22 Apr 2022

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3 Min Read

Community Networks: Closing the Urban-rural Connectivity Gap

By iHub

In the last decade, the internet has transformed communication, business, education, and entertainment, among others. While internet penetration and technology adoption has skyrocketed, billions of people globally remain unconnected mainly due to the high cost of infrastructure. For instance, 48% of Kenyans, especially those living in rural, remote, sparsely populated, and low-income areas remain unconnected to mobile networks.

With the belief that access to the internet is a human right, the Technology & Society Practice at CcHUB/iHub explores opportunities to bridge the connectivity gap through research and knowledge sharing, influencing public policy, and digital literacy programs for vulnerable groups. One such intervention is our ‘Creating a More Inclusive ICT Space for People with Disabilities’ Project supported by SIDA. The Project’s main objectives are to; 

  1. build the capacity of disabled persons organizations (DPOs) in ICT accessibility advocacy and enhance linkages between disability and inclusion groups and civil society groups that work on technology access in Kenya; and 
  2. empower persons with disabilities in Kenya with digital skills to participate and contribute to e-government processes, understand their digital rights, and become self-reliant. 

Robust country-wide network access is needed for the success of such digital literacy programs. However, a wide connectivity gap exists in Kenya. 

The urban-rural connectivity gap was made apparent by the COVID-19 pandemic, which paralyzed learning and e-commerce. As connected areas were resilient in the face of change and uncertainty, unconnected areas couldn’t tap into this. An innovative approach is thus needed to broaden connectivity in the country. Government and other key stakeholders recognize the need to complement the coverage provided by commercial national network operators. This can be achieved through a diversity of social-purpose networks operated by local authorities, small businesses, NGOs and voluntary associations of users. These networks are commonly referred to as community networks (CNs).

Community networks utilize local ownership and management and leverage new low-cost electronic networking equipment. 

They offer key benefits including: 

  • Support of existing local economic and social activities, 
  • Promote building local capacities, creation, and distribution of locally relevant content.
  • Provide meaningful connectivity that is contextualized within local realities
  • Promote community engagement through initiatives such as digital literacy programs
  • Encourage liaison between local governments and local communities

Despite their ability to extend connectivity to rural communities, community networks are not as popular as they ought to be, mainly because of:

  • Limited awareness of the new opportunities to self-provide communications infrastructure
  • Regulatory barriers such as the high cost of bandwidth, access to spectrum and high licensing costs, and  
  • Human capacity constraints that are present, particularly in rural areas.

As the regulatory authority on the Kenyan communications sector, the Communications Authority of Kenya has demonstrated its commitment towards enabling community-based networks to broaden connectivity and accessibility in rural areas. It is working on integrating new license categories for community networks as well as reducing spectrum fees for underserved areas to remove the regulatory barriers that can impede the adoption of community networks. CAK seeks to strengthen collaborations with service providers to foster standards and regulatory inclusion. 

Map of Community Networks in Kenya. Source: APC

Currently, there are four pilot community projects in Kenya: TunapandaNET in Kibera, Lanet Umoja in Nakuru, Dunia Moja in Kilifi, and Aheri in Nyanza. The distribution is shown on the Kenyan map above. Since connecting educational institutions has been identified as a common need and priority area for communities, all these CNs connect learning institutions to support learners. The CNs utilize WiFi technologies using a license-exempt spectrum for lower equipment costs and availability. However, this exposes these community networks to congestion and signal interference challenges, thus lowering the connectivity quality. 

To alleviate these challenges, the licensing framework implements the following licencing requirements and fees: 

  1. Subsidized licensing fees for CNs include Ksh. 1000 for license application, Ks., 5000 for initial operating fees and an annual operating fee of Ksh. 5000. The license validity period is 10 years. This is subsidized, compared to the fees for other network providers as shown. 
License fees for network providers
  1. Application as a CN should be accompanied by two letters of support from community leaders to ensure community ownership. 

Raising awareness of innovative initiatives solving connectivity challenges is key to our mandate at CcHUB. Though discontinued, the Google Loon Project attempted to fill the connectivity gap using stratospheric balloons before facing various challenges. One of the Loons is displayed at iHub, Senteu Plaza, Kilimani, Nairobi and can be a learning opportunity for students and other interested stakeholders. Some of the challenges Google Loon sought to solve can be addressed through the Licensing and Shared Spectrum Framework for Community Networks. The Framework removes barriers and welcomes more locals, NGOs, and local governments to invest in community networks. By taking initiative, locals can collaborate with local governments and NGOs to set up the required infrastructure. Community Networks provide the opportunity to connect Kenyans in rural and remote areas to the global village.