VBTS at the IGF2018

Last week, I had the opportunity to attend the 13th Internet Governance Forum (IGF). IGF 2018 was hosted by the Government of France and was held at the UNESCO headquarters in Paris. This year’s theme is the ‘Internet of Trust”, and the topics discussed in IGF are very diverse: ranging from cybersecurity, privacy, digital inclusion, accessibility, emerging technologies, human rights, gender, youth, technical and other operational topics. Since our work, the Village Base Station Project (VBTS), is in the space of community networks, I was particularly interested in the digital inclusion and accessibility tracks.

Starting off, the Association for Progressive Communications (APC) organized a pre-IGF event called “Disco-Tech.” It is a hybrid talk & social event where important issues were discussed in an informal setting. The theme for this year was about disability and accessibility to the Internet. The speakers shared their experiences in trying to change the status quo of technology for people with disabilities, either through education and information dissemination, or through the creation of customized technology solutions. In particular, I had the chance to meet Arun from SPACE, who is working on embedded tech interfaces for disabled people and shared how much customization was put in place since each of their clients have unique needs.

I started IGF’s first day by attending the session on “Connecting and Enabling the Next Billions.” This session highlighted the different SDGs that needs to be addressed in order to close or narrow down the digital divide. It was emphasized that connectivity cannot be addressed by just by technology and building communications infrastructure alone; but must be joined by training, ensuring affordability and energy sustainability. This high-level session also acknowledged the role of community networks as a complementary solution for connecting the unconnected.

Next is the DC session entitled “Community Connectivity: When The Unconnected Build Connectivity”, which discusses the community network model and how it can be a solution for connectivity and Internet access for unserved communities. The official output of this DC is a book, which serves as a guide in building your own community network. What was great about the book was that the authors did not solely focused on the technical part of building the network, but also included a discussion on organization and scale – with the end goal of network sustainability. I agree with the proponents, who manifested that by providing individuals and small communities the knowledge and tools to create their own networks, it empowers them to decide their digital futures.

This was followed by a workshop called “Spectrum for Community Networks: A “Must” That Is Hard to Get.” From our experience, spectrum was one of the most difficult resources to acquire and get approvals for. In the Philippines, all spectrum for 2G were already allocated to the country’s largest telco operators. As such, we had to partner up with a major telco and have our community cellular network initiative to operate under their spectrum franchise. The workshop started of with the discussion on a commonly-used argument that ‘spectrum is a scarce resource’, and how this thinking must be abandoned. The spectrum resource is already there: we just need to manage it more wisely and efficiently so that more players would be able to benefit from it. In addition, frameworks for both large and small operators must be in place, since there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Panelist Steve Song made a brilliant analogy about frameworks using pebbles and rocks. If we imagine that the big rocks were the large telcos and put them in a jar, you can only fit a few, but there would still spaces and gaps that these big rocks would not be able to fill up. For these smaller spaces, the community network ‘pebbles’ can be placed to fill in this gap. Another item that was highlighted is the transparency & open data in government specifically on telco infrastructure. From our experience, since this kind of data is not accessible to us, we really have to go and travel to the community to verify what connectivity options they currently have access to. Having this data will make our site survey process much more efficient and faster.

Later in the day was the IGF opening ceremonies. The main keynote speech was given by French President Emmanuel Macron. President Macron highlighted the most pressing issues in internet governance, such as: online privacy, hate speech, terrorism, and cyber attacks. He said that “regulation is needed in the name of public good. Moving forward, more regulation is needed and we will all pay the price if we will not regulate properly.” However, this leaves the question of ‘how much regulation is enough?’ There must be a balance where the state works with the civil society to ensure that the public good and interest is maintained and protected. This is a discussion that is very timely in the context of the Philippines, given the rise of local fake news, internet trolls, and data breaches in our country.

I started the 2nd day in the Seed Alliance booth and shared our work with some IGF attendees. Later in the day, I attended an NRI session on “Access beyond Mere Connectivity.” Here, representatives from different country and regional IGFs discussed how access to the Internet is still an issue all around the world. One of these issues was affordability. For example, there is a digital or social media tax in Africa that further limits the number of people getting online because of the additional costs. Resilient infrastructure was also mentioned, especially for countries that are always hit by typhoons and earthquakes such as the Philippines. I have also learned in this session that as part of their national broadband policies, India and Nigeria both have the ‘dig once’ clause. I believe that this is something the Philippines needs to seriously consider and adopt, not only the context of broadband plans, but also in the delivery of public utilities and services such as water and electricity. In addition to reducing costs, this will also minimize disruptions caused whenever there are roadworks in progress.

The highlight of the day was the the Seed Alliance Awarding Ceremony where work by the awardees from Information Society Innovation Fund-Asia (ISIF-Asia), Fund for Internet Research and Development (FIRE) and Regional Fund for Digital Innovation in Latin America and the Caribbean (FRIDA) were recognized and shared a moment up in the stage. All of the awardees did amazing work that contributes to social and economic development, specifically in the field of gender empowerment and digital inclusion.

It was also on this day that APC launched the 2018 GISWatch book on Community Networks. This year’s edition had reports from 43 different countries including our project, representing the Philippines. It was unfortunate that the awarding ceremony and the book launch were held during the same time. Nevertheless, I am sure that I and our team would still be able to learn a lot from the experiences shared in the book.

Moreover, I also got a chance to connect, interact with new people, and expand our network during session breaks and other social events outside the official IGF schedule. In particular, I finally met in person a colleague from UW and got to exchange latest updates from our community networks in the Philippines and Indonesia. I met the guys from Latin America, starting from Damian from AtalayaSur, and the two Nicos from AlterMundi. Damian is the Community Award winner under FRIDA and we had a nice exchange on our corresponding networks’ technology and operations. Later in the evening, I met Peter from Rhizomatica – an independent community cellular network operating in Mexico. We always cite Rhizomatica as our ‘poster’ case study whenever we talk to telcos or regulators because it is through their work that the Mexican government created a spectrum franchise for social use. We hope in the future that the Philippines’ policy and regulation will be as enabling as Mexico’s for small community networks.

On the final day, I attended the workshop organized by APNIC on “Investment strategies to scale community networks.” Carlos Rey-Moreno made a remark that investment models sometimes do not address community networks as they are stuck with the for-profit model. I concur with this because there are areas that have a very low populations to begin with that they will never be feasible if inspected using the conventional business models. Oftentimes, for these types of sites, one must look instead at the social return of investment. Another point that that was raised was that organizations operating these community networks are very small and sometimes cannot absorb large sums of money. However, from the donor’s perspective, large grants are still preferred over small sums. Nico of Altermundi also made a wonderful case of what community networks need to thrive. In terms of investment, he said that community networks need resources that are not necessarily money such as spectrum, regulation, peering and interconnection to existing infrastructure. These things are already there, we all just need to talk and allow community networks to utilize these. I think this is possible, but a lot of work needs to be done before we get to this desired outcome.

Afterwards was the high level session on Digital Inclusion and Accessibility. A new insight that I have learned is that the number of new subscribers is plateauing, which means that traditional mobile network operators seemed to have saturated the addressable subscriber base in their current markets. The conventional business and technology models will not work for those in the remote areas and which brings again the case of community networks as a potential solution.

Finally, the afternoon of the last day was dedicated to the IGF closing sessions. Aside from the keynote speeches, this included an open mic session which allows each participant two minutes to voice out their concerns. I was surprised at how open the participants can be, ranging from thanking the organizers, providing constructive criticism to some raising specific issues such as journalist killings. I found this as a good form of engagement with its participants. As affirmed by one of the speakers in his closing remarks, “we all part of the IGF’s multi-stakeholder model, and we are all core to this approach.”

Overall, the IGF provided me a chance to get new insights and share our work to more people. It also gave me a unique opportunity to personally connect with other practitioners in this domain. Hearing that we share common experiences, it made me feel that we are not alone in what we do. I admire their amazing work and their advocacy for enabling regulation and frameworks for small community networks. I am thankful that we can all learn from each other’s experiences and use this to collectively advance community networks. In the future, I hope that more representatives from the Philippines would be able to participate in an international dialogue such as as IGF.

Again, on behalf of the VBTS team, I would like to thank ISIF-Asia and APNIC Foundation for recognizing our work through the 2018 Community Networks Award and this wonderful opportunity to attend the Internet Governance Forum. I hope that you would be able to continue to support more work, such as ours, in Asia. Thank you very much!

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