IGF 2017 - Day 2 - Room XXVI - WS111 Financing and Building Sustainable Community Networks - the Coolab Experience


The following are the outputs of the real-time captioning taken during the Twelfth Annual Meeting of the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) in Geneva, Switzerland, from 17 to 21 December 2017. Although it is largely accurate, in some cases it may be incomplete or inaccurate due to inaudible passages or transcription errors. It is posted as an aid to understanding the proceedings at the event, but should not be treated as an authoritative record. 




>> MODERATOR:  Thank you very much for attending the session on financing and building community networks.  We'll have a very short session, so we'll try to be very concise.  It is the beginning of a discussion how to enable and how to make more community networks possible and sustainable. 

So we have ‑‑ I will just use the order of the table to start.  We'll start with Peter Bloom from Zoomatica (phonetic), and just to remind, we have like four minutes for every participant and I'll try to control it with my cell phone, so we can have a little bit of time for questions in the end.  Thank you very much. 

>> Peter:  Oh, you want me to stay something useful?  Hello, everybody.  It's a very strange setup for a room.  I can see some of you, I can't see others. 

Yeah.  So, here we are.  IGF

So I'll share a bit about our experience in Mexico, specifically from the point of view of sustainability.  I think what you'd like to pull out is also more about economic sustainability I suppose is what you'd like us to focus on, or any kind of sustainability? 

>> MODERATOR:  Yeah, both.  But also technical ‑‑ how do you engage the community and ownership of the networks and how do you ‑‑ you know, and in a more broad way.  But also economic. 

>> Peter:  Okay.  Turn off your mic.  Cool. 

So I'll share a bit about how we designed our network.  I think that might be the most interesting piece of this.  We tried to do a few different things around sustainability.  So we look at sustainability from a few different angles.  One is financial.  Does a network sustain itself over time.  And what exactly is encompassed by the network.  So I think a lot of times for community networks, there's the network itself, and then there's all the things that support that, and we don't always account for those.  So that's an important thing to do. 

There are no externalities, that's a mix of economics.  There's no such thing, it's all related.  And a network needs to exist and you need to figure out how that's going to be supported. 

But another piece of our sustainability is about ‑‑ we started in a situation where we didn't have legal access to the spectrum, so we decided to work with the communities that we were with to build the network anyway, so we were basically running networks that were not legal for a while, and that I think was actually very good for us thinking about sustainability.  Because we were under constant threat. 

So we're working in an environment in Mexico where we see shutdowns of community radio stations, repression generally.  We've been thankful to not have had that happen to us, but we always started from that position of it's very likely that at some point in the near future we're going to get shut down.  So that forced us to design our network in a certain way that we've tried to centralise certain functions and decentralise other functions.  That for us was about literal sustainability, will this thing exist beyond any kind of a tack or change in policy or so on. 

So what that means is that the local community ‑‑ we're basically a fed rated network.  What that means is we have local ownership and local autonomy of network infrastructure.  These are cellular networks, low‑cal cellular networks, and those networks federate through an organisation that helps them take care of a few things.  One is the technical network.  We assume that there's a certain level of technical expertise in communities.  There's a certain level to which people can have their capacity built and trained, and there's another level in which it's unlikely for everyday people who don't want to be network engineers to get to. 

So we make sure that there's available technical support close by within a few hours by road. 

We're also concerned about ‑‑ we work in a regulated industry, so we're not exactly a wireless network in the sense of some of the other cases you're going to hear from.  We actually ‑‑ we're essentially a weird version of a telecom network, so we decided to go down the path to allow ourselves to be regulated, which is what I was talking about earlier. 

So insofar as we're regulated, we have to deal with bureaucracy, as do all people on the planet.  But as in telecommunications network, there's a little bit more regulation.  So we also have centralised the function of dealing with the bureaucracy that the state mandates that we have to deal with.  Most of which is basically pretty stupid, but there's forms that have to get filled out, there's compliance, there's all these things. 

So we don't want to burden necessarily all of our community members who are spending effort and building and maintaining networks, that they should have to travel however many hours to a capital city, so we centralise that. 

So, again, decentralisation of ownership, decentralisation of many policies of the network, but centralisation of functions like technical support, administration, bureaucracy. 

So I'll leave it at that.  That's I think what we found so far of all the networks we have.  We have about 16 networks up and running.  More than 3,000 people using these networks every day.  All of the networks for themselves in and of themselves are sustainable economically.  They sustain themselves.  And then organisation that they're federated through, we're about halfway through the sustainability of that organisation, from the $2.50 network fee that people pay to keep the network running. 

So of those $2.50, about $2 goes and stays within the local network to continue that network's prosperity existence to pay for its costs, and the other 50 cents goes to the second layer organisation that provides the support, which is called (speaking non‑English language), and we're about halfway to the fees of the other users, and the other half is from philanthropy, things like that. 

>> MODERATOR:  Thanks, Peter. 

So I want to invite Mike Jensen from APC to talk about his perspective and the help and support of sustainable community networks. 

>> MIKE JENSEN:  Thank you, Bruno.  Association for progressive communications is both an organisation and a network, and we've been around since about 1990, and at this moment, we have about nine or ten members who are operating or supporting various types of community networks. 

And we're now engaged in the project to study these in more detail, but I think some of the initial observations that we've already been able to identify from the ongoing work that we've been doing with our members and research on other community networks is the issue of scale.  I think this is a key thing here.  Obviously, when you're going out into a rural area, there's a lot more overhead, and generally the economics of the provision of access services in remote and rural areas is much more difficult to provide the kind of sustainability and cost recovery that you might not see compared to an urban environment where people are much more densely populated, and therefore much more easy to serve. 

So in a rural area, you've got a lot of the logistics problems in terms of getting the equipment out there, in particular low levels of human capacity in terms of being able not only on the technical basis to implement and manage the network, but also more particularly, probably more relevantly, our basic business administration skills are in short supply in many of these areas, so these areas where there's a lot of capacity building that's necessary. 

Then on the policy front, and often related to the competition, we've also found that the cost of backhaul is an extremely important component.  You may be able to establish a local network, that if it wants to communicate with the outside world, then cost of getting access to the fire bell, the interconnection fees that other interoperators may charge, this can be a prohibitive component, so we hope that we can improve the policy environment there, A, to provide more competitive services, and where there are no competitive services, to see that there's good regulation to ensure that there's price transparency and even wholesale price controls to ensure that the prices are as low as possible. 

I think another area is in infrastructure sharing guidelines, which are important not only to reduce the cost of backhaul, for example, by sharing data for fiber operators, but also in ensuring communities can have access to any nearby towers that may have been erected by the mobile operators.  This is an important component that really can cut the cost, because erecting the tower can be probably the major cost component of setting up a local access network. 

I think those are probably the major points I'd like to make at this point and look forward to discussion afterwards.  Thank you. 

>> BRUNO VIANNA:  Thank you very much, Mike.  I would like to invite (?) from Colombia to give her perspective.  They are also building GSM networks in the (?) Valley, so let's hear from Lily. 

>> Lily:  Yes, thank you, Bruno.  Thank you.  (?) that is in Colombia.  We work in projects related with ICT for development.  One of the these projects is the communities ‑‑ we are developing with the support of ISOC, also on APC. 

The objective of the goal of this project is to demonstrate that the communities that have been excluded from (?) can design and implement and also operate their own community cellular networks.  That is new in Colombia because the experience that we have in our country.  These has a lot of technical, political, social, and of course economic implications, and I know this panel is focused more on financial issues, but it's important to emphasize that also sustainability depends on other factors, many factors, and in some way, all of them are connected. 

So I would like to point out five topics that we have identified in our work as important things to achieve sustainability in our network. 

The first one is connectivity with people who have different abilities and assume different roles.  It's supposed to recognise to each other to each role.  Know that all the rules are important, from the most technical role and all the people with technical knowledge, to ones who care about the communication, about living in the community.  All of those are important. 

And also people who work in the government and we need to talk with them and ask for license, and recognise all the people who's working. 

The second point is communities work autonomously, and respecting their systems and their culture.  These are associated with recognition, but it is worth mentioning because for people who don't belong to the community, as in our case, it implies understanding the dynamics of the community and let them take control of their own network.  Understand the network of the community, no other network. 

When we try to explain this to the government, that is not easy to understand in Colombia.  All the times when we meet with the Ministry or with the government, they think that we are the property of the network, and we need all people involved to understand the community is the property of the network. 

And that is possible when they say ‑‑ they can see people working on their own things, then they understand that it's a reality. 

The third point is be aware of the difficulties.  And also the challenge that exists.  This is because knowing the challenge that we have, people assume the responsibilities and know that, for example, they need to pay something in order to have their networking and they need the space and they need energy and Internet and other things.  We need to be transparent with the people and say, okay, we have many, many, many challenges that we have to assume. 

The third point is connectivity, working with diverse organisations means that things may not go as expected but it may be better if you are flexible. 

And the last one is the participation of different groups, including women.  Looking for a network is a common element for all in the community and not only for specific groups. 

>> BRUNO VIANNA:  Muchas gracias.  Thanks, Lily. 

Myself, Bruno Vianna, I don't think I have introduced myself, from Coolab in Brazil.  Our ‑‑ I'll just try very briefly to summarise what we've been up to.  Coolab is a collective dedicated to build and enable community networks.  Our main ‑‑ there's many people working on this, but we didn't have access to funding or a more permanent way of enabling communities.  It was more like isolated initiatives. 

So our first idea was to create some ‑‑ of course, we cannot go to a bank and ask for a loan, and also be always depending on foreign aid for ‑‑ we don't see it as sustainable way.  So our first idea was really to create some kind of a revolving fund that we would use this to finance some one network, and from like $5 to $10, they would be able to pay for the ‑‑ share the backhaul costs, they have to be paid anyway, and to return the investments to Coolab so we can get this back and go to another place and make a new installation. 

So with this proposal, we presented it to the Mozilla Equal Rating challenge, and I think the other participants are here too from this challenge.  We are really lucky to get the third place, and we had a grant of $30,000 to start the project.  And immediately, we made an open call for the whole country of Brazil for ‑‑ anyone interested in the project to submit their proposals.  That's very important to us because it creates a commitment to start with.  Like, say, I want this, this is something that I see the community needs and it creates relational responsibility. 

So with this support from Mozilla and also from Rosenberg foundation, we could start seven networks.  Three have already been built in the state of San Paolo and also in the Amazon, and we have four more in the beginning of the year to be deployed. 

And then we have not only the methodology of finance, we see it as sustainable.  We could be forever (?) in this installation.  So we still need the scale that Mike mentioned before. 

We also believe that we are not the builders, we cannot be seen as the guys who go there and build the network.  We are actually ‑‑ all we do is enable the neighbors to know how to build their own networks, so they can especially be responsible for (?) afterwards, so they don't have to rely on people coming from far to fix any problems that show up. 

And it's very important to us that since we're dealing with places which sometimes they have no connection before, what does it mean to suddenly be in contact with Facebook and a whole ‑‑ there's a lot of ‑‑ we have to be very careful with the local social fabric of the local culture, so we try as much as we can to develop local apps, local services that run inside the local network and don't depend so much on the outside, but especially they have their chance to share their own knowledge and culture. 

So I actually managed to speak for four minutes exactly, so I'm going to stop here and leave time for questions in the end. 

And I'll pass it on to Nico, who has been a great partner in developing the technology and also the and also the methodology of building (?) and local community networks, Wi‑Fi networks especially. 

>> Nico:  Well, I will try to focus on (?) which has to do with the development of the technology, the sustainability of the development of the technology that communities are using to deploy these very low‑cost networks.  I don't know if you noticed that Bruno said they had $30,000 and they will deploy seven networks. 

Yesterday, I received a copy of the contract from the government with a private provider that will deploy a network in a very small town for 40 households, for $200,000.  We analyzed it a bit, and we could deploy that for maybe $8,000, which is similar to the (?) and what's the point for me?  That we have been able to develop software and now hardware that allows us to deploy performance and very low‑cost networks, the (?) that many use.  That's developed by a bunch of people from around the world, and now the projects that we have been doing with (?). 

And it has been a great experience for many years, and what we are seeing is that it is ‑‑ it's quite difficult to get stability for the developing groups. 

So, for example, we had to fly a guy from (?) to Barcelona for three days so he could hack on a specific problem that is blocking the finishing of the (?) project, and it was difficult.  We were out of funding, we had to go out and find some new way to finance this, so we managed to re‑use funds that we had already assigned, and we are always like working with too little money for the enormous amount of work that all these people is doing.  And I think I don't have an answer to this, but I think we really need to find a way to have more stability for the big group of developers of open technologies that enable the very low‑cost deployment of community networks, and that's one of the reasons I'm always trying to get all of us or many of us together so we can discuss about how are we going to pursue this stability, which also means technological stability for the communities, because ‑‑ I have a minute left.  Well, that's it. 

>> BRUNO VIANNA:  Thanks.  Thank you, Nico. 

So, Brenda, our last speaker, she's from the University of Paraiba in the north of Brazil.  They have been one of the developers in developing cell phone numbers in the Amazon, and she has a perspective of using research funds and university funds to do this kind of deployments, and she's going to share a little bit of her experience. 

>> Brenda:  Thanks, Bruno. 

Yeah, we are kind of different here.  I'm part of the university, and we kind of started the stuff about community networks, because we were curious about (?) radio, and we found the open hardware and stuff, and we started to work.  We are pretty much engineers, and computer engineering and communication engineers. 

And the project, we call it cell phone ‑‑ the translation, it's community cellular (?) project, acronym CELCOM.  It started in 2007.  We got funding from our state.  Like, since some five years, five years ago, since five years ago, our state really ‑‑ that's (?) states, really worried about digital inclusion.  So we had an opening like to ask funding for the project, and they are funding the CELCOM project. 

Today we have three pilots, based on GMS, and they are pretty much different from one another.  And they pretty much work with everything that's the university can give us.  So we kind of don't have some problems, but for example, Bruno has and Nico has, but yes, we do have a lot of bureaucracy to deal with, and other than that, we also have money from ‑‑ we got money from (?) because we have that thing in the academy like to teach other students how to work with those equipment and also go to the community and develop knowledge there and grow the field, like get more people inside the field.  So we have (?). 

And as we are most engineers, and to (?) the thing about sustainability is kind of new to us.  It's like from one year now that we start to see that it was working, and then we were like, okay, what now?  What the community will do with that? 

And then we found those people that are here at the table, like Peter, Bruno, and we are learning with them like how to build this sustainability within the project. 

With departments we have now, in terms of money, it should be good for our state because they could, like, take the model and scale it to other parts.  As a university, we cannot have, like, ten pilots or more communities, but we can definitely build the knowledge to make this community grow in our region that's the Amazon region.  It's like forest and it's different from the other parts. 

(Alarm beeping)

>> BRUNO VIANNA:  Okay, we're out of time.  Thank you very much for your participation.  I don't think we have time officially for questions since it's already 10:42, but I'm sure we can informally take questions on the side and the exit of the hall.  Well, there's another session in ten minutes. 

>> We've got ten minutes. 

>> BRUNO VIANNA:  Okay.  Anyone would like to make one quick question or two?  Yes.  One?  Two?  Okay.  Three.  Okay.  Your question?  Can you approach the microphone? 

>> Audience:  Hello.  Good afternoon.  I am (?) from Kenya.  You mentioned a revolving fund that you created, and I fail to understand where it's coming from.  Like, I would like to create a revolving fund that's ‑‑ I didn't get that. 

>> BRUNO VIANNA:  We use the award from Mozilla Foundation.  We presented the project to the eco-rating challenge, it was a competition, and that's where we got the seed money to start, $30,000.  So, yes, we need some start ‑‑ some kind of aid to get it started, but the idea is that once we get enough funds, we can be always like self‑financing ourselves. 

>> Audience:  This is what I expected mostly from the panel, how to move from a (?) fund, either investment by the (?) or a grant given by any organisation, on how to make it sustainable.  And then expand it.  This is the key point.  We have to be able to deliver the numbers to the organisations and investors that this is sustainable and can expand, and it can even give money in return. 

>> BRUNO VIANNA:  Okay.  Thank you. 

>> Audience:  (?) Martinez from Mexico.  I want to congratulate you with all of this hard work that you are telling. 

Just a quick reflection.  If we should not be working towards ISP model for the community networks.  So they have to be self‑sustainable, but non‑profit.  Thanks. 

>> BRUNO VIANNA:  That's perfect.  That's exactly the model we want to work with, and especially in a sense of that they have the ownership of the equipment and also the network in general, but that ‑‑ so that they can afford very cheap ‑‑ like connection, which is basically sharing the costs of the connection to the backhaul and maintenance of replacement of any broken equipment, so that's the bottom line. 

Anyone else want to comment on these questions?  Another question?  I will take the two questions at the same time, and wait for the others to answer, because I don't want to be the only one answering questions.  So, Svetlana. 

>> Audience:  Hello.  So my question is, I don't know how it is in Latin America, but do you try to put on your website if you have something like donation part and asking for people making donations, or making donations and you can give them back something like souvenir or something.  So, did you try that or is it popular or is it work or not?  I don't know.  So it's the question. 

>> BRUNO VIANNA:  Okay. 

>> Audience:  Hello, everyone.  I'm Gabriella.  I ask to Bruno.  You spoke about bureaucracy.  Do you see regulation as difficult or regulation is necessary?  How far? 

>> BRUNO VIANNA:  Okay, so Brenda will answer a question, and if anyone else wants to take Svetlana's question...

>> Brenda:  We deal with regulation in various levels.  Like us, we are inside the university.  To spend the money we have for the project, for example.  We cannot just buy what we want.  We have to ask and then they will search prices and everything.  So that's one kind of bureaucracy. 

And, for example, as Peter mentioned, there is also the regulation for the spectrum.  As we are a university, we don't have a problem to get the experimental license, but in Brazil, it's just for ‑‑ it lasts for two years.  And then after those two years, what the community have to do?  Like, turn off the radio? 

So there are many bureaucracies.  But ‑‑ to be short. 

>> PANELIST:  So it's possible ‑‑ I don't know if we can get enough funds from selling merchandise and donations to start the new ‑‑ another network.  I think the way of financing the network is using the network itself.  I mean, these people, sometimes they pay like $20 a month for cell phone Internet connection.  Perhaps if they paid $5 to themselves it's like the most ‑‑ it's more self‑sustainable way of thinking. 

>> Audience:  Yes, it's great.  I mean other people who already have Internet.  Maybe they can say, oh, that's nice idea.  I like to support that because I feel that it's important.  So it's mostly for that purpose.  I mean, for another group. 

>> PANELIST:  Yeah.  It's a good idea, yes. 

>> BRUNO VIANNA:  Thank you very much for attending the panel, the workshop, and thanks for all of you for participating here, and we will see you at IGF around. 

[ Applause ]