The focus of Series IV is: Community Networks- Scaling up Solutions and Sustainability. Three live-recorded cases covering the CNs of three countries; India, Pakistan, and Malaysia will be screened in this series. The first one covers the efforts of Digital Dera of Pakistan to digitise agriculture in South Pakistan. The second CN is an initiative by Digital Inclusion Policy Literacy (DIPL) that connects the indigenous longhouses of the Iban people in Malaysia. The third one is on a CN that is being set up by Digital Empowerment Foundation in Chhattisgarh.

The panel included Adrian Wan (Senior Manager, Policy & Advocacy, Internet Society), Mike Jensen (Association for Progressive Communications), Amer Hayat Bhandra (Digital Dera), Gary Loh Chee Wyai {Senior lecturer and researcher, ICT for Rural Development (ICT4RD)}, Emani Lui (Founder, MakaNet) and Anshu Shivam (Gandhi Fellow). The discussion was moderated by Osama Manzar, Founder-Director of Digital Empowerment Foundation.

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.

Adrian Wan (Internet Society)

Adrian Wan is the Senior Manager, Policy & Advocacy at the Internet Society. He focuses on issues affecting the Internet’s openness, connectivity, trustworthiness, and security, with an emphasis on Asia-Pacific, and leads the global Community Networks project.

A former business and technology journalist with the South China Morning Post based in Hong Kong and Beijing, he found interest in technology policy and engagement in Asia-Pacific, having worked in organisations including the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), Microsoft, and Huawei.

Mike Jensen (Association for Progressive Communications)

Mike Jensen is a South African ICT expert currently working as APC’s internet access specialist. Mike has assisted in the establishment of internet-based communication systems in more than 40 developing countries over the last 20 years, mainly in Africa. He provides advice to international development agencies, the private sector, NGOs and governments in the formulation, management and evaluation of their Internet and telecommunication projects, ranging from national ICT policy development to international fibre and rural wireless telecommunication feasibility studies.

Amer Hayat Bhandra (Digital Dera)

Aamer Hayat Bhandara is a farmer. He is the Co-Founder of Agriculture Republic. (The Agriculture Republic is recognized as a small farmer support network for finding innovative policy and practical solutions to national food security and climate change challenges. As an open, inclusive and multi-stakeholder policy discussion and consultation community, it is influencing agricultural policies.) Aamer is a farmer from the district of Pakpattan, Punjab in Pakistan. He was an elected member of the district council (third-tier of the government in Pakistan) between 2016-21. Prior to joining his family farming business, Hayat Farms, he studied politics and journalism at Bahauddin Zakaria University, Multan. He has also attended a course in “Pro-Poor Market Development in Rural Areas” at the University of Queensland, Australia. He is a Fellow of Leadership for Environment and Development (LEAD) under LEADership Development Program. And has received a certification on Women Leadership in Trade Policy by Pakistan Regional Economic Integration Activity (PREIA).

Gary Loh Chee Wyai

Gary Loh Chee Wyai has been a senior lecturer and researcher for over 10 years in the field of ICT for Rural Development (ICT4RD). He was formerly an IT project manager handling the projects at ISITI, UNIMAS, which include the multi-award-winning eBario project, eLamai, eBakelalan, eBuayan, eLarapan and the Telecentre Programme for the Orang Asli (TPOA) in the Pahang and Kelantan States of Malaysia.

He is a Human Resources Development Fund (HRDF) Malaysia certified trainer of trainers and also a certified CyberSec First Responder™ (CFR). He successfully organised and participated in many Makerfest/Hackathon events in his own and other universities, which involved participants ranging from lower secondary school students to university undergraduates. Currently, he is actively involved in research and consultation on a project that combines ICT4RD, renewable energy, service learning and broadband over power line (BPL) technology in the central region of Sarawak. He was also involved with the SHARE project in collaboration with TTC (Japan) and UNIMAS to explore the oneM2M internet of things (IoT) platform for research on possible integration of existing IoT systems.

Emani Lui

Emani Lui is the owner of MakaNet, the first Pacific owned Internet Service Provider in New Zealand. He is a tech entrepreneur with roots in the Pacific where he co-founded and developed the first Free WiFi country in the world in the late 1990s.

He is part of PICISOC, the Pacific Island Chapter of the Internet Society, that advocates for better internet connectivity and policies for the Pacific region to international and regional bodies. At PICISOC, he has served as Secretary, Vice-Chair and recently stepped down as Chairperson of the Board. He is currently on his second year as Vice President of IUSN Foundation, a nonprofit organisation registered in Delaware, US that manages funds assisting development of the internet on the island of Niue.

Anshu Shivam

Selected into the Gandhi Fellowship program, which is a program designed to bring out one’s entrepreneurial thinking and leadership skills in order to create lasting changes in society.

I worked with Piramal Swasthya on the Anamaya Project, a multi-stakeholder initiative of the Tribal Affairs Ministry supported by the Piramal Foundation and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF). It aims to converge the efforts of various Government agencies and organisations to improve the health and nutrition status of Indian tribal communities.

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.

  • Connectivity is a base for achieving larger goals of community development, let it be agriculture, tourism, education or access to rightful services.
  • Community networks can contribute significantly towards access to the internet if they are able to overcome regulatory and funding barriers.
  • The sustainability of community networks needs to be ensured from a financial perspective as well. One of the best models is to involve community members in funding so that their ownership also is assured.

Scaling up community networks through sustainable models is essential to ensure that the diversity of requirements is properly addressed while enabling digital equity. CNX is exploring narratives of community-based systems and building dialogues around the prospects and challenges of community networking.