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CooLab - Free networks cooperative

A model make loans and offer a social and technical methodology for disconnected communities to build their own Internet infrastructure.

Photo of bruno
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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.

Explain your idea

The problem that many groups tackling the digital divide have is that they have been doing these actions thanks to donations and grants from various sources, and that is not a sustainable practice. What we want now is to have a business model that will allow the enablers to continue doing installations on disconnected communities and not to depend on being chosen by an institution. Our idea is to establish a model to make loans for the communities, that will be paid back by exploring the own installed infrastructure in one year or so, and it is reinvested in new projects. Once the loan is returned, the equipment belongs to the community. But then the financier will have the funds back to connect another place. However, for this idea to work, we need a considerable amount of seed money: if we wait for one year to get the investment back, we would only make one new installation every year. But if we can make many installations in a few months, by the moment we have about 12 communities paying us back, we would have the money for a new installation every month. After we break even, the cooperative will be able to support financially new initiatives elsewhere, and also different types of infrastructure such as solar energy or transportation. We believe it also points to a free economy, where endless resources such as solar power and communications can be enjoyed freely once the appropriate infrastructure is in place.

Who Benefits?

At first, people who need to connect to the Internet. Later, we can reach people who already have access, but are looking for a more equal, community-controlled form of access. Eventually, we hope to be able to reach any group needing some sort of community enabling infrastructure.

How is your idea unique?

What are you doing that is different from similar initiatives? What unique advantages do you have to implement this idea? Think about how another organization is addressing the idea - how they are doing it and why do you believe yours will be more successful? There are different initiatives to support community projects, but either in large, governmental scales or through donations. We are proposing an scalable and sustainable model, that can be replied in different scenarios, while constantly generating income, jobs and connectivity.

Idea Proposal Stage

  • Piloting: I have started to implement my solution as a whole with a first set of real users.

Tell us more about you

We are a group of people and institutions involved in different community networking projects in Brazil, that decide to gather forces in one initiative to propose a new model for funding telecommunications infrastructure.

Expertise in sector

  • 5-7 years

Organization Filing Status

  • Yes, we are a registered non-profit.
  • Yes, we are a registered company.

1 comment

Join the conversation:

Photo of Kate Rushton

Hi Bruno!

This is a very interesting project! Would you be able to tell me more about the loans themselves?

Is this your project - You might want to consider uploading your video in your submission if this is your project.

The evaluation criteria requires that 'you are a certified non-profit or for-profit organization, and have worked in your sector for at least a year', has one of the institutions mentioned here (We are a group of people and institutions involved in different community networking projects in Brazil) been in operation for one year or more?

If you had one year, two years and three years, what could you realistically achieve?

Finally (sorry so many questions), would you consider adding a summary at the top of the 'full description box' in your post explaining how your project meets the criteria and bridges two or more of peace, planet and prosperity.

You can use this as a guide:

'This idea is a_________________ [campaign/app/service/program/online platform/toolkit/social enterprise/etc.].

It tackles the problem of _____________[short problem statement].

It addresses the problem by :__________[what your idea looks like in practice]. It intersects XYZ topics (peace, prosperity, or planet).’