3.3.2 Community and municipal broadband networks
This section introduces and summarises community involvement in universal access and service (UAS) and provides an introduction to community networking and pre-conditions for success.
There has always been overlap and interaction between UAS initiatives and ICT for development (ICT4D) initiatives. UAS initiatives have been primarily concerned with access to telecommunication infrastructure and services whereas ICT4D have focussed on the use of computers and the Internet to support development. The focus on community involvement is typically more prominent with ICT and broadband initiatives, also in developing countries. Reasons for community involvement in UAS projects
Communities have a role to play in UAS for the following reasons:
- Some available low-cost communications technologies can work on a neighbourhood scale and are not too technically demanding, e.g. WiFi and VoIP, with free and open source software (FOSS);
- There is a recognition of the critical role local leaders have in tailoring ICT facilities and services to local needs as well as the importance of community ownership of ICT programmes, which is vital in working towards sustainability;
- Communities have a growing awareness that poverty is a complex phenomenon, stemming from a lack of power as much as from a lack of money, and that grass-roots initiatives, which build local competence and confidence, contribute significantly to poverty relief; and
- There is a rising popularity of development of multi-stakeholder partnerships, in which the public sector, the private sector and other interested parties work together, each contributing finance, skills or other resources. For good results, end-user communities should usually be development partners.
Community-based ICT supply is a recent trend, however there are a few established examples to turn to in order to assess success factors. Often, these examples are small-scale initiatives. Some are referenced in the Box Community networks in developing countries.
Organizing for community involvement to spread access to ICTs
Different types of organizations play a role in community ICT involvement, often in partnership with one another. They include the following:
- Formal co-operative societies have been in existence for rural telecommunications provision in the USA for a long time. Experience in the developing world has shown this to be largely impractical for voice communications at least, as they cannot be heavily subsidised as in the USA, which is also a high-income country. However, other forms of co-operatives or unions, such as in the agricultural producers’ co-operatives, might become important sponsors of ICT and broadband networks. Several examples already exist, including the Peru co-operative mentioned below;
- Local governments such as municipalities (councils of small towns) with their own sources of finance;
- Schools and colleges, which may in turn be publicly or privately owned and operated and which are potential sponsors of telecentres and content initiatives;
- Private entrepreneurs and small businesses, sometimes with characteristics of social enterprise (with explicit objectives to contribute to local development as well as to make a profit);
- NGOs (often national or even international, rather than local, or in receipt of international funding). The Jhai Foundation in Cambodia is a good example of an organization with broad objectives that has attracted international support and developed a robust, cheap PC and communication system; and
- Community based organizations (CBOs) made up of groups of local residents who come together, often under the aegis of an NGO, for regular contributions to a savings account, mutual support and development efforts.
The Regulatel study of UAS programmes in Latin America identified ten specific initiatives of special interest or examples of good practice. Of these, at least seven include important elements of community participation. These include:
- A co-operative in the Chancay-Huaral valley, Peru, partly financed by users and run entirely by locals, which has an emphasis on training young people to operate and administer the network;
- Ruralfone, a small GSM enterprise in Brazil, staffed with locals and privately yet profitably run on low-cost principles which are similar to those advocated for Tanzania in Scanbi-Invest’s report Profitable Universal Access Providers; and
- Non-commercial telecentres such as the LINCOS of Costa Rica and the Dominican Republic, generally run with financial support from governments (sometimes through Universal Service Funds).
Community networks in developing countries
The following provide some examples of active, successful community initiatives that influence or coordinate UA policy:
- Mahavilachchiya, Sri Lanka http://www.mahavilachchiya.net – a wireless mesh network linking home computers to the Internet. Initiated by a local teacher and now supported by ICTA, the official organisation for e-Sri Lanka;
- Myagdi District, Nepal http://www.nepalwireless.net – a wireless network linking scattered villages in a mountainous region. Led by Mahabir Pun, a teacher, who attracted international volunteers to help him;
- Air Jaldi, Uttaranchal, North India http://drupal.airjaldi.com – a collaboration between local NGOs and the University of California at Berkeley, providing fast wireless mesh connectivity to over 2,000 computers spread throughout several different institutions;
- Akwapim, Ghana http://www.wirelessghana.com/node/3 – ten nodes over a 20 km range, offering connectivity to schools, businesses, and community activity centres throughout six towns in the mountainous Akwapim North district; and
- Agrarian information system in Chancay-Huaral valley, Peru http://www.huaral.org/ – this links 14 telecentres; an indigenous information system in Chuquisaca, Bolivia, serving a population of 1,500; described in Annex 3 of Regulatel report at: http://www.regulatel.org/miembros/ppiaf2.htm
Pre-conditions for success of community networks
Although such networks now have growing chances of success, the community network solution can apply only to some developing world communities. Pre-conditions for success include the following:
- A minimum critical size – for example, a typical community network based on WiFi technology requires a population of around 15,000 with annual income per person of USD 500 to support itself . As technology costs reduce further, this critical population will also shrink, still, many communities will be too small to support successful community networks;
- Communal consciousness or some level of organization enabling the population to function as a community, express its shared needs, and act in its own interests is necessary for community networks to succeed. This might be more likely, for example, in a self-contained rural settlement than in a peri-urban, or fringe settlement of the same population size, where there are people who have migrated from different parts of the country, who work in a nearby city and who may have less social cohesion than a rural village;
- Local leadership and, preferably, a core of committed people with a certain level of education and technical skills;
- Access to external technical and managerial support, especially if these skills are lacking locally; and
- A supportive political and regulatory environment that promotes community networks can help enormously.
Plainly, the above pre-conditions for community network success are much more likely to be met in more prosperous societies, particularly where household income is much higher; the minimum critical size of community can then correspondingly be much smaller. Currently, unserviced or grossly underserved poor communities do have an advantage in that the community network can capture most, if not all, telecommunications revenues, rather than sharing them with existing telecommunications operators and other competitors. However, community networking is growing faster in developed countries, bringing broadband connectivity for the first time to many rural and remote areas and often providing free publicly accessible broadband in urban areas (e.g. community hotspots, municipality broadband networks, etc.).
The desire for universal broadband access in developed countries (that are already close to universal telephone and narrowband Internet access) is leading the push for community initiatives.
- Community-based Networks and Innovative Technologies: new models to serve and empower the poor, UNDP (Sean O Siochru, Bruce Girard), 2005
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