Community networks (CN) are networks built and owned by communities trying to build on low-cost and effective infrastructure solutions in the remote geographic locations where Internet Service Providers (ISPs) would not expand their networks due to lack of profits and other business opportunities. Usually, community networks build upon low-cost Wi-Fi equipment utilizing the unlicensed spectrum bands as licensed bands would increase the operation cost. Community Networks are often called the network by the community for the community.
Community Networks Across South Asia
Since a decade there has been an enormous effort to build Community Networks across South Asia. Most specifically Community Networks has been built and shown their meaningful presence in India, Nepal, and Pakistan.
In Nepal, there are several community networks that date back to 2002 when Dr. Mahabir pun started the Nepal Wireless Networking Project. Dr. Pun founded this project with the aim to build a local communication network using wireless technology to connect people in the Himalayan communities. His goal was to bring the Internet to rural schools, to promote digital literacy and to improve the quality of education. With the support of Internet Society, there are two major Community Network projects in Nepal i.e
- Wireless for Communities Nepal
- Rural Communities Access to Information Society (RUCCESS)
Wireless for Communities Nepal
When 7.8 Magnitude of Earthquake hit Nepal In 2015 with one of the most devastating natural disasters of the century. Along with the death of thousands of people and thousands of people with injuries the quake also had a severe effect in communication infrastructure dismantling many last-mile connections. This interrupted mobile and wireless communications in many parts of the country. Internet Society, Nepal Chapter provided initial support to restore the internet connection in the areas highly affected right away as of the immediate aftermath of the earthquake. Afterward, Wireless for Communities Nepal project was put forward with the help of the Nepal Wireless Networking Project to provide wireless communication facilities to remote and highly hit villages. This project was focused on connecting different villages of 4 districts out of 14 highly earthquakes hit districts of Nepal i.e. Gorkha, Lamjung, Bhaktapur, and Sidhupalchowk. All the chosen villages were very remote and they didn’t have any prior access to broadband connectivity.
As part of the deployment of the project to establish the connectivity in Gorkha and Lamjung point to point backhaul links were created in Gorkha Bazar and then it was further extended using the unlicensed spectrum i.e. microwave radios of 5.8 GHz thus connecting Harmikot and Arjikot that were 23 KM away from the base station. Similarly, for Sindhupalchowk a base station was built on Nagarkot (Kotdanda) with a point to point link from Kathmandu and then extended to villages using an unlicensed spectrum of 2.4 GHz.
Throughout the project, 12 schools and three health centers over 14 villages were connected via the network established. The health centers were further connected with Kathmandu Model Hospital (One of the renowned hospitals in the Capital City) to provide telemedicine services. Health centers in Bhichuwk, Barpak, and some schools were additionally provided with laptops and low-powered personal computers. Nepal Wireless Networking Project also equipped those computers with e-library developed by Open Learning Exchange Nepal. In the three villages connected by Wireless for Communities, Nepal Rural Innovation Labs were also established to encourage technical and scientific innovation.
Rural Communities Access to Information Society (RUCCESS):
This project was part of beyond the Net funding program which also focused on providing Internet and ICT access to the rural population. The importance of being connected and digitally literate became more relevant after the earthquake. This project aimed to provide Internet access, ICT Services, Digital Literacy, Model of ICT hub for rural communities.
This project was implemented by the Internet Society Nepal Chapter in partnership with the Forum for Digital equality. It established 3 ICT-enabled Learning hubs in rural communities of Dhading, Sindhupalchowk, and Dolakha Districts in collaboration with local communities. To establish the community learning hub they were connected to broadband internet of 1 Mbps Dedicated bandwidth and were also equipped with the computer, printer, scanner, and display monitors.
For the sustainable operation of these centers learning hub operational committees were formed. Learning hub operational guideline and technical training was provided to all learning hubs along with 40 hours of in-depth operational training.
With the inception of Wireless For Communities back in 2010 as a joint initiative of Internet Society and Digital Empowerment Foundation. Different parts of India i.e Meghalaya, Tilonia, and Rajasthan were connected via the project at the end of 2011. Afterward, a unique 200-kilometer wireless network was built in 2012 which connected 10 centers in the range of 40 km. In 2014 this project accomplished the connectivity to 150 locations in 22 states across India. The continued effort of wireless 4 communities in India led to the creation of Villages of India Network (VOIN) in 2015 which was a social enterprise founded to enable wireless for rural communities. In the time being wireless for communities has deployed nearly 200 community networks in India.
Along with Wireless For Communities Digital Empowerment Foundation (DEF) a Non-Profit organization founded in 2002 with the aim to connect the unreached and underserved communities of India. DEF has successfully established 600 digital resource centers over 23 states, 126 districts, and 500+ locations of India. Apart from building community networks, DEF has been contributing to the development of Community Networks across the Asia Pacific. DEF in partnership with Internet Society organized a 10-day training program “Community Network Champions Project” which brought fellows from Africa, the Caribbean, Central Asia, the Middle East, and the Pacific Islands to get hands-on technical training about building community networks. DEF is also organizing the annual Community Network exchange program which focuses on bringing community network and community radio network operators to explore the cooperation of both community operators.
Janastu is a community network from the Tumkuru District of Karnataka state, India that operates in a pretty different model. When it comes to community network we always think of a network that connects a rural community to the internet. In the case of Janastu, they do have a Mesh wireless network from which they broadcast different programs, upload community media archives they collect using Raspberry pi based devices.
In 2015 Internet Society launched Wireless for communities program to build a Community Network in Chak Faiz, a rural community in Multan, Pakistan in cooperation with COMSATS Internet Services (CIS). This community network was centered around the base station equipped with 180 feet tri-polo tower and several network management devices to properly allocate the total bandwidth. This base station provided coverage of 2 kilometers which could provide access to many scattered villages and local schools. This community network utilized the unlicensed spectrum of 2.4 GHz and 5.8 GHz frequency bands.
With the deployment of this network, the local government school which was located within the range of this community network was connected to the internet with permission from the local district education department. The computer lab of the school was also utilized as after being connected to the internet as they started computer and internet classes once a week. Prior to the community network deployment, this school had a non-functional internet connection that was connected over a telephone line and disconnected for several months and this school was the first client of this Community Network. Afterward, a local polytechnic institute offering courses in agriculture technology was also connected to the internet and they started publishing their activities on Facebook.
The neighborhood village of the community network enabled the people to use the internet and more importantly, they were benefited using free calling apps like skype as many households had their family members working in the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
With the completion of the deployment and internet operation, one of the major aspects of Community Network was the ownership of community also the usability of the Internet was not limited to browsing and making Skype calls. To maintain the ownership and sustainability of the network school girls, students at the polytechnic institute and community members were trained about different usage of the internet and the maintenance of the network and fix the minor issues that occurred. After receiving the training the local polytechnic institute was able to retrieve information crops, weather conditions, and farming practices that can improve their harvest.
After analyzing the bandwidth patterns, online supplementary classes were run to utilize the unused bandwidth. As part of this program partnering with TeleTaleem, which was a local organization experienced in tele-education. Extra academic help to school students to help them achieve a better understanding of their study material was provided. Seeing the record of the impact that was plotted by comparing a baseline assessment before and after the project showed a substantial improvement of students in mathematics and science subjects. Throughout this overwhelming project, 400 students in the village were benefited.
Reasons for being On Demand
While half of the world’s population has already been connected another half remains out of the reach. The digital divide is deeper in the least developed countries is much higher tipping that only 19% of people are connected to the internet in the least developed countries in comparison to 87% in the developed countries. When it comes to least developed countries bringing the rural villages online is still challenging. In these scenarios “Do It Yourself” nature networks built by the community for the community do have a huge role to play and are high on demand. The major importance of Community Network lies in its the essence of empowering the rural and unprivileged communities also helping in achieving the Sustainable Development Goal of uniform global internet connection.