Case Study

Connecting the most remote communities

Rhizomatica shows how the most remote communities can build their own communications networks

Connecting the most remote communities

Connect Humanity gets inspiration from communities around the world who are building their own internet networks. We wanted to share the work of our friends at Rhizomatica who are at the forefront of this movement. Learn more about their work at www.rhizomatica.org.

Across the globe, billions of people lack basic, affordable internet access — almost three billion have no connectivity at all. Rhizomatica is working to change this by working with communities to build and own internet and communication infrastructure to meet local needs.

Getting the internet to the world’s most remote communities.

Just 3% of people in the rural Amazon use the internet according to Brazilian telecoms regulatory agency Arcotel. Acre, a state in the Amazon rainforest in northwestern Brazil, is home to some of the world’s most isolated communities. It’s here that the technology now called HERMES (short for High-frequency Emergency and Rural Multimedia Exchange System) was first trialed and developed in 2015. This system uses high-frequency radio networks — a technology already used in the region — to deliver internet functionality.

Built with hardware that can fit inside a suitcase, the HERMES system uses a combination of existing protocols to allow people to send and receive email and voice messages, and transfer files, video, and data to others on the network, and to the global internet.

While HERMES falls short of delivering high-speed broadband internet, it is a leap beyond the high frequency radio networks currently used, which allow only real-time analog voice communications. The network’s solar powered devices are robust, reliable and cheap to run and they work at a range of hundreds of kilometers. This sustainable system offers huge benefits for communities that have traditionally had such limited connectivity.

From tackling illicit logging to managing a pandemic.

HERMES has been used in different ways, evolving to meet an ever-growing list of use-cases. For example, it has been used to counter external threats, with residents and activists using the technology to track and report illegal activities such as illicit logging. It was also used to raise the alarm about environmental risks such as forest fires, where speed can be a matter of life and death.

Other uses have come to the fore. For example HERMES became an important channel for markets and commerce, helping manage supply chains and provide market data on stock and prices for rural trading posts in the Brazilian amazon. Whereas voice over radio lacks privacy, the encryption provided by HERMES means people can send secure messages. Users have underlined the importance of this privacy to protect them from the threat of robbers and organized crime who frequently intercept radio communications to plan attacks.

Then, during the Covid-19 pandemic, HERMES became a lifeline, helping to coordinate resources within and between communities in line with Covid restrictions. It was used to orchestrate the delivery of aid across regions, share information about virus spread and mitigation and, like everywhere, it enabled people to stay connected while physically isolating.

“Technology created in cities in the Global North has failed to address the connectivity challenges people in rural areas around the world face. In places without viable connectivity options, it is crucial to design alternatives together with communities to ensure their needs are met.”

Peter Bloom, Rhizomatica Founder

Building with communities, not for them.

HERMES has now been deployed at 12 remote locations across Brazil and at seven sites across the Ecuadorian Amazon. Rhizomatica has made the architecture designs and software available for others to adopt, adapt, and deploy, free and open-source. Meanwhile, Rhizomatica continues to develop the HERMES system to make it more efficient, affordable and reliable.

The success of the project is in part due to Rhizomatica’s approach of working with communities, not for them. For a technology to really benefit people, it needs to be developed in line with their values, the way they live, and with a clear understanding of what they want and need. This is especially true with community-owned networks where the sustainability of the network depends on people’s trust and continued engagement. HERMES is a model project, demonstrating the success of developing alongside people in the community who can shape the project and learn the skills needed to maintain and scale the technology.

For more information about HERMES, visit: https://www.rhizomatica.org/hermes/

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