The Internet Society (ISOC) aims to make the Internet available for everyone, everywhere. ISOC works with industry, government, academia, and other organizations worldwide to support innovation and growth of the open Internet. For over 25 years, ISOC has helped to connect individuals in virtually every country to the Internet. Part of our mission includes highlighting key policy issues related to connectivity. This “Policy Brief” is part of a series of briefs related to our Community Network campaign — one of our four Strategic Campaign Objectives for 2018, and it complements our “Policy Brief: Spectrum Approaches for Community Networks.”
After more than 25 years of Internet development, there still remains a profound connectivity “gap” in many parts of the world, particularly in developing nations, leaving over half the global population without Internet access 3.58 billion people currently have Internet access. This connectivity “gap” exists in urban, rural, and remote unserved and underserved areas of many countries, particularly developing and least-developed countries.
The consequences of being unconnected are well documented. Internet access enables socio-economic development, and those without access are left behind, facing tremendous competitive and economic disadvantage. Better connectivity and the exchange of information strengthens democratic processes, spurs economic growth, and enables sharing of culture and ideas in ways previously unimaginable. Accordingly, the United Nations seeks, as part of its Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), to “significantly increase access to information and communications technology” and “strive to provide universal and affordable access to the Internet in least developed countries by 2020.”
As we note above, this paper aims to build on our “Spectrum Paper,” and to focus specifically on innovative licensing options for community networks. Networks that have developed due to work by stakeholders around the globe and innovative policy-makers and regulators taking action to support complementary ways to connect the underserved. Community networks are working with policymakers and regulators who, in turn, are enabling communities to connect via community-built networks—networks developed by local communities, with local communities, for local communities. Through common sense regulatory and policy change and dialogue with community network advocates, government can unleash the potential of community networks and allow unserved and underserved areas to realize the transformative benefits of having access to affordable connectivity.
What is a Community Network?
Community networks refer to telecommunications infrastructure deployed and operated by a local group to meet their own communication needs. They are the result of people working together, combining their resources, organizing their efforts, and connecting themselves to close connectivity and cultural gaps.
Unlike the traditional, “top-down” commercial approach, community networks originate from the ground up. Deployment starts from the end user or the “last mile.” Some community networks are self-contained within a community, and others aim or build out to connect with an Internet gateway via backhaul networks. Community networks are fundamentally different from traditional communications networks as they are bottom-up. They are complementary to commercial networks, filling gaps and providing local access where commercial networks generally do not find it economically viable to operate.
Several hundred community networks exist in unserved and underserved areas worldwide. They may be built and managed by individuals, local nongovernmental organizations, private sector entities, and/or government bodies, and they usually operate on a cost-recovery basis. Community networks are often small in scope and typically serve communities of under 3,000 residents. However, some networks can serve multiple neighbouring communities.
Why are Community Networks Important?
Economic and social benefits can be brought to communities worldwide to reduce the “digital divide. “Access to connectivity is a key factor driving opportunity and success in today’s global economy. Benefits include access to electronic commerce and telehealth services, distance learning, social and political engagement, government services and public safety information, and much more. They also bring connectivity to those otherwise excluded because of geography, topography, size, or income level, and enable local development, lead to local business development, and encourage civic participation. Additionally, they help keep profits local—generally reinvesting any proceeds in the local community and its network. Community networks also empower people and encourage civic participation. A by-product of this local connectivity is the strengthening of user-centric connectivity, empowering local communities.
Challenges and Guiding Principles
Policymakers are urged to consider the benefits of community networks and reduce or eliminate barriers to community network development. Doing so may help Governments achieve important universal connectivity goals. Community networks face a myriad of challenges: lack of affordable access to backbone infrastructure, barriers to entry (e.g., business and/or service licensing, regulatory fees and taxes, spectrum access), high deployment costs, and limited funding, including difficulty in obtaining universal service funding, among others.
This policy paper explores these challenges in detail below and offers guidance and real-world solutions for addressing these barriers. This paper first discusses barriers that hinder efforts to begin constructing networks at the outset. Next, this paper highlights the importance of spectrum availability and suggests innovative policy solutions to ensure access for community networks. Policymakers should look to these examples when considering how community networks can allow the unconnected to connect.
Start-up Barriers Can End Community Network Ventures Before They Begin
Common start-up and organization costs can be detrimental to community network ventures. Unlike for-profit, commercial entities, community networks often lack the resources and wherewithal to navigate complex legal requirements and associated costs.
Registration, Licensing, Permitting, and Compliance. Many countries require operators to register their business and subsequently apply for a license to provide service. Operators often must also obtain permits and other authorizations before constructing their network.
These often require operators to file applications (and pay application fees) with multiple agencies. The applications are often difficult for the layperson to complete. Furthermore, application requirements, though well-intentioned, may inadvertently disqualify community networks. For example, some jurisdictions require applicants to satisfy a minimum net worth requirement to demonstrate their ability to deploy the network. India, in some instances, has required applicants to demonstrate a net worth of at least Rs 100 crore ($15.4 million) to participate in spectrum auctions. Others require collateral, which many community networks are not able to supply as they start-up.
This article was written by The Internet Society and it first appeared on The Internet Society website www.internetsociety.org
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