As of 2017, 53% of the world’s population was offline due to factors such as high cost of Internet infrastructure and the lack of relevant local content. Over the past 18 months, excitement around the potential of mesh Community Networks (CN) to tackle this problem has increased tremendously. Recently, at the 7th African School of Internet Governance (AFRISIG), I was fortunate to learn and gain insight from various CN organisations, and to become a part of the African-wide CN stakeholder group. This is a dynamic space and we are seeing more and more organisations testing wireless solutions with the aim to provide affordable internet to their communities. Many consider access to the internet a fundamental human right which we agree with, since it provides a channel for people to reach new markets, access educational content and much more.
The value proposition for Communication Networks varies from one project to another. Some are providing affordable networks in rural communities to communicate amongst themselves, while others provide an alternative and independent online environment that spans cities. Examples, such as Zenzeleni, Mesh Bukavu and TunapandaNET, cover some these different use cases. At the conference, the CN located in Oaxaca, Mexico was referenced as a success due to their remoteness and scale respectively. This potential was demonstrated at the Internet Governance Forum, which followed AFRISIG, where the opportunity was provided for representatives to Skype directly with the citizens of Oaxaca. The quality of VOIP was world class; and, some might say that CNs are the new kid on the block and ready to compete with Mobile Network Operators.
In Chad we also presented our CN project, RICC (Rede de Informação, Comércio e Campanhas). We previously published a blog, which can be read here, introducing the RICC which is being implemented in the Zimpeto Retail Market, a marketplace outside of Maputo City in Mozambique. The wireless mesh network will provide content and tools for vendors and the community surrounding the marketplace to develop their businesses and digital skills.
Although our project In Mozambique is not as advanced as some of the aforementioned CNs, our lessons and trajectory are comparable. The majority of projects based in Sub-Saharan Africa aim to provide community stakeholders with a source of income. RICC is similar as we want to provide marketplace vendors with an opportunity to increase earnings, as well as internet access. In order to identify whether the technology can be effectively implemented, whether market vendors desire the services, and if spillover effects can be achieved, we have been iteratively testing our riskiest assumptions surrounding the project. Here we cover 2 of our most critical assumptions tested to date:
Key stakeholders are engaged and committed to the project
Most projects require a group of champions who will advocate for change. This is a critical activity since we are working in a public space and require key stakeholders to provide us with continuity, access to secure spaces and objective feedback. These key stakeholders also act as a conduit for our users and beneficiaries to voice grievances and to provide feedback in a collective manner.
The process of stakeholder engagement and building a network of champions from across sectors is an ongoing process. We identified project champions from the public and private sector and from amongst key users. We got approvals from various public sector institutions to ensure a friction-less work environment in the marketplace. This way we were able to install equipment and to move freely in the market place as we go about testing and promoting RICC. Our group of agents are free to wear customised T-shirts without officials questioning what is being promoted. We can host visitors in the markets at any time without having to request permission from the market officials.
One of the key concerns of marketplace officials is the security of hardware which influences the ongoing delivery of a quality and consistent service. As the pictures below show, we were able to install the wireless mesh network hardware safely on store owners’ roof-tops.
Identifying and building good relationships with stakeholders has been crucial to safeguarding the devices. To date, no incidents related to tampering or theft of the devices has been reported which a win is considering the issues we had to overcome in relation to the Marketplace officials concerns around security. Our next phases will involve installing larger pieces of hardware, but more on that in a few weeks.
Energy supply will be consistent and therefore users will be able to rely on the mesh network.
Mozambique, like most African based Community Networks, experiences inconsistency fluctuations in the provision of electricity which means that at times, the mesh network would be down and inaccessible to users. During this phase of the project we also wanted to determine if the storeowners would keep the modems switched on throughout the eight week sprint test.
We learnt that the connectivity range of the four nodes overlaps and that a single node switched off will not affect the service to the users. On the occasion when one of the nodes was accidentally switched off we were able to quickly rectify the situation by contacting the store owner. On most occasions this was as a result of the store owners cleaning their stores and unplugging the modem for a brief time period.
Mostly feedback that we received from the users is that they were able to log into and stream content from the wireless mesh network continuously.
Overall, our cautious approach to installing the hardware in a manner that did not attract attention; liaising closely with market based stakeholders on utilising their spaces for safe keeping of the modems and for continuous access to an energy supply was positive.
What is next?
We are eager to determine if we can install solar panels to power the network, and how the range and speed of connectivity will change. This will also provide us with some insights into how we can ensure the hardware remains secure. In addition, we are entering the rainy season which is a good time to be testing the reliability and consistency of an off-grid powered network. Will the climate affect accessibility? Or can we still operate with two nodes powered by electricity?
We will also be gauging where most of our traffic is coming from. The market place neighbours a busy transport hub and with so much footfall it could be that most of our users are commuters, rather than vendors. If this is true, how do we engage with and commuters, and how does that vary from how we might engage with market vendors? We will explore this question through testing different services and content in various combinations, in order to see what drives an uptake in usage.