It has been years now that the 2,500 residents of Talea, Mexico are asking providers to install telephone lines. They are still waiting, their wishes not addressed by providers. One day, they hear about Rhizomatica, a company that helps with the creation and set-up of independent local phone networks.  The whole village gathered to make a decision. They invested their money in an antenna, installed it, and a network was born.

Out of range, out of mind

The network was created in 2013. Since then, 63 Mexican cities have connected to a network, which is between 3,000, and 4,000 people that had never had access to a working phone or the internet. Is this a minority? Not really: “A billion live without access to a phone network. And 3.5 billion people have no internet access, which is half the planet.”, explains Carlos Rey Moreno, communications engineer for the Association for Progressive Communication (APC). According to a 2017 International Telecommunication Union report, the majority of those that are disconnected live in Africa and the Asia-Pacific area.

Rhizomatica did not set up in Mexico on a whim: “We have counted between 15 and 20 million people without access to a network.” explains Rhizomatica’s founder Peter Bloom. Some parents have to walk several miles in order to call their children who have left for the U.S., and can only do so for a few minutes as the cost can be $1.25 a minute (a little over a euro), a high price for modest villagers. In case of medical emergency, the same issue arises.

We live in a system adapted to the bigger population numbers. It is useful for the majority, but we must not forget to implement a case by case system. Because, if half the world is lacking internet access, it is because half the world is not seen as commercially viable.” Indeed, as Peter explains, the market leaders of network companies are not interested in places inhabited by less than 5,000 people. However, in the state of Oaxaca, Mexico, 53% of the population live in communities of less than 2,500 people. These communities are generally poor and secluded, meaning that they do not represent a commercial advantage for providers like Telcel or Movistar. Furthermore, these companies are not legally-bound to set-up networks there. “They brush them aside.”, concludes Peter.

The network of an entire community

Peter Bloom created Rhizomatica, a system of local micro-networks, in 2009. “Our biggest network covers 750 mobiles, the smallest is in a village of 200 strong and covers 40 residents.” For telephone providers “The roads to these places are hard to navigate, there is no electrical infrastructure, it’s far from their office in case of breakdown. Their business is not adapted for that kind of work.” Rhizomatica found an alternative: it trains the residents, works to take care of their equipment, find cheaper ways by basing themselves on technology that transmits radio waves, “and at the same time, we have less costs: no communicator’s wages, no business rent… Taking these factors into account, it only costs us 10% of what it would cost a provider.

When they want to set-up a network, communities get together to decide the price they will spend and who will be network technician. Installations cost between $7,000 and $10,000, and ways to fund them vary. “Residents either pool their money together, or relatives living in the U.S. send them money, but they can also ask for government aid.” However, the best way to go about it is if everyone puts in their own money as it gives people more of a reason to take look after the network.

This system pays returns your investment in 3 years maximum with an average network cost of 1.76 euros per month. In fact, residents have free unlimited local calls, nothing to pay if they are called from other regions, and only pay between 1 and 4 cents if they call another Mexican phone or U.S. phone.  “At the end of the month this plan gives them a bill of around 3 euros.” – a sum which defies all competition. “If there is a problem, people put pressure on technicians as they are paying customers. Which turns into motivation, and people are able to resolve issues by themselves.” For very serious issues, Rhizomatica sends a team to intervene “but this happens exceptionally.

The technologies used already exist but are diverted to a local network. “For the moment we are working in 2G but want to start working in 4G, because the world is changing and the people with it.

Wifi for all

If we are talking phone network, it is only big companies that have access to the mobile spectrum in most countries and can thus provide network access.” explains Carlos. In Mexico, Rhizomatica has been able to get access to some of the mobile spectrum, but this is not the case for the majority of countries in the southern hemisphere. The South African company Zenzelini has, for example, not been able to create its own network as all the radio waves have already been sold to providers.  

After a test conducted in 2017, Carlos Rey Moreno proved that Vodacom and MTN, two of the biggest network providers, were not using the full spectrum available to them – and added to his results a request for the available spectrums to be used for community networks. “The idea is the same as if you had a holiday home that was free year-round and the government asked you to lend it to people that had no home. It’s difficult enough as the government has to find an agreement with providers. So they are supporting us and what we are doing, but in a different way.” Concerning his request for Vodacom and MTN’s spectrums, he does not want to hope too much, but he is allowing himself a wry smile.

With wifi, on the other hand, it’s easier. Nothing stops you from having a home router, creating your own network, and setting up internet points around it.” Zenzelini brings internet to communities and is waiting for phone networks. In May last year, Sandra Ndabeni-Abrahams, South Africa’s Minister of Telecommunications, made an unexpected anouncement. In a program baptised “Building the 4th Industrial Revolution Army”, the government anounced that it will “collaberate with Cape Town’s University of the Western Cape and Zenzelini Networks Mankosi to deliver an internet connexion accessible to the rural communities of the East Cape.

Carlo adds that, “a Zenzelini rate is 20 times cheaper than any other propositions on the current market”. What about network quality? “The quality is better. If we were a big provider, we would not seek to solve small problems. Here, as soon as there is an issue, the community rushes to resolve it.

Reasonable use

According to Peter Bloom, providers do not see him and others as competition. “I think they don’t really know what to make of us. We wok within areas that have no interest for them, and so we are not competitors. What is more, we actually bring them activity as more people call using their network. Perhaps from an ethical point of you we are disturbing them as we show that they do not help people without money… but that’s it.

However, there are just as many people that are having difficulties in this highly connected world. “We are working with indigenous peoples. Everything is explained to them, notably the dangers of acculturation that exist in connecting to a worldwide network. After that, some of them decide that they are unsure and wait. Of course, we understand their decision. It is their choice, not ours.” explains Peter Bloom. That is why, by bringing them 2G, Rhizomatica is ensuring that they are trained to use Facebook or Google in a reasonable way, all the while keeping their information safe. Peter smiles: “And what if, with our experience, we could bring them the positive aspects of the web, all the while decreasing its negative aspects?

Carlos works with the APC to spread the knowledge and use of this local network model. He recently came back from Ethiopia where the Internet Society NGO, a firm that shares a similar mission, held the “African Chapters Advocacy Meeting”. Its purpose: to assemble the different chapters (local initiatives that work for the development of community networks) and facilitate their common workload, and also to speak to politicians and spread knowledge of this system. “There was a great lack of conscience at this level for many years. Everyone, including directors, thought that only providers could grant access to these services.”, explains Carlos. “But for three years now, actions like those of Zenzelini and Rhizomatica are merging, people speak up to governments, international and national organisations alike. Today, we can prove to them that an alternative is possible.

To convince politicians and officials to give them spectrum, Peter explains that he “speaks of course about the economic point of view and the geographical point of view. It’s what they want to hear. But for the people, the most important thing is to be able to speak to their loved ones. Their kids or family who have gone to the United States or who are off studying… After all, is it not life’s goal to be close to those we love?”