Who supplies your Internet? If you live in urban Africa, you probably get Internet access through your mobile phone or through fibre at the office or home. When you travel to rural or underserved areas, there is probably limited or no Internet because mobile network operators and Internet Service Providers (ISPs) have yet to reach these areas. But what if people in rural and underserved areas could build their own networks to provide the telecommunications services that they need?
This notion has been tried successfully in several African countries. In Kenya, Tunapanda Institute has built TunapandaNET a wireless network connecting schools and youth centres in Kibera, Kenya’s largest slum. Bosco is a solar-powered wireless network that connects community ICT centres in Gulu, Northern Uganda. PamojaNet operates a wireless network to the community in Idjwi Island on lake Kivu, Eastern DRC, close to the border with Rwanda. Others such as Machaworks in rural Zambia and Zenzeleni Networks in Eastern Cape of South Africa provide similar services. These networks have been built by local communities to provide access to both offline content and Internet access where possible to the communities that they serve.
During a session at the 2018 Africa Internet Governance Forum in Khartoum, participants learnt about three community-owned networks, namely: Zenzeleni, Machaworks, and Pamojanet. They discussed their operational realities and success factors.
The network infrastructure is wholly owned by the community. For example Zenzeleni Networks has a data centre in the closest city, long distance WiFi links, and two towers which serve 10 business clients and 35 public hotspots. Pamojanet infrastructure was built by locals who provided time, resources, labour, and expertise using locally available materials on the island to fabricate, transport, erect, and install the masts that host the wireless network antennas. With such successful stories of people collaborating and investing their limited resources to change their own quality of life, many of the participants wondered whether this was a viable business model.
The community networks have adopted different strategies to break even. Zenzeleni had grown to incubate small ISPs supplying Internet at cost to local villages. Zenzeleni also provides training, legal and regulatory support, maintenance support, as well as wholesale negotiation for the smaller networks. After a few years of operations, the ISP started in Mankosi now has surplus that they have reinvested in the network. About $100,000 had gone to operating expenses and $36,000 to infrastructure. 40% of the expenses were paid from client contributions while the rest was funded by donors and government.
In the case of Machaworks, the network could not sustain itself solely through provision of Internet services. It had to develop other revenue streams such as a nursing school, an international school for children of rural professionals, and a craft shop. Tunapanda is 80% sustained through offering services such app development, market research, corporate trainings, and human-centered research for local and international organizations. Pamojanet covers 60% of their costs from clients. They have networked a local hospital and trained staff on use of tablets and a patient management system.
Community networks do not subscribe to the typical commercial business model. They also answer to social needs within their communities to improve the quality of life in the community. People living within their coverage are gaining digital literacy skills, learning about network maintenance, and financing new businesses from the money made through the economy created from the community networks. Most importantly, locals own, protect, and grow the networks. It is truly a bottom up approach to development.
Not all is rosy with these community networks. Fred Mweetwa from Machaworks describes running a community network as a calling. “You have to be fully invested in the community in order to get the community to build something for themselves. Running the network requires a lot of adaptation to align activities with the local culture, community processes, and methods”. Patrick Byamungu, manager of Pamojanet, agrees. His village in Idjwi Island is close to the border with Rwanda. As the terrain is challenging, they get their data from Rwanda at a very high cost owing to international tariffs. Carlos Rey-Moreno states that it is important for the networks to own their own infrastructure so that they can charge for services at cost. However, network equipment is expensive and often has to be imported. The import taxes and duties for telecommunications equipment are often very high in most countries.
Other challenges facing the networks include lack of electricity, high cost of end-user devices, and compliance with various regulations. Community networks require licenses from communications regulators as well as business licenses from local authorities. As the networks grow, they also require Internet number resources from Regional Internet Registries (RIR). Unfortunately, most of the regulatory regimes were created with commercial players in mind. Their requirements are prohibitive to small social enterprises like community networks.
The community networks presented during this session showed that there are alternatives to connecting the unconnected as aspired to in the sustainable development goals. They are a model that could be scaled up if more governments took a proactive approach on efficient use of underutilised telecommunications resources such as unused spectrum, towers and masts of national broadcasters, public funded fibre networks, etc. for use in underserved areas. They could also be funded by universal service funds which are in most countries reserved for use by mobile network operators.
Beyond provision of resources for setting up these networks, there is also need for more accommodative licensing frameworks for the social enterprises. On this issue, Carlos Rey-Moreno from APC inquired whether relevant authorities demanded architectural designs and structural drawings for rural domestic house structures as they would for urban commercial structures. Therefore, subjecting community networks to stringent licensing requirements only increases the cost of delivering access without due consideration the operating realities of the targeted areas. At the same time, the regional Internet registry, AFRINIC, could also offer discounts for community networks requiring resources to advance Internet access in unconnected areas. Governments could also reduce taxes for importation of equipment for use in setting up networks in underserved areas.
The Internet is among the greatest advancements of science in our time but over half of people in Africa cannot access or afford it. For many years, efforts to connect the unconnected have focused on expanding the reach of commercial service providers to underserved areas. Community networks shift this paradigm as the unconnected reach the nearest point of the Internet. They deserve our support.