Asylbek Sanarbekov, a social worker in the village of Suusamyr, Kyrgyzstan, can often be seen standing outside of his office building, phone in hand. He goes there to connect to the new Suusamyr Community Network, which officially launches today at the Community Network Xchange (CNX). It has antennas on a nearby water tower, and it’s a big improvement over Sanarbekov‘s connection at home, where he uses expensive and sometimes unreliable mobile data.
The village of Suusamyr is located in the Suusamyr Valley, a remote region in the Tian Shan Mountains. It’s a popular tourist destination thanks to its breathtaking landscape and its sparse population, with just over 3,000 residents. During the warmer months, they’re employed in agriculture, but by winter, thanks to heavy snowfall and subfreezing temperatures, many are unemployed.
“We are a small, landlocked mountainous country, so the traditional economic models do not necessarily work for us,” says Talant Sultanov, chair of the Internet Society‘s Kyrgyz Chapter. “We decided that digital development is the way forward.”
There’s a mobile connection in the village of Suusamyr, but according to Mairambek Ismailov, deputy head of the local self-government body, it’s not necessarily fast, reliable, or affordable – and it doesn’t cover the remote, sparsely populated areas. He’s tried to get telecom companies to address the issue, with no success.
“There are still areas, especially rural and mountain communities, that are not profitable for the private sector and are therefore neglected,” says Sultanov.
Instead, the Kyrgyz Chapter started work to create a community network, partnering with the Internet Society, the government, local ISPs, and the Suusamyr community itself. “We have long winters, we are far away from an undersea cable, we have difficult terrain to lay fiber optic cables, and it all boils down to high prices for Internet,” says Sultanov. “If we want economic development, we need to make Internet cheaper, better quality, and faster.”
Building a community network in Suusamyr has come with challenges. The first was a lack of experience and the team made mistakes in the beginning, which caused delays and cost money. There was also no free spectrum available, but the project team was able to partner with a regional ISP to share their license. Finally, the electric poles needed for the fiber optic cable installation – lots of them because of Suusamyr’s low population density – had to be rented at a relatively high cost.
But now the first phase has been completed: the test network is running and they’re currently deploying fiber. Which is how Asylbek Sanarbekov is able to step outside of his office to connect to WiFi. The hospital is also benefitting. “We mainly use the Internet for sending and receiving emails and to communicate and send reports to the regional center,” says Medical Superintendent Dildekan Mederbekovna Kulukeeva. And there’s a plan to provide the largest school with Internet access.
But there is still work to be done. The next phase will install fiber in the homes of residents in Suusamyr’s central village.
The Internet Society’s Kyrgyz Chapter was inspired to start the project after attending a community networks meeting with participants from Georgia and India, who had connected remote communities in their own countries to the Internet. “Our remote places are not very populous. The number of inhabitants might be anywhere from 800 to 5000 people, which is not very attractive for an Internet Service Provider – they have to get their return on investment. In small villages, that would take very long,” says Isabek Asanbaev, project manager of the Suusamyr community network project.
On a global scale, the Internet Society has followed a similar path to community networks. In 2010, Wireless for Communities, a joint initiative of the Internet Society and the Digital Empowerment Foundation, was launched to connect rural and remote locations of India. Since then, Wireless for Communities has deployed nearly 200 community networks in India. In parallel, community networks themselves have grown into a global movement, with projects being completed in Brazil, Pakistan, Senegal, Nepal, Kenya, Nicaragua, and other countries. The Suusamyr Community Network is the latest and it demonstrates not just the global importance and relevance of community networks, but their strength. They can connect communities nearly anywhere.
The Suusamyr project showcases the potential of community networks and provides a model for other Kyrgyz communities to connect.
“Being connected to the Internet is one of the best things that’s happened to us,” says Urmatbek Shailobekovich Otunchiev, the head of the Suusamyr Valley’s local self-government body.
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Image ©Internet Society/Nyani Quarmyne/Panos Pictures; additional text by Laura Salm-Reifferscheidt