Community networks are crowdsourced, autonomous and decentralised networks that establish or augment internet and connectivity in specific geographic locations. While their initial conceptualisation and emergence can be traced to the global North, they have been used in the global South because of their potential to provide last-mile connectivity. Framed as an infrastructural solution, community networks depend on supportive states, either through direct and targeted policy interventions that make licensing and regulation more accessible, or through indirect interventions that support infrastructure sharing, encourage technical literacy and the representation of marginalised groups in labour markets.
Addressing gaps in connectivity infrastructure, left by state and private bodies, such networks play an important role in rural and remote regions, making way for new livelihood opportunities and greater collectivisation and communication. As locally-owned and operated networks, community networks centre the specific needs and contexts of local communities. As such, it is necessary to be mindful of power imbalances and questions of accessibility embedded within communities. In this essay I centre the politics of power imbalances and explore these networks beyond their role as an infrastructural solution, focusing instead on their capacity to generate cultural practices and local change.
As locally-owned and operated networks, community networks centre the specific needs and contexts of local communities. As such, it is necessary to be mindful of power imbalances and questions of accessibility embedded within communities.
Community networks bridging connectivity gaps
Digital infrastructure (like backhaul connectivity, network towers and backbone fibre) is still largely absent in many regions in the global South. The use and deployment of community networks in these areas are framed around their potential to provide connectivity in remote and (or) rural regions. Traditional telecom models of broadband and mobile connectivity have failed to connect people in these regions and are unlikely to work because the return on investment in such places is insufficient.
Research on community networks has framed this largely within a narrative of connectivity and development, placing this squarely within initiatives towards information and communication technology for development (ICT4D). The argument showing their necessity begins by identifying the gap in connectivity that is left by state-led digital infrastructure measures and large private internet service providers (ISPs), often due to lack of digital literacy and consequent fluctuations in demand. Community networks, through their low-cost, open-source, community-driven and decentralised models, emerge as an alternative that can provide last-mile connectivity. As community-driven networks, establishing these networks involves training communities so that they remain sustainable in the future.
The agenda of last-mile connectivity is rooted in conceptions of the internet being emancipatory and empowering, in a way that often blinds the agenda to the actual, specific needs of the communities on the ground. Community networks have been critical of this agenda and consequently centre communities in the process of setting up and maintaining these networks. And yet it is pertinent to note that although more autonomous and decentralised, the narrative around community networks is still that of a solution to unconnectedness, mainly in rural areas. I use this framing of these networks within ICT4D as my point of departure, and explore the potential of community networks in enacting the political and cultural norms of decentralisation and autonomy.
The agenda of last-mile connectivity is rooted in conceptions of the internet being emancipatory and empowering, in a way that often blinds the agenda to the actual, specific needs of the communities on the ground.
Community networks, public policy and the state
Through varying models of involvement between the state, private telecom providers, NGOs and local communities, community networks have tried to navigate and overcome issues of digital infrastructure. Scholars classify connectivity infrastructures according to the degree of both institutional support and local community involvement. Community involvement and state support depend on several factors, such as dedicated telecommunications policy frameworks (or lack thereof) and the political and economic contexts of countries.
National networks and resale of mobile services stand at one end of the spectrum with least community involvement and strong institutional support. Communities do not play an autonomous role with these forms of commercial connectivity. Their involvement increases with national mobile network resale. Government-led networks, such as Gram Marg in India and Penggarit in Indonesia, stand midway on the spectrum of institutional support and community involvement. Community participation and control increases with networks run by NGOs and entrepreneurial initiatives, such as Servelots and the Digital Empowerment Foundation in India. At the other end of this spectrum are community networks that are entirely locally operated and owned, such as AlterMundi in Argentina and TIC AC in Mexico. While legal frameworks for community networks are absent in several countries, we see a trend of global, regional and national legal recognition and policy support through licensing, spectrum access, infrastructure sharing, and education and technical literacy initiatives which are needed to enable decentralised and alternative connectivity infrastructures.
Community networks present several advantages in addition to offering non-commercial connectivity alternatives. There are several direct advantages of community networks such as livelihood generation, prospects of remote work, communication, education and online transactions. But going beyond these, such networks may also impact people’s lives in deeper and indirect ways. Research conducted by Nicola Bidwell and Michael Jensen shows that such networks increased people’s capacity to organise and their expression of collectivisation. Community networks have also helped people to find a sense of community, connection and care. The agenda of last-mile connectivity is thus not limited to connectivity infrastructure alone but has deep-seated impacts on how communities work, produce, collectivise and care for each other.
Community networks have also helped people to find a sense of community, connection and care.
Critical engagement with “last-mile connectivity” as an agenda compels a closer investigation into the notion of “community” itself. Communities within specific geographic locations are often hierarchised in a way that prevents certain groups from accessing resources, opportunities and mobilities. Ram Bhat highlights the various dimensions of the qualitative understanding of power relations of communities in the context of community radio: who is able to access studio locations, who gets to speak, what issues are discussed, the relevance of those issues across demographics and the nature of listener participation. Power differentials thus determine how people access and experience resources, infrastructure and mobilities relative to each other.
Histories of power and access generate differences in how people engage with, contribute to and participate in connectivity infrastructure. Often these are not directly related to connectivity itself. For instance, Preeti Mudliar’s work on public Wi-Fi hotspots in rural Rajasthan, India, reveals that despite functioning public Wi-Fi hotspots, women often rely on mobile phone data to access the internet. Functioning Wi-Fi hotspots are located in public spaces, considered to be “neutral”. But women often face restrictions when visiting these spaces and as such, use mobile data plans in the privacy of domestic spaces. With respect to community networks, Nicola Bidwell’s field research shows the spatial politics of gender affecting women’s participation in such networks. Women are often unable to access public spaces, commute safely and give adequate time to community networks. The work involved in setting up and maintaining networks is often gendered, with fewer women involved in technical work and in several cases, even when they are involved, women find themselves balancing their participation with care-work and their domestic responsibilities.
Decentralisation and autonomy as culture, not solutions
Communities around technology, such as open technology communities, function in ways that prioritise technical labour over other kinds of work such as mediation and communication. These spaces carry a historical legacy of being dominated by men. While efforts towards representation are well intentioned, they often fail to address deeper issues of justice. Grappling with internal inequalities requires a commitment to justice and inclusion in every step of a community’s functioning and decision-making. Within community networks, interrogating power relations embedded in communities is crucial to ensuring true inclusivity. Prioritising the participation and engagement of vulnerable sections in technical work, communications and decision-making would be a step towards ensuring inclusivity and equity.
Community networks have associations with open technology communities in the global North, and research on them in this Northern region is framed differently from that in the global South. While the global North focuses on aspects of the hacker's ethics and activism, the global South frames it as a solution (to problems of lack of connectivity and infrastructure). Moving beyond this framework might highlight how community networks operate within specific cultural and political ecosystems. As such, they hold the potential to generate (new) cultures, norms and experiences. Developing and focusing on this culture grants both autonomy and identity to regions generally relegated to being field sites of experiments with development.
It is important to recognise how development remains a contentious term. Power is embedded in imaginations of development and we must interrogate who development projects are for, who gets to design them and who implements them. Scholars such as Arturo Escobar discuss how decisions of development, when imposed from above, take agency away from groups that are already vulnerable or marginalised.
Power is embedded in imaginations of development and we must interrogate who development projects are for, who gets to design them and who implements them.
Community networks present an opportunity to engage with the goal of local development while centring the contexts and needs of communities. But these developments do not take place isolated from the state. The state can have varying degrees of (in)direct involvement in the functioning of community networks. The state has the capacity to act as a supportive agent for these networks through its policy frameworks on governance, licensing, commons and education.
Policymakers on national scales are often unaware of community networks and small-scope infrastructure. Remote and rural regions require investments and administrative attention, and often they are not prioritised in policy frameworks and decision-making. The independent operations of community networks also make governments reluctant to pursue them, especially in less democratic environments. Focusing on community radio in India, Ram Bhat discusses that spectrum allocation is licensed and regulated on a centralised basis. This makes it difficult for small scale non-governmental organisations located in rural areas to apply for the entire process.
As such, adopting decentralised, geographically located processes of licensing and spectrum allocation would be more accessible for setting up small-scale networks. Increasing interconnectedness between small operators and ensuring wider availability of backhaul infrastructure would go a long way towards making the operations of community networks more affordable. Making the networks an active and integral component of telecommunications policies in governments would help prioritise the needs of rural or remote regions. Policy frameworks must go beyond prohibitive paradigms and actively focus on generating a supportive regulatory environment for small-scale, local operators.
While these are policy frameworks that directly target telecommunications, several associated state-wide decisions stand to leave a strong impact on local economies, connectivity and autonomy. Programmes that target technical literacy would contribute greatly to creating a workforce that can establish and maintain community networks themselves. The availability of public spaces is a crucial prerequisite for open technology communities and spaces of collaboration and learning. Allocating public spaces in urban and rural areas would provide the scope for peer learning and collaboration. The presence of such publicly accessible and secure spaces is often a factor in the emergence and sustenance of learning communities and hobbyist groups. Thus, laws that allocate spaces, both real (workplaces, public spaces) and virtual (internet) and make them safer for women and marginalised communities would encourage their participation. Sensitivity training around gender and sexuality in schools and workplaces would help in bringing about cultural shifts (for instance, acknowledging and working on gendered distribution of work). These initiatives would be incomplete without ensuring that people from marginalised groups have a say in decision-making processes.
Community networks, as locally owned and operated infrastructure, spell the potential for more decentralised systems of work, care and collectivisation. Their significance goes beyond their role as a bridge for access gaps, they create cultural ecosystems in their capacity to generate livelihoods, communication and connection. They are shaped by larger policy landscapes around them. Telecommunications policy frameworks are often centralised and inaccessible for small operators and community networks. Supportive telecommunications policies and frameworks around education, public spaces and infrastructure would encourage the growth of localised networks. These create the space not just for infrastructures, but for communities and futures of care, resistance and autonomy.
Community networks, as locally owned and operated infrastructure, spell the potential for more decentralised systems of work, care and collectivisation.