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 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 build 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, recognising Community Networks as one of the four main investment models for bringing internet coverage throughout the continent
This paper looks at the challenges and opportunities involved in setting up, maintaining and expanding operations of Community Networks within the European Union and elsewhere in Europe. Based on personal interviews with officials in Brussels as well as telephone conversations with leaders of Community Networks throughout Europe, it draws lessons learned from a selection of projects ranging from Spain in the West to the Republic of Georgia in the East.
William Echikson is Associate Senior Fellow and Director of the Digital Forum at the Centre for European Policy Studies in Brussels. Antonella Zarra is a Research Assistant within the Regulatory Policy Unit at CEPS. CEPS gratefully acknowledges the Internet Society’s support for this research in providing both funding and data.
The report is also accessible on the Internet Society’s website at https://www.internetsociety.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/07/Meeting-Europes-Connectivity-Challenge-EN.pdf