This post appears in my extremely sporadic Critical Tech newsletter.
Why community networks?
For a long time, I’ve been interested in alternative ways of providing internet connectivity and platform services to people — beyond expensive, top-down, commercial options. There’s nothing inherently wrong with for-profit telecommunications, but this model of service ownership does present certain problems in practice: telecommunications provision often works more like a monopoly than a competitive market, especially in underserved areas, leaving people with little choice if they can’t afford the limited options available.
(For example, I remember my parents complaining about the stranglehold certain cable companies had in our area when I was a kid. Around the time I finished high school, I completely lost access to the e-mail account I had during my childhood because my parents were finally able to switch cable providers. It felt weird. Like if the company that sold us our house had come back to take the boxes of letters we had stored there for years because we had kept those letters in the house, and now we were deciding to move. In a number of ways, it didn’t make sense to me. And it was a small lesson in digital ownership.)
As the digital age has progressed, the absolute divide between those with and without connectivity has narrowed somewhat and the internet has become the basis of many lucrative industries, there’s also less and less of a market incentive to connect everyone meaningfully. Some communities and places aren’t commercially viable to companies operating at scale.
And there are other issues, too. Telecoms and internet technology companies play a role in internet shutdowns and practices of digital censorship, which have increasingly become a tactic used by governments during periods of political turmoil. A confluence of political pressures on companies, legal regulations imposed on companies, and technical decisions and protocols implemented by companies themselves facilitate these shutdowns, contributing to crises of political expression and participation that threaten human rights. (Check out this helpful taxonomy of internet shutdown techniques from Access Now for more on these complicated dynamics.)
My interest in “community networks” began in 2011, when I was doing research for my master’s degree in Egypt. I was in Cairo about six months after the revolution that year, and people were still reeling from the impact of an internet shutdown that came into effect on January 27th as protests engulfed Downtown Cairo and lasted until February 2nd. (Some analysts of the protests have observed that the shutdown itself drove even more people to the streets.) Still, protesters did manage to communicate in limited ways during the shutdown — by tapping into the ISP connecting the stock exchange (the one channel out to the wider world that hadn’t been shut off) and sharing key information via Bluetooth. Some tech-savvy protesters also set up a media tent HQ in Tahrir Square, where people could charge their devices and download eye-witness photos and videos onto hard drives.
By the time I got to Cairo, the hot topic in techie circles was how to circumvent the mainstream internet. There was talk of deploying “internet in a box” — a limited-range internet solution that could be set up instantaneously, anywhere, and provide localized connectivity. It was posited as a way to bypass state-controlled and -influenced telecoms companies and provide connectivity in a crisis. It was also the first time I heard the term “mesh network” — a wireless network configuration that relies on many different nodes connecting directly and non-hierarchically to one another, reconfiguring and reorganizing automatically so that networking activity is distributed across all the nodes, and the loss of one node doesn’t catastrophically cripple the whole network. The concept of the mesh network sent me down more than a few research rabbit holes.
I discovered that mesh technology was a popular option for communities on the margins of internet connectivity, neglected by state and private infrastructure investment, to connect themselves locally. And this piqued my interest because my (by this time) doctoral research had veered toward understanding the emerging dynamics of digital inequality in Cairo and the ways the internet was increasingly implicated in longstanding fault lines around class, religion, and politics in the aftermath of revolution.
I tracked down some obscure projects and hit a number of dead ends in my research on community internet in the Middle East (like a briefly encouraging thread on the cairoscholars listserv that ran dry, and a failed attempt to contact people involved in a mesh network project in Upper Egypt called Nubialin). But although I made little progress pursuing the topic back then, the intersection of alternative network models and lessons learned in revolutionary times lingers on, as cases like (U.S. government-backed) MeshSayada in Tunisia illustrate. But it was also during this time that I first encountered an article about Broadband for the Rural North (B4RN) in the UK.
I bookmarked it.
And I came back to that bookmark when I launched a postdoctoral project on community networks in 2018 (frustratingly disrupted in many ways by the COVID-19 pandemic that struck in early 2020). One fantastic outcome of this project, though, has been gaining familiarity with the diverse arrange of community-led and -embedded initiatives to close the digital divide, scattered throughout the world. I’m going to spotlight five of them in this post.
What are Community Networks?
Community networks can be broadly defined as “communication networks that are built, owned, operated, and used by citizens in a participatory and open manner” (according to the Association for Progressive Communications, which has supported local and community network initiatives for many years). They are “collaborative networks, developed in a bottom-up fashion by groups of individuals that conceive, deploy and manage the new network infrastructure a common good” (as described in a published output by the UN Dynamic Coalition on Community Connectivity).
The dynamic coalition has represented an effort to coalesce what might be called an international movement around an otherwise dispersed, diverse, and disparate array of community networks serving communities with different needs and characteristics worldwide. It brought together researchers, policymakers, technologists, and community members to identify shared principles and more effectively lobby governments to foster regulatory regimes favorable to community initiatives and standards-setting bodies to implement protocols conducive to small operators. Between 2016 and 2017, the dynamic coalition facilitated the development of a Declaration on Community Connectivity through multi-stakeholder meetings at the Internet Governance Forum in Guadalajara, Mexico, and the GAIA Workshop in Cambridge, UK.
The Declaration sets out several shared characteristics of community networks:
- Collective ownership: the network infrastructure is managed as a common resource by the community where it is deployed;
- Social management: the network infrastructure is technically operated by the community;
- Open design: the network implementation and management details are public and accessible to everyone;
- Open participation: anyone is allowed to extend the network, as long as they abide by the principles and design of the network;
- Promotion of peering and transit: community networks should, whenever possible, be open to settlement-free peering agreements;
- Promotion of the consideration of security and privacy concerns while designing and operating the network;
- Promotion of the development and circulation of local content in local languages, thus stimulating community interactions community development.
Ultimately, though, these aims aren’t realized perfectly, nor shared, by all community networks. The politics and priorities of community networks vary widely, depending on the context in which they started. However, in almost all cases community networks represent an alternative to traditional telecoms operators and respond to local digital exclusion, which might be the result of issues like affordability, geography, politics, or social inequality.
Five Examples of Community Networks
These are just a few examples of community networks, operating in very different places and contexts — and they have developed ways of serving the community in terms of technology (infrastructure), pricing, and community involvement that work for the local conditions. But there are many more examples across the world, and I’d recommend the 2018 Global Information Society Watch publication on community networks for a broad overview. The netCommons projectalso brings together lots of experience and research on community networks.
One of the biggest hurdles facing community internet projects is funding the cost of building and maintaining a network. Another hurdle is technical expertise. Community networks have found creative ways of identifying, cultivating, or importing funding and expertise locally. The costs associated with a community internet project include at least the hardware required (cables, antennae, routers, devices), electricity supply, backhaul (the access to the global internet), and transit (when internet traffic needs to move from one network to another in order to access content). Without getting into the technical details — which are best left to the network engineers, anyway! — these costs can be brought down for community networks by using unlicensed spectrum for transmitting data, peering at internet exchange points (IXPs) to lower transit costs, and using open source firmware and recycled hardware, like routers. National regulations about the use of spectrum, sharing of infrastructure, and data protection can all impact the cost and difficulty of setting up a community network.
I’ve had the privilege of meeting, and in some cases interviewing, people involved in all of these networks over the last several years, and through these conversations I’ve learned more than I could have imagined about how the internet actually works (if humans aren’t your cup of tea, though, you can also learn this from cats) and about the emotional and embodied relationship we all have with technological infrastructure, whether we have personal awareness and ownership of that infrastructure or not.
Guifi.net – Spain
Guifi.net began in 2004 as a local project in the Catalonia region of Spain to provide internet connectivity in under-resourced rural areas, and became an official foundation in 2008. Today, guifi.net is widely considered the largest community network, with more than 30,000 active nodes and even more users. Like many community networks, the idea for guifi.net came from conditions of exclusion: founder Ramon Roca was frustrated about lack of internet connectivity in and around Gurb, a rural area of northeast Spain. Guifi.net is a “bottom-up, citizenship-driven technological, social and economic project with the objective of creating a free, open and neutral telecommunications network based on a commons model.” The network is predominantly made up of wireless nodes using unlicensed wireless spectrum, but it is also comprised of open optical fiber links. Network owners include individuals, companies, non-profits, and other entities, all contributing infrastructure and connectivity to the network as a common pool resource. This means that many unconnected communities can get online through a hyper-local supplier with a personal interest in the community, and users pay lower rates than they would for commercial internet.
Over time, guifi.net has collectively developed detailed governance tools, documentation and rules for the network, which inform the use and continuing construction of the network, including guidance on technical specifications, the economic compensation system, and dispute resolution. The network operates under a wireless commons license, which means that contributors to the network infrastructure agree that it is open (everyone has the right to know how it’s built), free (access to infrastructure is non-discriminatory), and neutral (any technical solution available may be used to extend the network, and the network can be used to transmit data of any kind by anyone, commercially or non-commercially). This model allows internet service providers (ISPs) to compete to provide services to customers, but ensure that they have to cooperate to deploy and operate the network.
Network participants enter into a compensation agreement with guifi.net that establishes how much they need to re-invest financially into the overall network, which is calculated based on their contribution to the network (in terms of capacity, etc.) and their consumption of services on the network. (The idea is that bigger consumers probably pay more, but bigger contributors also might pay less.) Services for end-users are priced to ensure the sustainability of the network and are reviewed by the collective (not only by individual ISPs that might be part of the network), so the cost to customers is directly linked to the cost of running the network itself, and overall, these costs are lower than they might be for traditional commercial ISPs (not held in common) because of resource sharing across the network: capacity can expanded at the marginal cost of the required additional capacity.
Guifi.net has become an inspirational example to other community network projects in part because of its iterative development and willingness to share lessons learned, and the template documentation that the network has developed to facilitate collaboration among different network actors — volunteers, professionals, customers, and public administrations — who almost all community networks must contend with, in one form or another.
NYC Mesh – United States
Founded in 2012, NYC Mesh is a non-profit community Wifi project run by volunteers in New York City. The network is spread mostly across Brooklyn and lower Manhattan, using fixed wireless connections — essentially, Wifi boxes affixed to the rooftops of buildings — to connect thousands of homes to free or low cost internet (users are encouraged to make a monthly donation of an amount they can afford). Today, the mesh is supported by these donations. As of 2021, NYC mesh had over 10,000 nodes connecting private residences but also contributing to public Wifi coverage in the neighborhoods that have connections.
In 2015, NYC Mesh received a grant from the Internet Society (ISOC) to connect to an internet exchange point (IXP), which has increased its capacity to take on new customers and keep transit costs low through peering. New members can join the mesh by filling in an interest form and sending photos or videos of their rooftops, so that volunteers can assess whether the roof is within sight of another existing node. Volunteers and prospective new members can purchase the hardware needed and complete an installation by following the detailed instructions from the organization. So, mesh members own the infrastructure themselves. A 2020 policy change introduced by Mayor Bill de Blasio allowed free use of the rooftops of public buildings and streetlights in the city for large and small internet providers to install infrastructure, and this has also helped NYC Mesh expand (although it sounds like this plan is currently on hold in 2022).
New York City has a reputation as a global centre of finance, culture, and cosmopolitanism, but it is also plagued by the problems of deep social, economic, and infrastructural inequality. Digital exclusion has been a recent manifestation of the uneven opportunities different communities experience. And the COVID-19 pandemic abruptly exposed the scale of this exclusion. Millions of people are without broadband connections, and many can’t afford the limited options available in their area. In the U.S. around 50 million people only have one provider to choose from. The cost of connectivity drives many people to the mesh.
“A lot of folks have a different interpretation of what mesh is. Sometimes it’s technical and sometimes it’s political…”
Scott Rasmussen (NYC Mesh volunteer), interviewed on the Community Broadband Bits podcast
Many neighborhoods have been waiting for affordable, reliable internet connections for years, and it is often low-income, minoritized communities that are getting left behind by the incumbent telecom providers. Deals made by the city with major telecom companies have not resulted in universal connectivity, nor equitable distribution of infrastructure. The result is a geography of digital exclusion that maps onto existing patterns of social and economic exclusion. So, communities have taken matters into their own hands.
NYC Mesh isn’t the only community internet project in New York City.
- People’s Choice is a worker-owned broadband co-operative in NYC founded by former employees of Spectrum who went on strike in 2017. The co-op launched during the pandemic, and once the network is built in a local community, ownership transfers to the user-members, so profits go back directly to the network members. Service costs between 10 and 20 USD per month.
- Silicon Harlem, founded in 2013, provides broadband through its Better B internet service (30 USD per month for 100 Mbps), provided by a collaboration with private companies, educational institutions, and non-profits. It couples broadband provision with tech education and skills developing in the local community.
- RedHook Wifi is a free Wifi service that launched in 2011, spearheaded by the Red Hook Initiative in Brooklyn and the Open Technology Institute. It started as a local network to to host an Internet radio station for young people to broadcast music and news, and to support community priorities, like sharing bus timetables and documenting instances of “stop and frisk” searches by police. But it became vital and more popular after Hurricane Sandy in 2012 (crucially, a mesh can stay locally connected even if the connection to the global internet goes down). The project involves training local youth to become “digital stewards” and build and maintain the network, fostering job-ready skills and also keeping the network alive.
- The Hunts Point Community Network provides free Wifi in the Bronx and has been operating since 2017, a collaboration between The Point CDC and New America foundation, funded through donations and grants.
Broadband for the Rural North (B4RN) – United Kingdom
Broadband for the Rural North (or B4RN, pronounced “barn”, as it’s known locally) is a volunteer-initiated and largely volunteer-built fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) internet service provider in rural Lancashire, Yorkshire, and Cumbria. It was established in 2011 by a group of volunteers, rallied by self-described local “farmer’s wife” Chris Conder and Barry Forde, a local telecommunications expert from Lancaster University who had previously been instrumental in building an internet network (CLEO) for schools in the county. As a registered Community Benefit Society, all of B4RN’s profits must be reinvested in the community in one way or another.
B4RN serves rural and semi-rural communities in Northwest England, where terrain can be hilly and rugged, and homes can be tens of kilometers apart. Many residents in these areas have almost no internet connectivity, and others have limited connectivity at high prices from incumbent mainstream telecom operators. To reach the most remote properties, these companies often quote installation fees in the tens of thousands of British pounds (per property). Some of these communities in one of the richest and most digitally connected countries in the world have been waiting for adequate connectivity for over a decade. And B4RN is not their first attempt to take matters into their own hands. Before B4RN, volunteers led by Chris set up a mesh network (Wennet and Wraynet), in collaboration with students from Lancaster University.
At its start, B4RN raised funding by selling shares with a guaranteed 5% return after 5 years if the company didn’t go under. (Now, interest is paid out after the first year.) Because B4RN is a full-fiber network, there are substantial hardware and labor costs associated with setting it up; fiber-optic cable is laid in the ground in plastic ducting, which requires digging trenches in the ground. To connect the cables to one another and to private homes, the fiber has to be fused, requiring specialist equipment. B4RN has been able to keep costs low by using volunteers to dig trenches, lay and fuse fiber, distribute information, and raise local funding. Volunteers also negotiate with neighbors for wayleaves — the permission to cross private land — which landowners must agree to give for free. Over the years, B4RN has also benefitted from government schemes to subsidize rural connectivity. First, the Enterprise Investment Scheme and then the Gigabit Voucher Scheme, which allows community members to claim back the costs of building new connections.
“The Computer Club… it’s just a wonderful thing, and it’s unique to B4RN. No other ISP provides this sort of service. And I feel it’s just as important to build this network of people as it is to build the physical internet network. So, yeah, I hope it never ever stops. Funnily enough, all the volunteers we’ve had right from the beginning are still volunteers. There’s one who’d rather watch cricket if cricket’s on, but the majority of the volunteers are still with us and they’re still learning things, and they’re still helping people.”
Chris Conder (B4RN co-founder and volunteer), interviewed (by me) for this podcast on GenderIT.org
Today, B4RN connects more than 9,000 properties, and subscribers pay 33 GBP per month for a 1 Gbps connection (yes, that’s a gigabit!). B4RN has also “professionalized” in many ways in recent years. It has a head office and full-time staff, including network engineers who do most of the maintenance on the network when something goes wrong (this used to be done largely by volunteers). Local contractors are often hired to do home installations or even to dig in the ducting. But community volunteers still need to coordinate fundraising and expressions of interest, and local “dig days” remain a highlight and hallmark of B4RN installations — where community members gather to dig the route for the fiber to reach their village, taking the occasional break for a natter (chat) accompanied by tea, cake, or a bacon butty (sandwich). B4RN volunteers also run a weekly Computer Club, where network users can ask their peers questions about their connections or the digital world in general.
In many rural places where B4RN now exists, people find themselves coming together again in ways that used to be more common in these small, close-knit communities, which have witnessed a gradual closure of rural services and spaces, from post offices to village halls, and the internal migration of young people to metropolitan financial centers. Even as the network has grown and professionalized, these social aspects of B4RN remain important.
Zenzeleni – South Africa
“Zenzeleni” means “do it yourself” in isiXhosa, a language spoken in the Eastern Cape of South Africa, where the internet co-operative Zenzeleni Networks has grown since 2013. The Eastern Cape is home to some of the poorest and most excluded communities in the country as a result of systemic marginalization of black Africans under racist colonial and apartheid governing regimes. This structural exclusion is felt everywhere, but it is especially pronounced in rural areas, like Mankosi, Mcwasa, Nomadolo, and Zithulele, where Zenzeleni operates. Jobs and educational opportunities are limited, as is essential infrastructure for everyday life.
Today, these essentials encompass digital services. Even when the internet is available through mainstream commercial telecom operators, sufficient services are financially out of reach for most people in the area. These conditions set the scene for Zenzeleni, which began as a wireless intranet project (providing local communication but not connections to the global internet) launched by a doctoral student at the University of the Western Cape and a community activist, until it added an external connection to the internet via a 3G modem. The project evolved slowly, due to prioritizing community involvement and allowing communities to set the network’s priorities. In 2014 Zenzeleni registered a co-operative ISP, which is run by elders of the communities that build and use the network. Through local partnerships with educational institutions and private network clients, Zenzeleni has increased its network capacity and added new access points to the internet.
“If the network grows, and the community remains the same in terms of its social and economic wellbeing, then you’re just turning into a big network operator. In Zenzeleni, the emphasis is that people own it, people care for it, and you need skills and understanding to be able to do that so that it keeps giving value to yourself and your community.”
Sol Luca De Tena (Zenzeleni CEO), interviewed (by me) for GenderIt.org
Local co-operatives in different villages make decisions about how and where to build the network, where hotpots are located, and who can sell vouchers, and the income generated through the co-operatives pays for the bandwidth and hardware. Alongside the co-operative, the Zenzeleni non-profit company provides support in the form of technical and legal advice, help with navigating license rules and applications, research, partnerships, and applying for grant funding (largely to sustain these efforts). The network has a license exemption as a social enterprise, so it pays no license fees, and it buys unused backhaul from other providers. Over time, Zenzeleni is striving to achieve sustainability through a common-pool resource model, based on guifi.net.
Zenzeleni has also been confronted with a challenge that faces millions of digitally excluded communities worldwide: a lack of reliable electricity supply. From the start, Zenzeleni has charged devices and routers with solar power, and local communities have also turned solar charging stations into local business, charging affordable rates for local residents to power up their devices. The practices and patterns of charging devices are contingent on and enmeshed in local routines, including the responsibilities of charging station operators (housework, for instance) and the routes and distances people travel during the day. The sustainability of the network depends on the convergence of multiple contextual considerations, including how telecom services fit into existing community structures, what economic models serve the community best, how to ensure a reliable energy supply, and how to seed local knowledge and skills for running the network.
In 2020, users could connect to the network for 25 ZAR per month for unlimited data, and by 2021, the network had over 13,000 users and was providing crucial information translated into local languages during the COVID-19 pandemic.
AlterMundi – Argentina
AlterMundi is an umbrella NGO that supports several community networks spanning 200 square kilometers of rural Coŕdoba province in Argentina: QuintanaLibre, AnisacateLibre, LaSerranita Libre, LaBolsaLibre, NonoLibre, LaGranja Libre, MonteNet, and more. These areas have thousands of residents, but they are fairly isolated – neglected by the central government and often left to organize local services and maintain infrastructure themselves. Many people work in cities or towns 15 to 60 km away. Until QuintanaLibre started in 2011, this area was served by two wireless internet providers that offered intermittent, low speed connectivity at high prices. QuintanaLibre was born when several local people in José de la Quintana decided to share one internet link between them.
But the idea captured the interest of other residents, and the group needed more bandwidth. Negotiations with incumbent ISPs proved futile, and the tiny network gradually evolved into a project for self-sustaining internet, built and owned by the community. They found people with the necessary technical expertise to share knowledge, learned the basics, and set up a mesh that had a link in a nearby city for more capacity and access to the global internet. Meanwhile, other villages and towns nearby were experimenting in similar ways. As Jésica Gíudice writes, “The collective work of these networks resolves moral debts that the state has with rural communities and other vulnerable and excluded areas.”
AlterMundi facilitates collaboration and sharing knowledge across these various networks. Organizers developed firmware for the mesh, and ultimately co-designed its own hardware, the LibreRouter, to reduce reliance on proprietary software and hardware that needed to be reformatted to work for local needs. New network members attend training sessions and install their own connections, and the networks are sustained by a learn-one-do-one-teach-one model of knowledge diffusion. An app helps members coordinate maintenance of the network and facilitates awareness of the network infrastructure and communication about how to tackle technical problems.
“So in many places that we have been, it happens that they don’t only lack connectivity, but they end up lacking a lot of other things — like proper healthcare, infrastructure, like roads, and in general, these places have been forgotten by the society. And because they are not there every day, they basically don’t see the problem.”
Nicolás Pace (AlterMundi volunteer), interviewed (by me) at the Internet Governance Forum in Paris, 2018
Each community manages its own network, so there are different pricing models and sources of backhaul (the connections to the wider internet). In some cases, connectivity is free or nearly free; in others, members collectively pay for connectivity that they share. Backhaul, transit, and other overheads are often negotiated as donations from universities, non-profits, or private companies. In Paravachasca Valley, for example, Altermundi set up a backbone link with the National University of Cordoba, and from here, the community networks can connect with carriers who donate or sell transit to the rest of the Internet. The result is low-cost, community-owned internet that has also fostered local social networks in the area and strengthened community resilience, deepening existing community bonds and creating new connections with nearby villages and towns.
All of these initiatives share some similar attributes, even though they represent vastly different contexts and are underpinned by different technologies for connectivity. Most importantly, they are all strongly embedded in and driven by excluded communities themselves. Digital exclusion is a multi-dimensional problem that implicates individuals, neighborhoods, communities, villages, the state, and broader systemic dynamics and issues. It’s rooted in intersectional experiences of marginalization. So, it makes sense that in some of the most digitally excluded communities, solutions to the digital divide can be most successful when they are initiated and led by the communities themselves — and when they tackle more than one form of exclusion.
Themes that cut across all these examples include:
- The importance of context in determining the appropriate technology to use to achieve connectivity and the right level of personal commitment and pricing structure for the community
- The need for technical expertise to plan the network, sometimes brought in from outside the community
- The role of non-technical support, to embed the network in the community – including knowledge sharing, skills development, and digital education
- A commitment to keep the benefits of the network in the community, from financial profits to technical skills
And if this has sparked your interest in community networks and financing models, check out this forthcoming report launch event from APC (Sept 22)!