Community networks are key to provide connectivity

Following the DSA’s annual Global Summit event back in June, we’d like to return to some of the important discussions and messages raised by our speakers to continue the conversation and progress for spectrum sharing.

For our ninth annual DSA Global Summit, we were pleased to welcome Jane Coffin from the Internet Society and Lilian Chamorro, from Colombia-based non-profit Colnodo, to discuss community networks. In this session, both discuss the benefits community networks bring, as well as challenges in setting them up. Coffin, who is responsible for the Internet Society’s Internet Growth project teams, which focus on Community Networks, Internet Exchange Points (IXPs) & interconnection, peering, and community development, tells the session that community networks have been the “unsung heroes of the pandemic”. They have helped communities stay safe, spreading information and helping encourage innovation by exploring the availability of unlicensed spectrum and partnership working with organizations, including the Internet Society and many others.

When it comes to setting up such networks, collaboration is key, Coffin says, with recent advances made in the 6 GHz band in areas where partners in the community network have worked with their own governments and other organizations. Efforts to free up more spectrum for services have moved quicker during the pandemic, she tells the session, with bureaucratic processes becoming more agile. Cooperation is vital to this, she adds, whether through spectrum, more agile licensing, or looking to change universal distribution.

Lilian Chamorro, from the non-profit organization Colnodo, which aims to facilitate and improve communications and the exchange of information between organizations and communities in Colombia through low-cost electronic networks, shares efforts to set up a community network in the mountainous area of Buenos Aires, Cauca, in Colombia. Lack of coverage by cellular networks and poor internet access had been highlighted by local communities, she says.

In 2017, Colnodo started work with the country’s ICT Ministry to find the best way to access spectrum. Even though there was an experimental licenses framework established in the country, it was not suitable, because it was for short-term tests. In addition, the fees to access spectrum were very high and those experimental licenses were geared to the testing of new technology, Chamorro tells the session. As an alternative, an agreement was made with the ICT Ministry to establish a community network through a pilot project. The process proved to be lengthy, she says. The agreement was finally signed at the beginning of 2019 and network testing started in September 2019 but required the installation of various infrastructure, including electrical infrastructure as well as base stations. It was put into operation in February 2020 just before the pandemic and attracted nearly 100 users, providing much-needed connectivity at a time where movement was limited both into and within the territory due to the pandemic. The specific situation at the time made it hard to sign people up to the network and provide the necessary training, but in future it would be easier to raise awareness of the network and gain more subscribers, she says.

However, the network had to be shut down in October last year when the agreement with the Ministry came to an end. Colnodo is now working on proposals to use a longer experimental license that would allow the network to be continued, as well as looking at regulation change that would make it easier to use experimental licenses for the establishment of such community networks, Chamorro tells the session. While the initial network was based around 2G, they are now also looking at LTE.

In Chamorro’s view, it is important that the difference between community networks and other commercial operators is highlighted for future projects. She tells the session that regulation should be flexible in order to recognize that conditions and context, from financial models to organization make-up, differ from region to region and country to country. It is important to understand the community that the network will serve, then create it accordingly, she says, taking those differences into account.

Such flexibility perfectly tied in with the aim of the DSA Global Summit to help find the right frameworks that recognize communities’ needs as well as the different limitations and legal requirements regulators in different countries are operating under.

To hear the session in full, click here