverage obligations and Universal Service Funds, and that these regulatory models have not been successful.

Thanks to this research project we were able to confirm that, although there is no express recognition of community networks in the regulatory frameworks of these countries, there are always scattered elements within the regulations that allow for the possibility of implementing pilot projects that may lead to the recognition of new operator systems capable of serving these areas.

APCNews: A few months ago, Telecomunicaciones Indígenas Comunitarias (TIC) won a crucial legal battle that exempted the organisation from paying fees for the use of radio spectrum in their operations. Erick, as a legal and strategy advisor for TIC, can you tell us the importance of this step for indigenous communities in both the Mexican context and beyond?

EH: Getting the Mexican courts to rule that the obligation imposed on TIC to pay for spectrum in the same way as a commercial operator was unconstitutional has been a fundamental step in the recognition of the rights of indigenous peoples and the right to freedom of expression. The ruling established that the imposition of a tax rate without considering the nature of an organisation (non-profit), its ownership (in this case, indigenous peoples), and the areas where it operates (in this case, remote areas that are of no interest to commercial operators), violates the right to freedom of expression and the right of indigenous peoples to have their own means of communication media, as established in international treaties.

APCNews: International conferences and high-level policy debates on aspects such as the electromagnetic spectrum are frequently monopolised by Western and male perspectives. Karla, as a Latin American woman working in this area, what do you think is the importance of involving more women, whether from community networks and NGOs, governments or other organisations, in these policy discussions? How can such discussions be transformed?

KVR: I think this is something that’s extremely important. When you attend regulatory meetings regarding spectrum, there are so few women and the majority of technicians are men. Based on my experiences in ITU meetings, it is difficult to negotiate with some countries when you are a woman. I have seen that certain male regulators prefer to negotiate among themselves. This is something that must change. It is imperative that more women are involved in these discussions.

In my work I have met really inspiring women. For example, I think it is important to announce that this month at the ITU Plenipotentiary Conference, Doreen Bogdan was chosen as the first woman to take a leadership position in the 153 years of the ITU, having been selected as director of the Development Sector: such progress is a huge step for the international sector. Likewise, other women I've met through my work and who I really admire include Martha Suárez, director of the National Spectrum Agency (ANE) of Colombia, and Amparo Arango of the Dominican Telecommunications Institute (INDOTEL) in the Dominican Republic.

I would also like to mention that in Mexico there has been progress in this area. For a few months, the women of Redes A.C. have formed part of the Conectadas MX initiative. Conectadas MX is a network of women leaders that promotes substantive equality in the telecommunications, broadcasting and ICT sectors in Mexico. Each woman is from a different sector, be it government, business or NGOs. One of the members of this network is Adriana Labardini, former commissioner of our regulatory body – the Federal Institute of Telecommunications – and now a collaborator with Rhizomatica. Adriana is a woman with broad experience on spectrum and who also promotes the participation of women in the telecommunications sector in Mexico.

From my point of view, within this network there are many admirable women who have faced the enormous gender disparity in the sector, and for me this has been a great initiative, as they have placed the issue of gender on the discussion table.

In my opinion, these initiatives, as well as the work of Sulá Batsú in Costa Rica, are the way to include more women in the discussions.

APCNews: What are the most important trends, opportunities and aspects of spectrum in the years to come? And what is the main priority of Redes A.C.?

EH: The most important trend is a necessary change in the regulation of spectrum. Martin Cave and William Webb recognise this as being necessary for making changes in terms of the structure of the spectrum in the new edition of their book Spectrum Management.

We believe that regulation of spectrum will have to be transformed, to move from the assignment of batches to a transit system where various stakeholders can use the frequencies in different varieties of time and space.

For example, the advent of 5G technology is driving the greater usage of spectrum, which makes new allocation systems necessary. We hope that this allocation leads to the more efficient use of spectrum. However, the danger of this new allocation could be that instead of providing a more open and accessible system, a system is generated that ensures privileges for certain manufacturers or for big operators.

What we are seeking is more efficient and open usage that allows the participation of multiple stakeholders in an equitable, fair and accessible manner.

Read the previous interviews in this series with Carlos Afonso of Nupef, Peter Bloom of Rhizomatica, internet access specialist Mike Jensen, and Senior Mozilla Fellow Steve Song with Carlos Rey-Moreno of APC.