Across the world there is a movement of people building, operating, and owning their own networks and digital infrastructure.
Community Connectivity Providers — such as community networks, municipal networks, and social enterprises — are connecting communities that have been left without the internet access they need to benefit from the digital revolution.
Community connectivity providers focus on meeting the digital needs of a community, rather than profit maximization, supplying internet access via the infrastructure that best suits the community’s needs.
They engage deeply with the communities they serve. The community may partially or wholly build, operate, or own the network.
CCPs may also provide services that make the internet more accessible, affordable, and relevant, such as digital skills programs, device access, telehealth and financial literacy tools.
CCPs can come from a range of governance models, including:
- Social enterprise
- Local private operator
Though traditional commercial networks have connected huge numbers of people to the internet, they are showing their limits. With three billion people living with no internet access and billions more without the fast, affordable internet they need, huge digital divides across and within countries have emerged. To connect the rest of humanity — particularly the low-income and rural communities that are disproportionately underserved — we need a new approach.
By communities, for communities.
Community connectivity providers can serve areas where incumbent operators will not. Designed to meet the digital needs of the communities they serve, these operators are proving themselves able to deliver faster speeds, at lower prices, and in communities that have so far been left out. In PC Magazine’s 2022 list of America's fastest internet providers, all but one of the top ten are community connectivity providers.
Local communities often care more, know more, and can do more than distant executives. They have different incentives and business models to traditional operators. Some of these community connectivity providers are owned by local residents. Others are privately owned, but community oriented. When your major stakeholders are local residents and officials rather than shareholders, you act and operate differently.
A holistic approach to digital equity.
Community connectivity providers see their primary goal as sustainably meeting the digital needs of local residents. This means they tackle digital equity holistically, thinking not only about access, but also affordability, adoption and local priorities. That's why they often include programs to build digital skills, cultivate workforce development so local residents benefit through high-skill jobs, and subsidize devices and data for those who otherwise can't afford them.
They are building solutions that give residents and businesses access to the connectivity they need to flourish — while keeping assets and wealth within communities.
Traditional Network Operators
- Centralized infrastructure
- Privately or state-owned
- Professional and top-down
- Knowledge concentration / specialization
- Substantial investment from commercial lenders
- No user participation in network design, deployment, operation
Community connectivity providers
- Socially focused & purpose-driven
- Localised: locally owned and operated
- Not-for-profit / cost-recovery model
- Grassroots / bottom-up
- Collective ownership
- Require capital from a range of funding sources
- Local residents involved throughout the life-cycle of the network
There are three broad categories of community connectivity providers.
Community networks are owned and operated by the local community of users and any profit is reinvested into the network, the community, or returned to members.
Case study - Zenzeleni Community Network
The remote village of Mankosi in South Africa’s East Cape is home to the county’s first community-owned internet service provider. Zenzeleni (translated as ‘do it yourself’ in isiXhosa) started in 2012 and was initially a local wireless intranet providing free voice services to the village’s almost 6,000 residents. It added an external internet connection and grew into a successful network.
Zenzeleni is made up of community cooperatives working under an umbrella non-profit company. The network is owned, operated and governed entirely by local community members who maintain the network and keep it safe. Hotspots and backbone nodes are hosted and secured by families and individuals. The network was initially funded through local and international grants, and now the cooperatives generate enough income to cover network bandwidth, replace infrastructure, and grow the network.
Today the network provides residents in Mankosi, Nomadolo and Zithulele with affordable, reliable internet access at the same speeds as those in the country’s urban centers. The cooperative has connected more than 13,000 people and 10 institutions, offering prices as much as 20 times lower than those offered by existing operators.
Municipal Networks are owned by the government within defined jurisdictions and any returns are used to service financial obligations or returned to government.
Case study - Ammon, Idaho
Today the 17,000 residents in the small midwestern US city of Ammon, Idaho have access to some of the fastest broadband and lowest prices in the United States.
This is the result of the City Council's decision to undertake an ambitious effort to build a municipal network to address the city's inadequate connectivity. Recognising that the market alone would not solve the problem, the city built an open access fiber network and invited internet providers to offer services using this shared infrastructure. By lowering the up-front investment required by operators, open access networks encourage more players to enter a market and compete for customers. This approach means operators do not need to take on the capital-intense work of digging roads and laying fiber which, because of the city's geography and low population-density, traditional providers decided was not worth doing.
Customers now have a choice between multiple operators and can switch providers instantly, thanks to the software-defined networking infrastructure. The result is that residents can login with gigabit speeds on plans priced as low as $9.99 a month. Moreover, community anchor institutions like schools, hospitals, libraries have seen bandwidth increase tenfold, enabling them to provide better services to residents. The city has also seen broad economic impacts as businesses have benefited from faster, more reliable broadband — underlining the substantial returns to public investment.
Social enterprises are double bottom line businesses that seek both financial and social returns, and any returns are reinvested for growth or returned to shareholders.
Case study - Net2Home
Net2Home is a social enterprise that evolved from a 2013 partnership between the Thai Network Information Center (THNIC) Foundation and intERLAB, Asian Institute of Technology (AIT). The project used a technology called DUMBO (Digital Ubiquitous Mobile Broadband OSLR) to create a network of mobile routers to provide internet access in the Samakkhee village in Tak province. Following this success, Net2Home was created to scale and expand low-cost mesh wireless networks to provide access to more villages.
The THNIC foundation now administers the network via local entrepreneur technicians who install and maintain the network infrastructure. These technicians receive a flat fee per month as well as incentives for installations and sign-ups. The network generates revenue from user-fees and has also received grants to help deploy infrastructure and to support volunteers to train local entrepreneurs in network technologies.
Today, Net2Home provides its services in 24 villages, with 1,200+ paying subscribers accessing the internet via 260+ mesh wireless nodes — and is expanding coverage to Suphanburi and Chiang Mai province. The cost of Net2Home's internet services is 2-3x cheaper than any local commercial ISP alternatives.
Why fund CCPs?
- CCPs operate in unserved and underserved communities where incumbent commercial operators do not.
- CCPs address market failures and serve nascent markets that commercial operators believe to be unprofitable.
- CCPs have demonstrated viable, alternative, low-cost strategies that are adaptable to local context and can scale.
- CCPs prioritize locally owned and operated projects that retain value within the community, create local employment, and support self-reliance.
Community connectivity providers have the flexibility and incentive structures that are best placed to connect the communities that traditional operators have underserved. To connect everyone, we need to reimagine how the internet is built and invest in the providers getting the job done.
This content is based on the Financing Mechanisms for Locally Owned Infrastructure report.
This content was created in partnership between the Association of Progressive Communications (APC), Connect Humanity, Connectivity Capital, and the Internet Society. To find out more and read the full report, visit connecthumanity.fund/report-financing-ccps/