This idea is a social enterprise that tackles the digital divide. We want to bridge the gap between connected and disconnected by offering training and loans for communities to built their own telecommunications infrastructure, which will be paid back by exploring the own network they create. It intersects peace and prosperity topics.
Even though the Internet has changed completely every aspect of life in the new millennium, there are still billions of people who have no access to it. Most of these people are located in remote, rural areas, and/or are too poor to afford a commercial provider. Yet, they are the ones who would profit more from being connected: connectivity provides better dialogue, health, education, business opportunities and much more, enabling people to overcome problems.
So why aren’t these people on-line? The technology for connecting every village on earth already exists. The equipment for links of 50km and more is getting cheaper and can be bought off the shelf. Locations which are too isolated can take advantage of satellite links. The difficulty of the last mile is being tackled with cheap mesh networks.
Still, many times, providing the telecommunications infrastructure in these areas is a much greater challenge. Not only the links have to cover long distances; maintenance itself is a nightmare, as it means having to travel long to fix malfunctioning equipment. Besides, the technological challenges implicate on additional costs, which low-income population can’t afford. Overcoming all these issues to reach a consumer base of a few hundreds is definitely not a attractive commercial enterprise.
But the one thing many of the small disconnected places have on their side is their strong sense of community. Being isolated means having to rely more on themselves. Much of the infrastructure is build, managed and maintained locally. Water systems in most small villages in Brazil, for instance, are not managed by any instance of the government or a company, but by the neighbors themselves. Other examples exist such as community halls, milk tanks, transportation.
Our proposal to connect many of the billions currently out of cyberspace takes advantage of this communal spirit. After making several installations in isolated communities in Brazil, we were able to fine tune a methodology that uses the best of the neighbors talents and skills. We teach them how setup and maintain a local network and a long distance link to the nearest backhaul. We do this by organizing week-long immersions, where barn-raising events put together volunteers from outside, tech experts, and the neighbors, to design and install a network. Local ownership not only empowers the communities; it is also a much more efficient way to maintain and expand the local infrastructure, since support is right around the corner.
The Free Networks Cooperative was awarded “most novel” idea in Mozilla’s Equal Rating challenge, receiving 30.000 dollars to start an experimental operation.