10 Community Networks
7 Countries
40 Participants

The first edition of Community Network Xchange (CNX) was organised by Digital Empowerment Foundation (DEF) with support from Internet Society (ISOC), ISIF Asia and Association for Progressive Communications (APC). The full day summit was held at Sanskriti Kendra, New Delhi on 20th September 2017 with more than 45 participants from 8 countries. The summit had representation from more than 10 community network providers, community radio stations and practitioners from India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Myanmar, Thailand, Malaysia, Argentina, and South Africa. The objective of the summit was to find ways to empower communities, especially those in marginalised and information-dark areas throughout Asia Pacific region, with the power of information and know-how of community networks. Some of the organisations present at CNX were: Empower Malaysia, Bangladesh NGOs Network for Radio and Communication, Interlab, Asian Institute of Technology (Thailand), Myanmar ICT for Development Organisation, Agragamee, Safa India, ISOC, APC, AlterMundi, Zenzeleni, AHRM-Zero Connect Programme, Radio Bulbul, Ideosync, Smart Village, and ITE Assam and officials from Nepal.

This year’s summit focused on understanding sustainable business models for community networks running in Asia Pacific. The summit was designed to be interactive and participatory with participants learning from each other’s experience. The summit was divided in groups so that all community network providers could deep dive into two aspects of sustainability – social and economic viability. Each group was asked to discuss their models based on four parameters – network design; challenges; sustainability; and impact. Each community network provider was asked to draw their network and its functioning. Each provider then presented the technical functioning of the network, its economic and social impact (on education, leadership etc.) on the community and the challenges the networks faced whether it be technical, economic, sustainability or regulatory.

Summit Objectives: The main objective of the summit was to develop a platform for community networks (CNs) where they could work collaboratively to develop policy briefs, organize trainings and capacity building and share their experiences and learnings.

Specific objective(s)

1. To discuss sustainable and business models for CNs

2. To understand social and economic challenges

3. To create consortium of CNs and social funds to make them sustainable in Asia

Region: Argentina, Nicaragua, Brazil and Mexico

Background AlterMundi: is an NGO based in Argentina that strives to promote the emergence of a new paradigm based on freedom gained through peer collaboration. AlterMundi explores different manifestations of peer-to-peer collaboration from a technological perspective and in particular it has a put a great deal of work in relation to Wireless Community Networks for small towns and rural areas. Projects such as LibreMesh and LibreRouter are developed with the goal of building a community mesh network model, based on accessible technologies that are simple to grasp for people with no expertise in the area.

Operational Model: In the case of AlterMundi, community members own, deploy, govern and expand the network. Every family group contributes seed money and becomes a node owner, after which they become responsible for the network. Weekly assemblies of node owners discuss issues of payment, repairs and replacements, and future investments.

Sharing model: There are different levels of sharing—those who pay have access to the whole bandwidth. Whereas those who do not or cannot pay, they have limited access to the internet. The network functions on an inclusive and voluntary model.

Technology: It utilises a mesh network and each node owner is responsible for the maintenance of their own nodes. Wireless links are used for the quality of service although AlterMundi is experimenting with fibre.

Outreach: Around 300-500 use the network and each node owner pays around 5-10 dollars/month depending on investments being made to the project at the time. AlterMundi offers remote technical assistance although some networks have developed the skills to solve problems.

Sustainability: Each node owner pays around 5-10 dollars/month depending on investments being made to the project at the time. It offers remote technical assistance although some networks have developed the skills to solve problems.

Region: Mancosi, South Africa

Background:—an emerging umbrella body of community telecoms organisations, inspired and led by ZenZeleni Networks Mankosi, the first telecoms co-op. An important feature of ZenZeleni Mankosi network is that it’s solar powered, since there is no electric grid there. The power systems also allow ZenZeleni users to charge phones at the houses which host the nodes, as well as providing lighting to those homes.

Operational Model: In case of ZenZelani, commercial establishments in the area have a desire for internet connection and are willing to pay for it. It was in the interest of all to run the backhaul as a commons, which would ensure lower prices and wider connectivity for more communities, who are charged based on the percentage of access. Since most users do not own smart phones, network was distributed to public places, like the local school. The biggest users of the networks have been business owners, school-going users and backpackers.

Sharing model: A partnership with the local university was set up, with the university providing bandwidth for free until two months ago. A fibre connection has been purchased from a provider which can be topped up and resold to local schools and other public places via a mesh network.

Technology: Members of the community had neglected the technical aspect but are getting more involved as they realise the value of the internet. When the university backhaul was being utilised access was free but currently newer models are being explored.

Outreach: This is a pilot project within a limited region with plans to scale to other communities in the future.

Sustainability: This is a sustainable model which fits within the regulatory framework. Being registered as a co-operative, supplying internet for a non-profit, the network is exempt from charges. The cost of hardware is high, so community members cannot afford it however businesses owners are able to pay that cost.

Region: Thailand

Background: TakNet is a live community network that extends Internet services to a rural Thai village and provides a platform for measurement and data analysis.

Operational Model: Interlab has deployed community network using a wifi mesh network and has been deployed in 6 villages with 20-30 nodes in each village and about 100-200 users in one village.

Sharing model: TakNet has another network. Net2home serves as a cross between a wireless Internet service provider and a community network operator, where the infrastructure and connectivity are provided by the social enterprise while the network itself serves as a community mesh network, with users agreeing to be part of the network and paying for the incurred electricity costs as well as the monthly fees.

Technology: Currently, 14 households in the village of Samakee are connected as a wireless mesh network (using a mix of Ubiquiti wireless routers, TP-Link routers, including the smaller version MR3040) to an Internet gateway hosted at a village hall, which has a single ADSL backhaul. To ensure sustainability, the cost of the backhaul was repaid equally by the households that were connected, in doing so reducing the cost from THB* 1000 (USD 28) a month to THB 80 (USD 2) a month per household.

Outreach: Villages with 20-30 nodes in each village and about 100-200 users in one village. The project, which connected around 10 active users, has now grown to connect more than 300 users in 2016. Due to the latent demand that was created, the network operator (3BB) has now installed a new DSLAM and has provided more copper lines to the village.

Sustainability: The networks are monitored and Interlab keeps track of all networks. Users pay a discounted rate for access. The villagers no longer need to travel long distances for internet access for their educational purposes.

Region: Madhurai, Tamil Nadu.

Operational Model: Open Free Net has built a community space and provided the space to women from local schools snd colleges and housewives to teach them about wireless networks, routers and help them set up their own networks. Open Free Net made sure that they understand firmware and conducts 3-4 workshops to make sure that community members are able to set up their own network. Using this network, young girls are encouraged and educated to participate at techno based challenges (such as Technotion Challenge). They are encouraged to apply to these challenges and develop mobile applications to solve local problems. Education and responsible use of the internet is promoted and most educational content is stored in offline mode. To counter the problem of internet speeds, all heavy downloads have to be requested and are downloaded at night when the ISP distributes high speed internet.

Sharing model: The network is built by women users and young girls. The model engages students from urban colleges, women, teenaged girls and youth from rural communities. Students from urban colleges visit these sites and teach the community members certain digital skills. Community members own the network in terms of managing and operating the network.

Technology: The network uses wireless mesh node. The network has two things – 1) wireless node and storage node to store offline content. To develop this storage node, old routers from corporate offices are used along with open source firmware (like Libramesh) and flashed to the router to make it usable for the community network. One router is connected to ISP which is placed in an urban region and a couple of open routers are set up as well(without password). Educational videos are placed at the local router.

Outreach: Each village is connected using 20 wireless mesh nodes. Each node covers up to 100 meters. A 6-member core team has mentored 2000 people.

Sustainability: To sustain the network, students can go to the villages and exchange digital knowledge and problems with the village community. Students help solvethese problems with their knowhow. Every time a student visits the village, they contribute INR 1000 (around USD 15). This amount can be used to pay for backhaul or maintenance. “Young girls who win the international competitions/challenges then donate 50% of their winnings to the community network.”

Region: Nepal.

Background: In line with the Internet Society’s vision that ‘the Internet is for everyone’, the project, Rural Communities Access to Information Society (RUCCESS) established ICT-enabled community learning hubs in three localities of rural Nepal that are not connected or scantily connected to the Internet. Highspeed broadband Internet connection, ICT equipment such as computers, photocopiers, scanners, printers and projectors, and solar power backup will be the primary features of the learning hubs.

Operational Model: The project has established community learning hubs with active engagement of the host community. These ICT learning hubs are housed in either Community School or Office of the Village Development Committee or community buildings like the local health posts or post offices. Under this model, the operator of the community-learning hub in local level is selected from the same locality. ISP network is used and connected to local school areas. A local partner is trained at the ISOC centre in Kathmandu in technical skills.

Sharing model: People from the community are encouraged to use the laptops and internet connectivity at each Learning Centre. These new wireless Learning Centres encourage new learning and an information sharing model. The centre has helped educate people to use pesticides or increased productivity. This has had a positive effect on the economic output. Tourist providers have been using the centres to promote their services.

Technology: The project uses simple equipment(s) like computer, projector, printer, scanner and internet connection.

Outreach: The project is active in some districts hit worst by the April/May (2015) earthquake in Nepal. These districts include Dhading, Indhupalchowk and Dolakha with the collaboration of local communities.

Sustainability: The project ensures the establishment and operation of the Community Learning Hub along with one-time purchase of equipment for initial training along with one-year tariff to internet service provider for internet connection. The project implements a paid model to offer services. Income generated is used to pay the salary of the operator, internet tariff for the next year, repair and maintenance, and to expand the hub or add any equipment. This ensures a sustainable model for the project.

Challenges: Physical infrastructure like roadways, high cost of bandwidth and engaging local communities have been some of the challenges. Providing maintenance in these remote areas with little technical expertise is another major challenge. Collaborating with a local body becomes necessary to provide technical training.

Region: Telangana, India.

Background: Safa India is a social venture that is convinced that socio economic empowerment of women starts with generating an acceptable income and getting education. Safa India partnered with Digital Empowerment Foundation and the Internet Society to implement the wireless for communities (W4C) model to an urban slum area. Keeping the objective to provide the internet connectivity in slum region of Bholanagar, DEF, Safa & ISOC initiated Safa Network project in 2016. As part of the project understanding, DEF is providing complete technical and resource support for establishing digital literacy centres and SAFA facilitates in setting up the centres, provide continuous operational support along with monitoring and evaluation.

Operational Model: DEF provides Safa with technology and infrastructure, while Safa implements the program. The model uses visual modules for better understanding of the network. DEF provides complete technical and resource support to establish digital literacy centres and SAFA facilitates setting up the centres, provide continuous operational support along with monitoring and evaluation activities.

Sharing model: Women entrepreneurs (Digital Rahbaars) who are associated with Safa India operate these networks. Each centre has been transformed into a Community Information Resource Centre (CIRC) and offers a range of paid services like photocopying, printing, scanning, colour photo print, internet surfing, checking exam results, e-ticket booking services, email, online bill payment (electricity, water, challans etc.), filling online applications (for example Aasra pension, Aadhaar card, ration card, pan card, etc.) and other related services.

Technology: Backhaul is provided at the Safa Office and from there, it is P2P (point to point) to e-samaj/centres (E1-E4).

Outreach: The project has provided internet connectivity to Safa India main office and is further connecting 6 e-Samaj centres.

Sustainability: Family income was reliant on a male member’s salary, but after the intervention, the monthly income has increased by upto INR 1200 to 1500 (USD 18-20). Economic activities are being monitored to find out which services are beneficial and which are not. Digital Rahbars are encouraged to re-invest 20% of the revenue towards annual maintenance. For example, if they save INR 2000 (30 USD) per month, then after 6 months, the amount saved is INR 12,000 (185 USD) which is a good amount for annual maintenance. Once this is established Safa & DEF will not need to provide further maintenance funds.

Challenges: Social and patriarchal challenges have been aplenty especially with respect to allowing women to operate the network. The second challenge is dispelling health fears. People fear that antennas and routers will affect their health adversely. Language barriers are another issue since most of the workers do not understand English and this becomes a hindrance when it comes to learning technical terms and the names of machine parts. Awareness on how they can use internet is another challenge.

Region: Guna, Madhya Pradesh.

Background: Wireless for Communities is an initiative by Digital Empowerment Foundation (DEF) and the Internet Society (ISOC) that has been supported by variouspartners over the years. Launched in 2010, Wireless for Communities or W4C aims to connect rural and remote locations of India, where mainstream Internet Service Providers (ISPs) are not willing to provide internet connectivity as they feel their operations would not be commercially viable.

Operational Model: DEF has established wireless network centre or CIRC (Community Information Resource Centre) at Guna block. The centre is managed by a local person to run its daily activities. Guna network is managed by local barefoot engineers who have learnt network from the centre. These barefoot engineers also engage with community members to mobilise about the network and how can they use the network further for their livelihoods.

Sharing model: The model engages community members to operate and manage the network and the centre. This centre space is also utilized as a community space for learning activities, community meetings, community broadcasting and various other activities.

Technology: The model uses 2.4 GHz and 5.8 GHz free spectrum, low-cost technology and equipment(s) such as switches, routers; antenna, etc. It uses P2P (point to point) and line of sight for providing the connectivity. Most of the time, instead of building towers, the model tries to identify the tallest building within the locality which can be used to set up the router.

Outreach: Guna network has established 120 nodes and connected more than 140 users. More than 75 access points have been established and connected 140 users. Thus, it has created 75 access points in remote areas of three blocks to provide last mile connectivity. These access points have computers, internet connectivity and trainers for the communities, especially those who are economically disadvantaged, women and other minority communities. Thus, community members can access information as per need, receive training to learn how to use a computer, surf the internet and retrieve information about their right and services.

Sustainability: The centre has other infrastructure such as a printer, scanner, photocopy, xerox, printing, scanning, colour photo print, internet surfing, etc to provide digital services. These are paid services. Guna wireless centre is also a wireless training centre, so training is also available for a minimal charge.

Region: Assam, India.

Background: ITE Wireless model was conceptualised under Tata Trust’s ITE (Integrated approach to Technology in Education) program with technical support from Digital Empowerment Foundation to build wireless communities in schools of Tata Trust. The wireless model has been implemented in schools of two districts – Juria Block in Nagaon and Nalbari district. Both districts are amongst the backward districts of the country as per Government of India’s BMGF list, with poor social and economic indicators.

Operational Model: Three different organisations came forward to provide the connectivity in two unconnected districts of Assam. Tata Trust has provided financial support for setting up wireless infrastructure, whereas DEF provided technical support and mobilising community members in establishing the network.

Sharing model: In both locations, two kind of wireless operation models have been adopted. In Nagaon, DEF partnered with local NGO, GVM and with support of them implemented the wireless network in 17 schools. Whereas in Nalbari, wireless is implanted with support of local schools and people.

Technology: In Nagaon District (Assam), DEF has deployed the wireless network with 10 MBPs speed. The main relay hub centre further provides Internet connectivity of 2MBPs in three ITE sub-centres. Four towers have been set-up in ITE centres located in Alitengani, Dagaon and Juria Block of Nagaon district. Through these towers, the project has provided the internet connectivity in 17 state government schools. In Nalbari District, DEF team has established one main W4C centre in the Nalbari Town with 10 MBPs Internet speed. In both locations, DEF also used bamboo for placing the router.

Outreach: The model has established 20 towers and used bamboos in setting up routers in 8 locations. This way, the project has provided internet connectivity in 28 state government schools and basement has been filled in 8 schools for setting up towers. Under this ITE project, the Internet connectivity has been provided in three categories of schools. The categories are:
1. Class A: Schools, which are located in Nalbari district.
2. Class B: Learning centre located in Nagaon and Nalbari district.
3. Class C: Schools which are not located in Nalbari district.

Sustainability: Presently, Tata Trust is providing financial support to the project. Schools will be paying the minimum charges to sustain the model.

The Summit identified synergies between community network providers and community radio stations. Below are some of the synergies that were discussed:

  • Communities radios are already present in the most difficult and remote regions. Established man power at community radios can be used for community networks as well.
  • Since community radio works within a community, providers understand the local dialect and language, which is crucial for community network providers.
  • Community radio stations can provide a wide range of content and services to community network providers. Community network providers and community radio station owners can collaborate and work together to produce content of local interest.
  • Community network providers can seek help from community radio station audiences and create and deliver the content on the basis of their audiences. A community network could act as a repository for content in their server that radio stations already put out.
  • Community radio stations find it difficult to sustain themselves since subscription models are rare. Perhaps, community radio subscriptions could include access to internet through community networks.
  • Technical assistance is still a challenge since these rural areas have a dearth of experienced technicians.

Rajnesh Singh, Regional Director of the Asia-Pacific Regional Bureau at the Internet Society recommended that India, Nepal and Bangladesh should experiment or conduct a pilot project with community radio networks and make them community network providers for the first mile connectivity.

Following are recommendations that came collaboratively after the discussion:

  • Sustainability needs to be contextual—it needs to be localised keeping local issues and cultural issues at hand.
  • While some models can be replicated elsewhere, others need to be contextual.
  • The community practise needs to be emphasised so that community networks and community radios can evolve and grow.
  • A better understanding of sustainability is required—the models presented seemed to be pilots and trials not mature projects.
  • Understanding and measuring of the socio-economic impact of community networks required to form guidelines for benchmarking.
  • Basic datasets need to be collected to monitor to measure the impact on community.
  • To focus on community networks in South Asia and engage more indigenous communities in seemingly developed nations and the Asia Pacific region.
  • To form a consortium on community network practitioners at South Asia level.
  • To conduct a data oriented study of some of the oldest community networks to test their economic and technical viability to learn for future models.
  • Need for a Rights-based perspective—to study how freedom of expression has been impacted where community networks have been set up and the need for privacy protection.