Community Networks Can Bridge the Digital Divide, But Some Still Need to Be Convinced
Community networks can help bring connectivity to many of world’s population still without it, but some governments, ISPs, and some potential users need to be convinced of their benefits, connectivity experts said.
Community networks can bring huge economic, educational, and social opportunities to areas without Internet access, Raul Echeberria, the Internet Society’s vice president for global engagement, said Wednesday.
With nearly half the world’s population still lacking Internet access, “this is creating a huge gap of opportunities,” he said during a community networking roundtable discussion hosted by the Internet Society.
Through community network projects such as a year-old network in the mountainous region of Tusheti in the nation of Georgia, the Internet Society has seen the proof that existing technologies can bring Internet service to some of the most remote areas on Earth, Echeberria said.
After a year of operation, the Georgian network is providing new economic opportunities to inn keepers and other tourism-related businesses in the region, said Ucha Seturi, director of the community network project there. Demand for Internet service is growing, he added.
With the technology questions largely solved, a key piece of the puzzle for community networks is getting the buy-in of the unserved communities and the local and national governments, Echeberria said.
“Empowering communities and involving communities is crucial,” Echeberria said. “It’s not just bringing wires to the community; it’s working with them so the people can understand how they can use the technology to improve their lives.”
Local control and buy-in help to ensure a community network’s long-term success, added Sebastian Bellagamba, the Internet Society’s community networks campaign lead. In the phrase, “community networks, the word, “community” is more important than “networks,” he said. “The only way to make them sustainable is if communities deploy and own their own network in a way they can realize the benefits the network provides,” he said.
Regional and national government support is needed to help proposed community networks with a friendly regulatory environment and to obtain the authorizations and the radio spectrum needed for the wireless networks serving remote areas, participants said.
In many cases, community networks now operating have succeeded despite regulatory hurdles and financial constraints, said Carlos Rey-Moreno, community access networks project coordinator at the Association for Progressive Communications.
Rey-Moreno and Nico Echaniz, founder of Altermundi, called for more academic-style research on the benefits and impact of community networks as a way to convince governments of their value. More evidence of the value to the communities and people connected through community networks will “promote them and allow more to happen,” said Rey-Moreno.
Mobile operators participating in the roundtable had questions about competition with commercial services. As the Internet Society and other groups promote and aid community networks, they should think about where they can add the most value, a representative of one mobile provider said.
The Internet Society’s goal with community networks isn’t to compete with existing commercial services, but to connect areas without service, Echeberria said. The organization has scrapped plans for a community network when a commercial provider moved into an unserved area, he noted. The Internet Society will aid the deployment of community networks in Argentina, Zimbabwe, and Kyrgyzstan in 2018-19.
Community networks are one piece of a larger effort to bring connectivity to more people, and commercial services are another piece, he added. The Internet Society asks policymakers, commercial providers, and other people interested in connectivity to think “out of the box” on innovative approaches to access, he said.
To connect the next 3 billion people, “we cannot use tools from the past to deal with problems of the future,” he said.
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