More than 3.5 billion people use the Internet today, up from a mere 738 million in 2000, according to a new report from the International Telecommunication Union (ITU). That’s about half the world’s population. But what about the other half?
While the ITU says that most of the world’s other Internet-less users will be connected by traditional Internet service providers (ISPs), many remote and rural regions risk remaining without Internet access – unless they connect themselves. This digital divide exists even in developed Europe, where governments are pouring billions of euros into high-speed Internet networks.
Community networks can help fill the gap. Built and operated by people from within the community working together and combining their efforts, these networks complement traditional access networks. They provide local access in areas where commercial operators do not find it economically viable to operate. Given the challenges with economic viability in underserved areas, it is crucial to building a sound business model to ensure the sustainability of these projects.
Community Networks must overcome serious regulatory, political and commercial hurdles. Regulation is often inadequate – or inappropriate. Needed spectrum remains expensive or unavailable.
In response, the European Commission has given its support for these bottom-up projects, recognizing Community Networks as one of the four main investment models for bringing Internet coverage throughout the continent Community Networks serve as the entry point to connectivity, running traffic at low speeds. As the network grows, it lays the groundwork for fast-speed connectivity. In its Broadband Investment Guide, the European Commission writes: “Projects employing this type of involvement have generally been very successful in driving the take-up rate among the end users and in building financially sustainable cases.” Although there are no reliable statistics on the number of Community Networks operating in Europe, the Commission notes that “a vibrant sector of broadband co-operatives and small private initiatives have grown up notably in the Nordic countries, the Netherlands and parts of the UK”.
In the present study, we also find exciting examples emerging in Southern and Eastern Europe, and some are thriving even in urban settings, such as Berlin’s Freifunk network. This project looks at the challenges and opportunities involved in setting up, maintaining and expanding operations of Community Networks within the European Union (EU) and elsewhere in Europe. It draws lessons learned from a selection of projects ranging from Spain in the West to the Republic of Georgia in the East.
The project concludes that it is possible to build a successful Community Network, helping to overcome the digital divide and ensuring that Europe’s remotest regions such as the remote Caucasus Mountains benefit from connecting to the Internet.