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Ensuring local ownership for community networks in Pakistan

Photos by Internet Society and used with permission.

Rising Voices (RV) is partnering with the Association for Progressive Communications (APC) which produced the 2018 Global Information Society Watch (GISWatch) focusing on community networks defined as “communication networks built, owned, operated, and used by citizens in a participatory and open manner.” Over the next several months, RV will be republishing versions of the country reports highlighting diverse community networks from around the world.

This country report was written by Naveed Haq of Wireless for Communities Pakistan. Please visit the GISWatch website for the full report which is also available under a CC BY 4.0 license.

One of the key obstacles to improving internet penetration in rural and remote areas is last-mile connectivity. The lack of commercial viability, as well as huge network roll-out costs, worry operators who are reluctant to make the necessary investments. Although mobile broadband has emerged as an excellent alternative to wired last-mile connections, its usage is heavily weighed to benefit urban and semi-urban areas, rather the rural lands.

For example, in Pakistan, even with over 74.21% mobile penetration, only 28.14% of the population uses broadband internet. In villages – where more than 55% of the population lives – the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority told us that internet usage is likely to be less than 8%.

Community networks are proven to be an excellent way to address the gap in last-mile internet connectivity for underserved communities.

Wireless for Communities (W4C) Pakistan is part of a larger community network programme managed by the Internet Society (ISOC) in Asia-Pacific, together with its partner organisations in India, Pakistan and Nepal. The programme involves deploying line-of-sight wireless technology and low-cost Wi-Fi equipment to create community-owned and operated wireless networks.

Established in December 2015, our pilot community network is situated in “Chak-5 Faiz”. “Chak” is a term used for a scattered community that includes multiple small villages. Chak-5 Faiz is located 25 km from the city of Multan.

The network

Unlike the traditional, “top-down” commercial approach, in a community network environment, deployment starts from the end-user or the “last mile”. However, your network does require reliable backhaul connectivity (either wired or wireless) in order to carry packets to and from the global internet. Typically, a telephone company or internet service provider (ISP) offers backhaul bandwidth.

To keep our operational costs at a minimum and to ensure robust backhaul, we preferred to partner with an existing local ISP to build our community network. This approach would not only save network running costs, but also minimise respective regulatory and/or policy processes including registration, licensing and compliance.

COMSATS Internet Services (CIS), established in 1996 as a pioneer ISP in Pakistan, is our local partner, providing a dedicated 10 mbps bandwidth for our community network, as well as on-ground technical support through its network engineers.

Our community network is centred around a 55-metre-high tri-pole tower holding sector antennas which gives a two-kilometre area of coverage in a scattered community comprising several small villages and local schools. The tower acts as base station, linking clients through both the 2.4 GHz and 5.8 GHz frequency bands – these are categorised as “free or unlicensed spectrum” in Pakistan, meaning that they can be used by anyone without having a licence or paying a fee. Following a point-to-multipoint (P2MP) topology, the base station broadcasts to several receiving antennas using time-division multiplexing for maximising bidirectional traffic flow over longer distances.

The base station set-up also includes network management devices to distribute the total allocated bandwidth (10 mbps) to connected clients. These management devices also control the overall network access through MAC addresses and usernames/passwords. The access control is implemented to ensure optimum usage of this community network and prevent an open public Wi-Fi environment.

Connecting the community

Following the deployment of core network infrastructure, our next goal was to connect the community. In order to try to maximise the 10 mbps bandwidth, we conducted a community survey to gauge the wireless signal strengths as well as the needs of the community.

Our survey identified a local government school for girls located within the network range. The school had a non-functional internet connection, running over a telephone line that had been disconnected for months. The school computer lab was equipped with computers – but because there was no internet nor teaching staff trained in computers, most of the machines were sheltered in beautiful protective covers that had rarely been removed. The situation was a bit ironic and sad: despite having computers, the school girls were not able to use the internet.

Photos by Internet Society and used with permission.

Since this is a government school, we first had to secure permission from the local district education department – this was given instantly. While we were installing the equipment, including a wireless antenna, the students were heard whispering with joy: “These people have come to connect us with the internet.” Yes, the internet is a luxury and still a dream to many! According to a recent International Monetary Fund (IMF) report, Pakistan is among the top eight countries where the majority of the population cannot access or afford the internet.

The connectivity for the school was established in a few hours and the whole computer lab was provided with internet access – our first client for our community network. After this the school started running computer and internet classes once a week.

We also found that a local polytechnic institute offering courses in agriculture technology needed connectivity. Agriculture constitutes the largest sector of Pakistan’s economy. The majority of the population, directly or indirectly, is dependent on this sector. It contributes about 24% to the country's gross domestic product (GDP), accounts for half of the employed labour force, and is the largest source of foreign exchange earnings.

The primary purpose of this institute is to organise diploma courses on agriculture sciences and promote research on agriculture matters. Here, again, we came to know that a computer lab exists, but that due to limited internet connectivity both students and staff were not able to perform basic internet functions such as email. The students had no choice but to rely on places outside their institute to complete assignments, either at their homes or at internet cafés in the nearby city.

Our community network project was warmly welcomed by the institute. They later told us that the first thing they did when they got connected was to open a Facebook accountOwning the network

The most important element to achieve the desired success from a community network is the ownership of the community network by the connected community. It is very important to ensure that those who are connected value the network and online services – in our case, supplementary educational content – provided over it. Community ownership of the network is also critical to ensuring the sustainability of the network, which in many cases can be large, complex, costly, and potentially fragile.

In the case of our community network, where operational costs are at a bare minimum (due to the in-kind contribution of backhaul bandwidth as well as technical support from our partner ISP), the prospect of the network being sustainable is greater. However, equally important is that users get to understand that the internet can be used for more than just browsing, sending emails and making free Skype calls. The sustainability of a community network is also about getting the community to understand the “value add” that the internet can offer.

Community training

For the first six months after providing our three clients with internet, we just let them use it in any way they wanted to. A team of engineers from our partner ISP would make monthly visits to resolve any technical issues, and also to get regular input/feedback from the community. Yes, there were instances when wireless router cables were accidentally unplugged, resulting in a panic. These regular visits included basic troubleshooting exercises for users so that they could begin to resolve minor issues themselves.

Now, more than two years since deployment, the network has never had a major breakdown – our antennas and equipment operate under the supervision of the community, and users in the connected village have bought an uninterruptible power supply (UPS) unit to keep the internet running during power load shedding hours.

Photos by Internet Society and used with permission.

To develop the capacity of community members further, as well as to demonstrate the added value of the internet, we provided training to the school girls, students at the polytechnic institute and community members in the connected village. This training was designed using the “train the trainer” methodology – we train community members and build the capacity of a local trainer, who then can train others in the community, gradually reducing dependency on us.

The training of the school girls, who were in the 10-14 years age group, was about how to apply the internet in their learning processes. We had some interesting discussions with the girls and, yes, it is true that girls (especially in rural areas) lack ownership, access and control over the use of technology, in addition to cultural barriers that they face. Some of the girls have computers in their homes, but the males in their families do not allow them to use them. They also do not have permission to use mobile phones.

Because their exposure to the internet was very limited, it was imperative to include training material that offers a basic understanding of how the internet works and what it can offer.

The training provided to the polytechnic institute was about using the internet in agriculture research and studies. We also provided training to staff on advanced-level computer usage that helped them run a community training course for local residents using their computer lab.

The training provided to the village community was on retrieving useful information about crops, weather conditions and farming practices that can improve their harvest – wheat and cotton are two key crops in the area.

At this point, we have completed two different training sessions with the groups. We have produced 10 trainers who are ready to deliver their first training sessions in September and October.

Training sessions at the school, at the polytechnic institute and in the village. Photos by Internet Society and used with permission.

Online supplementary education

Last year, after analysing bandwidth usage patterns, we saw an opportunity for running a small online project using unused bandwidth. Our desire was to do something that not only improves the use of our community network, but also brings value to the community.

The quality of education in Pakistan’s rural areas is not up to the mark in comparison to urban and semi-urban areas. The 2015 “Education for All” review report by UNESCO and Pakistan's Ministry of Education lists the poor quality of education as one of the key challenges in Pakistan. The report further points to the poor quality of teaching due to an acute shortage of well-trained and motivated teachers.

Starting phase three of our community network project, we decided to run an interesting online test project offering supplementary education for the school girls. This project would provide extra academic help to school students to help them achieve a better understanding of their study material. Our objective was not to disturb their regular classes, but rather to design a different learning experience that complements their existing courseware.

To do this, we needed school teachers who preferably had experience in running an online class environment. The other requirement was to get approval from the district education department, since the permission we had was to connect the school to the internet only. This time we were also well received by the government department, and approval was given in a couple of days.

We ended up partnering with TeleTaleem, a local commercial organisation experienced in tele-education. They delivered real-time, online lectures on English, mathematics and science for three months to grade six girls. The classes were completed a month before their final examination.

Figure 1. Online classes baseline vs end-line scores

To record the impact, a baseline assessment was carried out before the course started and an end-line assessment was performed at the course end. The overall impact assessment results (see the graph in Figure 1) are really encouraging, with a substantial improvement in mathematics and science.

This truly was a great experience for us in capitalising on the potential of the community network, and moving beyond just access. We have plans to run similar classes this year too, as well as offering online classes to the polytechnic institute in the near future.

Conclusion

According to the UN Internet Governance Forum Dynamic Coalition on Community Connectivity:

Community networks […] are a way to develop future business by creating “digitally savvy” communities, hungry for more local content and additional services. These often are not super high-tech networks. They serve a local community-driven purpose to connect within and to connect from the village or community “out”. They might be local open-source 2G solutions, or Wi-Fi mesh solutions using license-free spectrum. The aim is to build capacity for both the demand and the supply of digital tools.

In countries like Pakistan, where around 70% of the population is still not online, community-owned networks are not widely seen as a way to bridge the digital divide and achieve internet access for all. While the country's Universal Service Fund Company has embarked on projects to improve broadband connectivity in rural areas, the digital divide remains. It is not uncommon for villagers to have to walk two kilometres to get online, like the villagers in Chak-5 Faiz had to before we arrived.

For more information regarding action steps for Pakistan, please visit the full report on the GISWatch website.

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