By some estimates, only 3.58 billion people have Internet access, leaving more than half the global population facing a sizeable competitive disadvantage.
This profound connectivity gap is especially prevalent in the unserved and underserved areas of developing and least-developed countries. For people who live in these places, Internet connectivity is not just about the Internet. It is a lifeline that gives access to electronic commerce and telehealth services, distance learning, social and political engagement, government services and public safety information, and much more. Without it, entire communities risk being left behind.
Community networks offer a solution. These are computer-based networks deployed and operated by a local group to meet their own communication needs. Community networks can emerge organically as the result of people working together, combining their resources, organising their efforts, and connecting themselves to close connectivity. Or they can be deployed quite quickly in times of crisis, such as in the response to an earthquake or hurricane.
Community networks complement traditional service providers by providing local access where mainstream networks do not generally operate. In this way, community networks bring connectivity to those otherwise excluded because of geography, topography, size, or income level. Several hundred community networks exist worldwide, some built and managed by individuals, others by organisations from the private or public sector. Community networks typically serve fewer than 3,000 residents. Some are self-contained within a community, while others aim or build out to connect with an Internet gateway via backhaul networks.
Whatever shape they take, community networks are basically do-it-yourself networks built by people for people. Unlike the top-down approach of commercial service providers, community networks are typically from-the-ground-up projects that enable local development, and help keep profits local—generally providing training for the users and reinvesting any proceeds back into in the local community.
The potential benefits of community networks for the Caribbean region, were highlighted at a panel discussion in a conference hosted recently by regional telecommunications service provider association CANTO.
“Governments, policy makers and the private sector are exploring strategies and partnerships to connect the unconnected,” said Jane Coffin, Director of Development Strategy at the Internet Society.
Coffin issues a call for all Caribbean stakeholders to look at innovative and smart ways to bring Internet access to the region’s underserved and unconnected communities.
Adriana Lambardini, a former commissioner of the telecommunications regulator in Mexico, gave insights on practical ways that governments can create an enabling environment for community networks.
"We need to make sure that the fiscal incentives are put in place,” she said, explaining that governments should consider creating polices to specifically address not-for-profit and small-scale operators, in order to address market dominance by larger, commercial providers.
Nicolás Pace of Altermundi, shared tales from the trenches of deploying community networks in Central America and the Caribbean. Community networks have also been deployed across the world, from some of the poorest peoples of Nepal, India, Kenya and Mexico, to the unconnected communities of New York and San Francisco in the United States, to the underserved communities of Georgia in Eastern Europe.
The panel was moderated by Shernon Osepa, Regional Affairs Manager for Latin America and the Caribbean at the Internet Society.
The CANTO conference, which was held in Panama City from July 22 to 26, attracted a wide range of stakeholders from across the region’s Internet and telecommunications industry, including regulators, government ministers, policy makers, Internet organisations, network operators, suppliers and vendors.