On 14 December 2018, the young and old people of Mamaila Tribal Authority convened at Wholesale Village in the Limpopo Province in South Africa to learn about community networks (CNs). The workshop, with the theme Why Community Networks Matter, took place at Moratabatho Missionary Church International, and was organized by the Internet Society South Africa Gauteng Chapter and supported by the Beyond the Net Funding Programme. The purpose was to create awareness about community networks as innovative solutions that contribute towards closing the digital divides experienced by communities that lack access to telecommunication infrastructure. The workshop was delivered in partnership with Soweto Wireless User Group (SOWUG) and the Zuri Foundation. Thato Mfikwe, the president of the South Africa Gauteng Chapter, introduced participants to the Internet ecosystem and the opportunities available within the Internet value chain. The presentation by Thato stimulated a conversation with participants curious to know how to:
- Make money from the Internet, specifically how to monetize their content on YouTube
- Participate in the Internet ecosystem
- Contribute to policy making
The session introduced participants to cybersecurity, the Internet of Things (IoT) concepts, and the basic infrastructure required for setting up a community network. The presentation created curiosity among the participants, leading into a discussion about how IoT works, how to safeguard their personal data, and how to create their own connectivity infrastructure. This was followed by the presentation “What are community networks and why do they matter?” According to Thato, “some of the advantages of CNs is that they are a solution created by the community to resolve their telecommunications challenges and creating digital solutions to support their day to day community processes.” Participants also learned that CNs use inexpensive infrastructure, unlicensed spectrum, and could be deployed by anyone who is willing to learn, meaning that participants do not require technical skills such as engineering and computer networking.
Thanks to SOWUG, the curiosity and knowledge gap was immediately closed when participants received hands-on training on how to create their own community network using unlicensed spectrum. The training was facilitated by Jabulani Vilakazi and Boitumelo Luthuli from SOWUG, who are also members of the South Africa Gauteng Chapter. Both facilitators shared their experience and knowledge on how they created community networks in Soweto as well as the business model of their social entrepreneur enterprise. The session started with participants creating their own ethernet cables, learning how to crimp the RJ45 connector, and learning the meaning and functions of the different wire colors. This was followed by a process to assemble Ubiquiti LiteBeams and configuring their point-to-point connections using the equipment provided by SOWUG. The technical training was regarded by participants as the most empowering session of the workshop as the training bridged the gap between theory and practice.
Prior the technical training, participants were requested to rate their Internet knowledge, attitude, and practice (KAP). Twenty participants out of 30 completed the questionnaire.
The KAP assessment revealed that participants:
- Had exposure to the Internet (98% of the participants)
- Viewed the Internet as an important tool that contribute towards improving people’s lives
- Used the Internet to search for information, which further improved their general knowledge and exposed them to global events as well as news
The analysis further indicates that 99% of those who completed the KAP assessment would love to have access to WiFi within Mamaila Tribal Authority because data is expensive. The respondents indicated that accessibility will:
- Enable learners, students, and graduates to reach their goals by empowering those who do not have data to apply online at universities using the available connectivity
- Assist students to find information and conduct research as many people are disadvantaged
- Improve the lives of the disadvantaged individuals to search for information, solutions, and have more knowledge about their region
- Improve people’s lives because most job vacancies are advertised online, therefore, it is convenient for job seekers as well as networking and skills development
- Empower musicians to upload their work online
- Create jobs and allow business to distribute messages to clients
Participants further indicated that they use Internet mostly for communication, social media, research, and video/music download. One user creates websites while others use it for school, business marketing, and job vacancies. Most participants indicated that they access the Internet from their mobile phones. Two users indicated that they have routers at home. Participants reported that they use Internet on an hourly and daily basis, costing them anything between R5 daily to R280 per month for data various data bundles. The cost for connectivity emerged as the main barrier towards effective usage of the Internet, especially for participants who hoped to monetize their work by uploading content online. Participants highlighted that the region lacks community centers and libraries, and as a result learners experience digital divides at many levels. Therefore, connecting schools was viewed as a priority for villages within Mamaila Tribal Office and surrounding jurisdictions.
The highlight of the workshop was when participants were given free access to WiFi. The free connection enabled participants to livestream content and update their software. Unfortunately, the 3GB was consumed in less than thirty minutes, demonstrating the participants’ needs for high data consumption. The training ended in high spirits with the South Africa Gauteng Chapter donating 10 backpacks, 1 wireless router, and an MTN SIM card with a R1000 voucher to Moratabatho church. The highlight of the day was when participants asked for a follow up training sessions which will empower them to embark on a journey to create their own community networks.
“Our Kopano Radio can grow even bigger and have more listeners if in our area we can have community networks and affordable Internet access.”
“Building our own networks will also help to create the atmosphere of job and business opportunities. The content producers will be needed, amongst others, and the services offered by community networks will also be on a fee to those outside our targeted areas.”
We are looking for new ideas from people all over the world on how to make your community better using the Internet. The Internet Society Beyond the Net Funding Programme funds projects up to $30,000.00 USD. Start with this report by Carlos Rey-Moreno to get inspired: Supporting the Creation and Scalability of Affordable Access Solutions: Understanding Community Networks in Africa.
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