CNX (Community Network Exchange) is a platform to explore alternate technologies for the internet and to move towards more decentralised and local solutions to global connectivity. This networking platform has been conducting annual conferences which were conducted in an offline set-up for the initial three years followed by an online format for the past three years.

Making use of the positive outcome of online discussions that witnessed more participation and fruitful outcomes, CNX-2022 has been planned to become Phygital – follow the online format of congregating the people but also showing the locally active networks and also holding community level meetings parallel and simultaneously with the online. The conventional offline conferences lean towards more “talking” while the offline mode allows the participants to have a better outlook on the practical aspects and challenges of the field.

Hence, this year’s discussions are designed to take the approach of “Walk the Talk” by exploring 10-12 community networks (CNs)  across India, Indonesia, Kyrgyzstan, Malawi, Malaysia, Nepal and Costa Rica. The discussions are spread across 5 meetings held on the 29th of each month from June to October, 2022. These explorations are organised by Digital Empowerment Foundation (DEF) and Internet Society (ISOC) in partnership with the Asia-Pacific Institute for Broadcasting Development (AIBD), APNIC Foundation, Association for Progressive Communications (APC), Alliance for Affordable Internet (A4AI), Art & Collectives for Digital Empowerment (A-CODE), Action for Hope, Media and Information Literacy Expert Network (MILEN), Broadband India Forum (BIF), World Association for Christian Communication (WACC) and of course several COPs (Communities of Practices).

Series I

Series I of CNX-2022 was held and broadcast live on 29th June presenting two case stories. These stories take us to two ends of the CN spectrum in India.  One end serving the Burmese refugees in Manipur with no legal entitlements and few resources. And the other end enables local service providers in a backward district of Haryana who is struggling to gain access to the entitlements already set up by the government owing to lack of connectivity.

The panel included Duncan Macintosh, CEO of the APNIC Foundation; Shalini A from Janastu – a software NGO, and Servelots – an IT company that engages with local contexts for their research and development needs; Dr Sarbani Benerjee Belur, the Asia Regional Coordinator for Association for Progressive Communications (APC)  and Rajnesh Singh, Regional Vice President for the Asia-Pacific at the Internet Society. The discussion was moderated by Osama Manzar, Founder and Director of  Digital empowerment Foundation.

Shalini A

Shalini holds a Bachelor’s degree in Information Science and Engineering. For a decade she has been part of Janastu – a software NGO, and Servelots – an IT company that engages with local contexts for their research and development needs. She has been engaging with Community owned WIFI-mesh networking since 2015 by setting up a network and building mesh applications on Raspberry Pi.

Shalini has been closely working with the sheep pastoral groups in Karnataka since 2012 by developing apps that help track their nomadic routes while also capturing the land use data and helping document their lifestyle. She is also a systems admin and maintainer and manager of free software repositories. She has worked with low-literacy issues and groups that engage with policies and help facilitate the simplification of acts for differently literate groups.

Currently, she is engaged with low literates, women and youths in Halekote village of Tumkur, India advocating community-owned WIFI mesh and radio activities and sustainability aspects.

Dr. Sarbani Benerjee Belur

Dr Sarbani Banerjee Belur is currently the Asia Regional Coordinator for Association for Progressive Communications (APC) for the CNs Connecting the Unconnected project. She is a Senior Research Scientist hosted by the Spoken Tutorial project at the Indian Institute of Technology Mumbai, India. She has been working in the domain of rural connectivity for the past 6 years and ha associated with the Gram Marg project in the Department of Electrical Engineering, IIT Bombay. She holds a PhD in Demography from the University of Groningen, The Netherlands. Her current work involves increasing digital outreach to remote and rural areas of India, deployment of new technology alternatives for the middle class and last-mile internet connectivity, development of sustainable models supporting Public-Private Panchayat-Partnership (4-P model), seeding the growth of CNs, gender and access developing community technologies and impact assessment studies of connectivity in the lives of people. 

Duncan Macintosh

As CEO of the APNIC Foundation, Duncan is responsible for increasing support for capacity building to advance professional development in the APNIC community, particularly for network engineers. In addition to training and education, the Foundation supports technical assistance and community development activities. Priority topics for this work include the security of Internet and DNS infrastructure, the promotion and deployment of IPv6, the development of Internet exchange points and related infrastructure, and the promotion of best operational practices.

Osama Manzar

Osama Manzar is a global leader on the mission of eradicating information poverty from India and the global south using digital tools through an organisation he co-founded in 2002. With over 25 years of experience, Osama has worked in the areas of journalism, new media, and software enterprise before he established DEF to digitally empower the masses (so far 20 million directly) with a footprint of 1000 locations and 9000+ digital foot soldiers across 130 districts in 24 States. Osama writes a weekly column in Mint and tweets at @osamamanzar.

Rajnesh Singh

Rajnesh Singh is the Regional Vice President for the Asia-Pacific at the Internet Society. In this role, he works with a broad range of stakeholders including governments, civil society, academia, the private sector, the technical community, and influencers in the Asia-Pacific region to promote technologies, policies, and best practices to keep the Internet open, globally-connected, secure, and trusted for the benefit of people all across the world. Prior to joining the Internet Society, he played founding and leading roles in several technology and private equity investment firms. He has extensive experience in business management and strategy development across multiple industries, including telecommunications, power infrastructure, agriculture, manufacturing, and real estate.

Case 1: CN by Burmese Refugees in India

The first network was presented by Michael Suantak from a small village bordering Myanmar in Manipur. Being a refugee, the challenges imposed in building CNs are more and hence prove to be a good testimonial of finding local solutions through and through. The CNs were set up by Michael and his friends in the community to serve the people who migrated from Myanmar to the villages in India where their close relatives live. 500 such Burmese refugees, whose main occupation was farming in Myanmar, learnt to weave and set up a weaving community to earn a living by making the traditional dress for the indigenous communities. Suantak recollects that as the political situation is quite different, it took almost a year to understand the needs of the community through interactions.

Prior to the networks in Manipur, Suantak had some experience in setting up an offline network in Myanmar as an alternative solution to rural communities. Looking back on his journey, he highlighted two aspects to support the need for a CN. He says, “Complete decentralised CNs ensure that it is not exploited for other purposes apart from the needs of the community which encourages me to continue my work. Along with this, I believe that users should not only be content consumers but also creators. In reality, in the internet context, if you are not producing, you become the product as your information is being sucked by content creators through cookies etc. Why shouldn’t we create the local content and present the rich indigenous information out there? This can happen only through CNs.”

Putting his beliefs into practice, Suantak started off by requesting donations from people in the form of used devices like computers etc. He was supported by many people wanting to donate and participate. With a hand-made tower set up on top of the mountain along with a centre adjacent to it that houses the routers and operating networks, he has connected 20 villages so far, by managing to collect microchips to control, optic fibre, a battery and an inverter to support the setup. Talking about the sustainability of the network, he explains that selling the products of the weaving keeps the network running. Michael also highlighted that setting up of the CN in the porous bordering villages of Manipur to Myanmar, got critical support from APC to be able to erect the network for the community.

Taking away the key aspect of “the important thing is to just start” as pointed out by Michael, cases like these help in getting a deeper feel about what CN means and aid in more practical ways of networking and co-learning. Dr Sarbani has closely watched Suantak’s work and elaborated on his efforts and characteristic features of CNs in a disastrous prone area, “Suantak’s story is that of determination. He has faced a lot of challenges and still does in terms of connectivity. We don’t have a systematic model to build CN in disaster-prone areas or refugee camps. Owing to a lack of legal documents, procuring sim cards, data connections etc is challenging. So, his initial steps are different from the rest. He first looked into setting up a local area network: an offline mesh network. He gained confidence in that and then worked on bringing the connectivity. That was the sustainable model he was working on in these weaving centres. Now women are enabled to creatively use the internet. Another challenge he has faced all along is the unavailability of devices because of the dearth of financial resources. One of the key lessons from his work is the need to localise the technology and find alternatives to depending on external sources for devices and technology.”

Although these case stories appeal emotionally, a business model that would attract more investors who are looking for a more structured framework hasn’t been fully developed. Speaking further about this, Rajnesh Singh suggests some possible ways forward from his 15 years of experience in bringing connectivity to the unconnected. Stressing on the point that the burden of the cost should not be put on the communities, though they benefit from them, help is needed instead of relying on a business model that may not exist in this context. Looking at the local scenario, the Universal Service Funds could be tapped into and tweaked as per the requirements by opening these funds to those working in the fields rather than limiting them to Telcos, despite the additional overhead costs that get tagged along. Along the same lines, in some developing countries, there are Rural Development Funds or Regional Funds available that talk about connectivity without bringing it into effect. There might be a positive and sustainable outcome out of working on Universal Funds in conjecture with Regional Funds.

Looking specifically at the disaster-prone regions, Shalini adds that the CN in such areas or villages might be termed illegal. Including CN in the policy framework will make the path towards integrating it with the economic model easier and more sustainable. 

Case 2: CN by Meo Community in Nuh, India

The next case story is from a district called Nuh which is about 65-70 km from Delhi where there is a network of 100 to 200 villages with the help of 11 towers. Each of these 11 locations helps around 8000 houses to get benefited. This case story gives the CN usage perspective in the backward communities that rely on the internet to gain access to basic needs and entitlements.

The network is set up within the framework of the Community and Information Resource Centre (CIRC) which works on a hub and spokes model providing digital services around health, education, livelihood, banking and governance at each centre.

Samar showed the set-up of the CN with the main tower situated at the hub centre from where the internet is broadcasted to other centres with the help of point-to-point (P2P). The primary connection is accessed from BSNL cables which are transferred from about 5.5 kilometres away from the hub centre. Considering the population of these 11 locations, the internet from these networks would reach around 60,000 people.

Setting an example for linking connectivity in a meaningful way by integrating it with community development, the social entrepreneurs from these service centres explained the kind of atmosphere and benefits around this setup. Mustkeem, who serves around 30-40 people per day by withdrawing money or updating KYC to avail benefits from the PM Kisan project, explains the use of ‘hopping’ to distribute the connection to the centre from the main tower. Speaking from another centre, Munfaid gives the background of the community, “Because of lack of education in the village, people here are not so aware of the online services and CNs that are available. People did not know that they could avail services like PM Kisan online. With the help of the centre, we make these services available to them which they use. Now they don’t have to travel to other villages to get their work done.”

These networks have solar panels to power through and the maintenance is done by the locals following training. One of the challenges in training the locals, as Nagma points out, is that many understand only Hindi language with no familiarity with English which makes it hard to explain technical terms. Instead, they are demonstrated practically in real-time or with the help of photos or visuals.

The way these networks are used play a key role in driving the development in this sector which eventually draws national attention. Speaking of structured efforts, Duncan suggests that for a countrywide application, such a framework would be necessary. But in terms of pulling the funds from impact investors, who look for ventures that can maintain themselves over the years, he leans more towards linking these efforts to community service-oriented initiatives that would sustain the networks, be able to replace the worn-out hardwares and compensate the one maintaining it.

Dr Sarabani takes this example further by saying that “Sharing and reuse infrastructure is a crucial aspect of CN. Nuh is an example of using optical fibre by Bharat Broadband (government provider) to connect such places which should be considered at the policy level. Another aspect is the meaningfulness of the connectivity. This CN enables people as the training is organised by the women within the women community and this meaningfulness helps in adding value to CN which should be shown to the government.”

Gender inclusion is yet to catch up in this sector, especially in backward communities like Nuh where girls are not allowed to go out and even if they do, they are obliged to wear a hijab. Girls are not allowed to use a phone and have no participation in education. But this scenario is slowly changing as they are getting more engaged in education through STEM programmes that are conducted with the help of CN.

The digital era expects the internet to be made available as a basic need. Hence, it is no longer a functional advantage but a necessity and is very much interlinked with community development. Hence, providing internet in a meaningful way through these networks has to be taken up by recognising the local champions who will further drive the initiatives without which the efforts would remain short-lived.

On the policy front, the government has been sending mixed messages in terms of making connectivity available. On one hand, certain government policies are such that a smartphone with access to certain apps is needed to mark the attendance in MNREGA, etc while on the other hand there hasn’t been a stronger involvement in making these devices and connectivity affordable. One such recent initiative was PM Wani which commercialises ISP and delicences the ISP regime so that anyone is legally entitled to buy and sell connectivity. But the movers and shakers of CN, although driven to bring solutions to the challenges faced by the community, haven’t been able to create an enterprise out of it except for one or two examples. The possibility of treating CN as an infrastructure which links to the service of the community might help in this direction on a larger scale.

There were three main takeaways from the first series of CNX-2022.

  • The first was the need for a structured module that briefs about CN and an investment-centric framework around it. Following the discussions, these could be designed in collaboration with the partners and made available on the platform.
  • The second is the requirement of a sustainable business model to run the networks so that they serve the communities in the long run and develop self-evolving dynamics over the period of time.
  • The third is to stress policy recommendations to ensure easy access to build these networks in disaster-prone areas where the need for CN is critical and hence recognised.

“Walk the Talk” mode of discussion helps in understanding CN along with its challenges which are hard to spot when we are away from the communities. As Duncan pointed out, those looking for impact investing do not have practical examples to understand how to enable connectivity. With the hope of providing more such real-time examples which would make those at the other end of the spectrum understand the essence of CN better and help in connecting initiatives from the government and the public sector, we look forward to the next series on 29th July 2022.