In series II of CNX organised on 29 July 2022,  two more rural community networks were featured: from India, a Community Owned Wireless Mesh in Tumkur, Karnataka, and from the Nepal-China border, a Community Network in the hilly, remote village of Khalte. The screening of videos was followed by a discussion focusing on the theme: ‘Last Mile Access: Policy vs Practice’. The Series II of CNX was both emotional and encouraging as the panel consisted of a divergent  set of stakeholders all connected to each other through their passion for Community Networks(CNs). Further, We have been seriously reflecting on the lack of representation of women generally in critical discussions and taken a policy against all male panels, the best part about this CNX was that the majority of the panel was young women policy practitioners and analysts.

Osama Manzar, Digital Empowerment Foundation

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.

Kathleen Diga, Association for Progressive Communication

Kathleen has worked for over 10 years in the information and communication technology for development (ICT4D) research space. In her previous work related to the current APC project, she has helped to coordinate research teams and individuals across the globe, including to bring together a panel around community wireless networks to Cape Town for the ICTD2013 international pre-conference. In 2008, she also had the opportunity to visit several community local access networks in Winneba, Ghana, White River, South Africa and Kabale, Uganda, as well as present on Wireless Africa and gender in a Johannesburg workshop. She has written numerous publications in ICT4D and has been a co-editor on several publications, including a special issue journal on ICT ecosystems (2016) and a book on poverty and ICTs in East Africa (2014). Her main focus of research is understanding the changing ICT asset portfolio within households in South Africa and how these items are contributing to well-being and wealth changes, particularly among the marginalised.

Isha Suri, Centre for Internet and Society

Isha Suri is a Senior Researcher at the Centre for Internet and Society. Her areas of interest include Telecom Policy, Competition Law, Internet Governance, Intellectual Property Rights, and Privacy and Data Protection. She holds an LL.B. (Hons.) with a specialisation in Intellectual Property Law from the Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur. She also has a degree in Electrical Engineering that often comes to her aid when grappling with complexities of the techno-legal domain.

Anju Mangal, Alliance for Affordable Internet (A4AI) – World Wide Web Foundation

Anju is A4AI’s Regional Head of Asia and Pacific. Her work focuses on strengthening  A4AI national coalitions and support stakeholder collaborations to advance our shared  goal of affordable access across Asia.

Anju was affiliated with the Pacific Community (SPC) as the Digital Transformation ECM  Specialist and Business Analyst Adviser. Anju was recently awarded the Obama  Foundation leadership fellowship and the U.S State of Department International Visitor’s  Leadership Programme on Digital Economy and Cybersecurity. She is currently the Vice  Chair of the Asia Pacific Internet Governance Forum and the Vice Chair of the Pacific  Islands Chapter of the Internet Society. Anju was a tutor for DiploFoundation’s ICT  Strategy Course and a research expert in Internet Governance. She was an ISOC  Ambassador, Commonwealth IGF fellow and APrIGF fellow. She was the first Pacific  Islander to be elected as a Multistakeholder Advisory Group (MAG) member of the  United Nations Internet Governance Forum. She has also worked for the the UN Internet Governance Forum-Secretariat in Geneva, Switzerland.

Anju is passionate about Women and ICT and Cybersafety for women, girls and  persons with disabilities. She was a founding member of the Pacific Women and ICT.  She continues to work with key stakeholders in the Asia Pacific region on various areas  such as digital rights, digital inclusion, cybersecurity, privacy, security etc.

She holds a Master of Arts degree in Governance and a Bachelor of Science degree in  Information systems and Geographical information systems and is certified in Internet  Governance Capacity building programme, knowledge management and Business  Analysis.

Shafali Jain, Janastu Collective

Shafali by training  is a new media designer and a computer science engineer. She is currently building her practice in the space of Community, Technology and now, Policy. As a part of Janastu collective, she works with archives to bring out diverse narratives, stories and with young women in rural areas to explore feminist spaces. As a fellow with Harris School of Public Policy, Chicago she’s pursuing research on community networks and how they can foster a space for co-creating the internet keeping feminist values and care practices in mind. As a new media artist and designer, her work critically questions the existing systems in place and looks beyond the horizon.

Gayani Hurulle, LIRNEasia

Gayani is a Research Manager at LIRNEasia, where she researches digital policy and regulation, and the future of work. She is also an external consultant at EY, where she is conducting World Bank Digital Economy Assessments for Sri Lanka and Maldives.

She has engaged in external consulting for two government agencies in Sri Lanka– Ministry of Digital Infrastructure and Information Technology and the Ministry of Finance. Notably, she has contributed towards the drafting of Sri Lanka’s National Digital Policy (2020-2025). Gayani has also worked extensively in Myanmar, where she has led research projects, and coordinated capacity-building programmes.

She holds a master’s degree in Public Policy from the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore, and bachelor’s degree in Economics from the University of London.

Bikram Shreshta, Nepal Internet Foundation

Bikram is the President of the Nepal Internet Foundation. He was the first ICANN fellow from Nepal. He is also the Co-chair of Cooperation SIG in APNIC. He started an ISP when he was only nineteen, from his native place. He has been serving the communities of Nepal with connectivity for the past two decades. In Series II, he is the person behind the CN in Khalte, Nepal which is one of the cases in our Walk the Talk Series. He is also the Treasurer of ITSERT-NP, and the  Coordinator NGO/INGO NJC, GLC – JCIBudhanilkantha.

Case 1: Community Owned Wireless Mesh in Tumkur, Karnataka

The first case was presented by the community media activists T.B Dinesh, Shalini and the Janatsu team who is running a CN in Tumkur of Karnataka, India. Tumkur is 70 kilometres from Bangalore city, but the villages where the Janatsu Collective is helping run the community Network is a place where you’ll have to travel far to get coverage or even get an OTP. Like most of rural India, caste is an existing reality in these villages too- there is an upper caste village and a lower caste one. The CNs have been set up in both of them; Shafali from Janatsu pointed out how caste and patriarchy emerges as important components  while setting up of these technologies. If one is not careful of the nuances, the injustices become deeper and more entrenched.

In Tumkur, the hills, with small antennas, turn into nodes that broadcast connectivity to the surrounding villages. It forms a mesh, called the COWMesh or the Community Owned Wireless Mesh, where the ownership of these local communications stays within the communities, while also reducing the costs. A very small computer, called the Raspberry Pi is part of what makes this possible. As small as an ATM Card, it embeds well with a mic and the recordings are communicated to one central place where there is a team of women who listens, edits, adds the acknowledgments and either makes it into a program or archives it. There are Libre Routers, open source routers that does long hops giving wifi range to a local area network, forming part of the mesh network.

Moving to how it has benefited the community, Dinesh explains it was primarily in online education. TVs with Raspberry Pis were provided, enabling the teachers to provide lessons to the community. This was crucial in the pandemic lockdown. Teachers were unofficially coming to the community space and teaching classes. All it needs is someone with slight technical skills to manage it. Dinesh mentions how, initially when the community radio was set up, there were many young girls who were enthusiastic but had hesitant parents who were not that keen. This has changed after people grew used to the things on radio. This makes the CNs a possibility for these women to go beyond their homes and schools, and fight early marriages, alcoholism and other social issues. Destroying social constructs, people are surprised how the girls from their village are able to speak or sing like they do on the network.

After the network, they realised the logical next step forward was to provide internet through the mesh- without it being school-based, government-based, or startup-based, but rather a community owned activity. Local content was created by the local community, especially women, and there was a lot of acceptance. The intersection of Community Radio and Community networks is something that needs to be explored further.

Case 2: Community Network in Earthquake Refugee Colony, Khalte, Nepal

The second case was presented by Bikram Shreshta, of the Nepal Internet Foundation, who has worked with several CNs in Nepal. The temporary settlement, only around 115 kilometres from Kathmandu, where refugees from the disastrous earthquake in 2015 are staying, is also at a high risk of flood during the rains. The houses are made of Tin, making it hard to stay in extreme climates.

Khalte Village in Uttar Gaya, on the way to the China border, is a settlement with more than 600 people. Each router part of the network here connects around 60 people. Students use it for education, and there are also trainings held for women empowerment. Handicrafts were promoted using the internet. Other occupations are mostly agriculture, and then people travelling to urban areas for construction work. These people who travel use the internet to stay in touch with their families. Internet is provided by World Link Communications. Before the CN, people used 3G and 2G networks, which were both costly and lacking good coverage. Technical support is being provided from Kathmandu, which helps out in case of technical issues, malfunction and for monitoring. The population is mostly Tamangs, an indegenous community, who were displaced in the earthquake and came in temporary settlements. These have almost become permanent now. They are on government land.

In the discussion, Isha of Centre for Internet and Society mentions how the tangible impact of the work that is being done now is not something that is going to happen next year, but it will rather create a better world for the generation growing up- they will be more aware about climate change, displacement, land rights. All these efforts work together in bringing about this awareness.  The discussion further went on to talk about issues of power shortages and backups when hit by disasters, and other hurdles faced in such situations. Non-profits helped provide generators which powered the connections.

Key Takeaways from the discussion

  • There is a need for connecting decision makers and the people on the ground, beyond presentations and talking about it in conferences. Beyond the numbers and statistics which policymakers ask for, getting these stories to the regulators is important, and civil society organisations need to play a role in doing this.
  • CNs are more than a small piece of the puzzle that brings people out of the buffering zone of connectivity. It is not an alternative to get internet , but rather a different approach to connections in itself. There may be different CNs working on different models, but there cannot be one cookie-cutter approach to address the digital divide in the global south.
  • A lot of offline biases get mimicked into online spaces- like caste and gender. The only way to break these shackles is to be talking about them more, while also giving people an experience of how things could be different. With exposure to the larger world through connectivity, these social barriers could be broken.
  • There are barriers between what the policy analysts discuss in a panel and how it is being translated into the community. Giving agency to the community is crucial here,even though it is time taking. Even without a cookie-cutter approach, while scaling up, there also needs to be consistency in policy simultaneously as agency is given to the communities.
  • Connectivity should not just be a telecom responsibility- it should move into becoming a part of the ministries of education, health and social justice. Multisectoral approach is important – during the pandemic, the education department was fumbling about the lack of devices and connectivity in continuing classes.
  • The lessons on connectivity in disaster hit and disaster prone areas in Nepal are a learning experience in working together to handle such disasters in the future, given the nature of climate change we are facing.

“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 the discussion highlighted, there cannot be a one-size-fits-all approach to community networks, which makes the different narratives from the ground very important in understanding local challenges, while still negotiating the need for some consistency in policy while scaling up the Community Networks. 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 August 2022.