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Mike Jensen: Penalva's community network has been "meeting the needs of this incredibly inspiring group of women who are battling very difficult conditions with farmers"

Foto: Paulo Duarte / Mike Jensen visita rede comunitária e se reúne com comunidade de Penalva

Entrevista e edição: Oona Castro e Paulo Duarte
Fotos: Paulo Duarte

Em dezembro de 2018, Mike Jensen, especialista em tecnologias da informação e da comunicação e atualmente coordenador do programa de acesso da Association for Progressive Communications (APC), visitou a rede comunitária em Penalva, implementada pelo Instituto Nupef ao longo de 2017. A visita faz parte de seu trabalho como especialista em políticas de tecnologias da informação e da comunicação para o acesso, que inclui pesquisa, advocacy, formação, criação de redes e comunicação em níveis nacional, regional e internacional.  Veja a entrevista, em inglês, de Mike Jensen ao site Espectro, do Instituto Nupef. Ele destaca os pontos positivos da rede comunitária de Penalva e os principais desafios pela frente, além de fornecer um panorama levando em consideração outras redes que ele vem pesquisando em três continentes: América Latina, África e Ásia.

1) What have you been mapping around the world? What are the objectives of this research?
We are trying to answer the question: can the unconnected connect themselves? The problem is that up until very recently everyone thought that mobile broadband would extend across every country to every person, but we've seen a rapid decrease in growth over the last couple of years now, in terms of the number of people that are going to be connected, and now the estimates are that even by 2025, which is 6 years away, only about 60% of the world's population will have access to broadband. So this project funded by the IDRC is trying to see alternative models to the kind of national, commercial models that are being used. So, to do that, we are trying to document what works and what doesn't work for bottom up initiatives, where it's mainly the communities themselves that are involved in building the infrastructure, or maintaining the infrastructure or managing it, or owning it or governing it. Now there is not a one model for this, there is a quite wide spectrum of what we can see as a bottom up approach. But this area has not yet been well researched yet, so our project is mainly focused on trying to document various initiatives that cover the different continents, cover different kinds of demographic settings, cover the use of different types of technologies, and different ownership or governance models. So we have a limited amount of resources to do this but it actually turns out that there are very few community or bottom upped initiatives that have been around for a significant length of time, enough for us to be able to get some lessons, learned from this projects, so I think we are probably touching on the main projects of interest in developing countries – these initiatives aren't restricted to developing countries, they are also present in developed countries, - but our project is to see how people who don't have any alternatives, who are marginalized, who are cutted off from connectivity, how they can take control and get their own connectivity.

So we've identified 10 initiatives around the world, spread across these three continents: Latin America, Asia and Africa. And so we are trying to go and describe what technologies they use, what methods they use for decision making, what methods they use for gaining access to the internet and what they do with it, what impact has had in the community.

2. Which networks have you already visited and which ones do you still plan to visit? During these visits, what has stood out to you?

In Latin we have visited AlterMundi in Argentina, Rhizomatica in Mexico, and now we've been visiting Penalva in Brazil. And in Africa we've visited Pamoja Net in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Zenzelene in South Africa and BOSCO in Uganda. And then in Asia we have visited TakNet in Thailand, Gram Marg in India and a project which is not really so much around community networks specifically, but has a bottom up approach to connectivity that has taken place all around the country of Indonesia and we have visited three sites where this kind of initiative is taking place in Indonesia. We have one more site visit before the project ends – and we're not entirely sure where that will be – it may be the Philippines, it may be the Indonesia.

What stood out for me during these visits is the huge diversity of approaches and it's very difficult to generalize about what works in one country may not work in another country or in a particular cultural context or depending on the type of urban rural environment they are at - I think it's main thing that stood out for me. The other thing that stood out for me is that it's very early days in the movement of a bottom up approach and we still have a lot of learning to do in terms of figuring out what works best and what doesn't work best. And then the third thing is the need to take kind of a long term approach. You know, most of these initiatives are taking place in rural areas, not in the urban centers. These rural areas have great problems in the availability of the human capacity to support these networks. Not only in terms of knowing about computers and digital literacy, and high level technical skills to implement them, but also on how to use them best, the business skills, the management skills, the governance skills, all of those things are very, very low levels in these communities and to build this up takes a lot of time. So to think about these projects just to go in there and try to help these projects get off the ground and be self sustaining in like a year which is usually the timeframe many of these project usually take, it's too short. We need to take a long term approach.

Mike Jensen em Penalva

3) What are the most relevant aspects you have been noticing in those networks?

Well, I think I've mentioned quite a few of these already in terms of what stood out for me, but I think what is particularly also relevant is how to minimize the costs. And the people in these communities are very, very little, very low income levels. It's very difficult for them to pay additional amounts of any significance to gain access to connectivity. So if the cost of this connectivity is high then these projects find a greater bigger deal in being self sustaining. So the problem we found here is for instance the backhaul costs, the cost of getting to the rest of the internet from those remote areas is very high, and it is often the major cost that is making it difficult to make it affordable in the rural areas. So that's the one thing that stood out for me. The another one is the limited access to the technical skills that is needed to make the network as effective as possible. You know, the many levels to the deployment of the network and once you get the network first running it's also the first step then there needs to be a continuous support, technically, administratively, financially, to make sure that these things get running in a way that themselves can make them scale. So I think that's the most important factor there.

4) Have you visited any community network that you might consider a type of “ideal model”? Why?

Well, strictly speaking, the ideal model would be one where the community by itself was able to take this idea and build the connectivity from scratch – which is the only way this is gonna really be able to scale in the long run, to reach these millions if not billions of people. So in fact we haven't found any network yet, that's been able to do that and is self sustaining. It may be the case in a couple or years, because there are lot of new communities networks that are just starting or have started quite recently. But in terms of the projects that we have looked at and identified that have been around for a while, there has always been some sort of external force or support or initiator that's helped these networks get going. And that of course is probably what it takes in the initial stages, but ideally speaking these networks would have to be self sustaining because we can't replicate all these external forces in so many communities to get these networks initiated. So that's the ideal extreme of what we would like to see, a completely bottom up approach where the network is completely owned by the community, they run it, they have the technical skills to maintain it, and it is self sustaining and everyone has access.

But if we kind of draw back to the next kind of threshold in terms of the spectrum of what would be ideal I think the network I've come across here today in Penalva is probably as close to that as possible because it's operated by a group of women, in a self sustaining fashion, is meeting real needs in the community and is making use of appropriate technology which can be absorbed and implemented and expanded by the community ultimately and I hope to see that happen in future.

Mike Jensen e Geovania

5) When is the results/report planned to be published? Where will it be published? How do you plan to use information you collect and how you believe other organizations around the world will be able to make use of it?

We're finalizing our research this month and we'll be also beginning and hopefully getting to do quite a lot of the write up of the report over the course of December and early January and we hope to have all that finalized by the end of January next year. We haven't actually decided on the best venues for the publication of the material. In fact we're now thinking that we need to package it in a number of different ways, so we want to package some of the lessons learned with focus on the policy makers and regulators, because, you know, the policy making and regulator environment is something I haven't touched on but it's, in many cases, a big barrier to the start of these networks because of the licensing burdens or because the ecosystem itself that is too expensive to get that backhaul connectivity that I've mentioned or the skills aren't there, and the policy regulator environment can also have an important role to play in promoting and stimulating these networks through things such as universal service funds or making skills available or building awareness amongst decision makers about these possibilities in the potential of this approach, so I think we wanna package a particular set of materials for working with regulators and building awareness with the policy makers, we wanna do the same thing to describe what we've learned to other potential donors and the development community, and NGOs that might be interested in supporting and implementing this kind of model and were in their constituency and of course we want to create a material for the communities themselves or for prospective communities so they can learn from the experiences of others. So I think we will have a bunch of different publications under the APC banner going forward.

6) What do you thing are the greatest challenges for community networks in the next coming years?

I think the greatest challenges are how to make these projects exist and, existing, replicable and scalable, through this idea that we have a limited amount of external funding, a limited amount of external human capacity, relatively to the huge need – I mean we need hundreds of thousands of these networks and we can not clone ourselves and the decision makers and everyone else who would be able to go after and help these people set up these communities networks. So we need to make equipment a zero configured – and incredibly easy to use, we need to develop kind of a hierarchy of support at national level, at regional level, so that communities who are having problems could know where to go to get assistance, and to share among each other as well, to get support from each other... we need to build mechanisms and structures so they can lobby the governments to gain support from them as well and to work on many levels to make it as easy as possible and to get the resources that they need to operate their networks.

7) How did you like what you saw in Penalva?

Well, I already mentioned that I was incredibly impressed with what's happened there in such a short space of time already and the difficult conditions in a remote rural area and really meeting the needs of this incredibly inspiring group of women who are battling very difficult conditions with land owners and farmers in the region and who are in the conflict with their traditional modes of natural resource use and to see the kind of potential that this network is supporting these women in gaining access to the state support and the legitimization of their traditional roles, I think it's incredibly inspiring and I really think that this could be something that could trigger this kind of replication in other areas and expansion of the network there.

As quebradeiras de côco em Penalva

8) Is there any improvements you think could be made in Penalva? Which ones? Why?

Well, I think the main point is to improve the backhaul connectivity in some way. Either by increasing the speed or by increasing the reliability because of the large quantities of rain there as they are dependent on a satellite link which has the problem of rain fade, with the heavy tropical rains we have and generally it's not particularly cheap considering that you are paying around so 75 dollars a month for 25Gb – that's the amount of data that is allowed to cross the satellite link before the link is brought full down to a very low speed. So this is constraining the network in terms of the utility for the existing users and also probably constraining demand and expectations of people in terms of what they could be doing with the network and use it to a greater extent. So it's incredible what they are already doing with limited resources but I think that area could help; and also to develop more technical skills in the community to be able to deal with any of the problems that are likely to emerge in future.

9) What kind of challenges you think Penalva’s community network may face?

Well, I think one of the challenges will be..., is in an urban area and we have seen over the course of the project that there is more mobile connectivity available in the area and apparently also some fixed internet service providers are also now providing services in the area so I think there may be some challenges in terms of the ability of the network to compete, in a way, with these other operators but because it's run by such a strong group of women who, you know, have invested a lot in their network and have a very cohesive kind of organization framework they will probably stay with the network. So that's something that could be exploited but I think that at the same time we can make use of these other alternative connectivity providers to improve and create a more reliable service for the community.

10) What challenges you see for Brazil regarding the use of spectrum and community networks building?

Well, I'm still learning a little bit about that area. It seems to be a quite dynamic in terms of the changes in the regulations and the policies around this. So I think the main issue there is to ensure that the government taxes on this kind of infrastructure and service provision are as low as possible so that the costs of operating the network may be as small as possible so the network is affordable as it needs to be for these very low income communities. And at the same time to have a system that allows them to be legitimate service providers but without having the regulatory burdens, in terms of reporting requirements that can be quite onerous and at the same time the taxes and the fees for the licenses can also be a large burden so there needs to be an approach that minimizes this as much as possible.

Mike e Geovania