Case 1: Digital Dera, Punjab, Pakistan
The first case video is about the Digital Dera initiative by the organisation Agriculture Republic. The word ‘Dera’ denotes a gathering space in a village, common in many parts of South Asia. Agriculture Republic, co-founded by Aamer Hayat Bhandara, has adopted this concept to initiate ‘Digital Dera’ where farmers are connected through digital networks in order to find solutions to the issues related to farming. Digital Dera is based in the Pakpattan district, Punjab region in Pakistan, where smartphones and even 2G networks are rare. The lack of accessibility makes it difficult for farmers to connect with each other. As a solution to this, a tower is placed in the middle of five villages which are covered in its radius and thus will receive the internet through a wireless network. Getting into the details, Amir says that the network is provided by Pakistan Telecommunication Company Ltd. (PTCL) whereas Internet Society (I-SOC) pays the monthly charges. I-SOC has also contributed towards building the infrastructure such as computers and other gadgets; however, Hayat Farms run as a company by Amir and other farmers is a major source of income to meet recurring expenses. Aamer explains the benefits that farmers are now able to use the network mostly to access content related to weather, markets, pricing, etc. while students can look up details of courses related to agriculture and so on. In a place where mobile phones, tablets, networks and other digital facilities are expensive for individuals to bear, Digital Dera facilitates accessibility to them to build collaborative support systems.
Responses to the case of Digital Dera highlighted the added value of the use of the Internet of Things (IoT), such as a tower in the farm controlling automatic irrigation, air/water quality sensors, etc. It was suggested that digital networks can be used not only to access the information already present on the internet but also to share some information newly generated by the farmers with other farmers, which Digital Dera is actually exploring. The tower is located in their farm and the tube well pump is automated. One of the lessons the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us is that we can live without anything but food. An increase in the productivity of land through the use of the right technology, right information and foresight, along with the minimised cost of production on crops and livestock would result in far better yields. Proper technology and timely information can lead to saving water, increasing productivity and thus improving the lives of farmers. In Aamer’s perspective, access to the power to make the right decisions ultimately results in a safer world with food security. Agriculture Republic is working towards a sustainable model of collaboration among farmers who hold ownership over their assets in rural areas.
Case 2: Longhouse, Malaysia
The second video story covers the case of Longhouse in Sarawak state on Borneo Island, Malaysia. A conversation with Gary and the team reveals that it was the desire to promote tourism in the area that led them to explore community networking through access to digital platforms. They created WiFi access points, initially building the network upon the existing electricity lines. As of now, nine Longhouses are situated around Sibu town, separated by a distance of around 300 to 700 metres. Conceptually, ‘longhouse’ is a place where several families live together; at present, more than 150 people are living in each of these spaces built by people themselves, many of them government servants, employees of private companies and timber factories, along with farmers. Gary says that the licence fee for WiFi is 7500 Malaysian ringgit, costing around 2000 USD a year, which basically makes it difficult for them to provide WiFi in all the Longhouses. The bandwidth for the WiFi is about 70 Mbps download and 20 Mbps upload, which is satisfactory to the community. The backhaul is made available free of cost by a private telecom company named Sankofa. In the beginning, the ‘last-mile solution’ was in the place where electricity lines were used to transfer the backhaul from Kuching to Sibu, i.e. around 300 km, but now they are replaced by fibre cables.
Some of the major purposes for which the internet is used in Longhouses include the promotion of tourism in the region, schooling and learning requirements of children, communication with each other, as well as providing the general public with internet facilities for their varied needs. Longhouse puts forth a sharing model of technology rather than an individualistic one, not only sharing the resources but also shouldering the responsibility to care for them.
Following this, the need for organisations which can facilitate communities through the procedure of setting up networks, availing funds, capacity-building and so on came up for discussion. Also on the question of sustainability, Gary shared that at a point when the backhaul is no longer free, they may be able to sustain Longhouse with the income generated from tourism and marketing made possible through the same platform itself, meanwhile hoping that community networking will be gradually taken up by the government.
Case 3: Rainkhol, Chhattisgarh
Rainkhol is a village in Chhattisgarh state of India where no Internet Service Provider has spread its reach. Interviews of the villagers reveal that the lack of network results in denial of access to essential services such as medical emergencies, online learning, money withdrawal for pensioners, etc., despite cases of being cheated by fake service centres. They have to travel to the next village to place calls, avail government services through online mode and so on, spending a lot more time and effort. The villagers point out that exploiting the scope of tourism, ensuring speedy interventions in public issues, and protecting the environment through timely action in case of natural calamities such as forest fires can be done efficiently if they have a mobile network, apart from obviously improving living standards through increased employment opportunities. CN is looking forward to transforming Rainkhol village into a network-accessible place.
Further, the discussion observed how the digital network has become imperative now as the government itself has made it so. Ironically, state policies have changed over time, depending on the internet, while the internet policy in itself has not yet changed to become a household facility.
The question of the sustainability of community-level interventions is an important one to address. It was suggested that to ensure the scalability required for sustainability, contributions of the community towards funding the network can be sourced which would also in turn ensure recognition of regional diversities and community ownership. Another opinion also surged that funding would not be as much of a problem as layers of technical regulations, authentication procedures and limits of human capacity. Yet another challenge is that the licensing regime is largely oriented towards national suppliers, leaving out local suppliers. However, there are several community networks availing significantly low-cost coverage provided by the national operators such as the New York city mesh, and also private ISPs venturing to provide connectivity in remote areas. In the Indian context, the procedures of authentication and regulations regarding devices often make it difficult to set up community networks.
Adrian’s opinion was that to acquire sustainable business funding, we need to talk their language by setting up similar financial models. Gary and Aamer further emphasised the need for more bandwidth, active community members and capacity-building to widen their intervention in the coming years. The concerns regarding how the internet would culturally interact with every new community are still open to be approached from different perspectives, eluding a single answer. It needs to be further discussed whether to pursue alternative paths of networking or expect telcos to work on long-term plans of expanding networks while working on the understanding that having no single standard is the new standard to be adopted in order to address the diversities.