Empowering local communities to build, maintain and expand their Community Network

By on 20 Apr 2018

Categories: Community, Development

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What does a doctor who visits a village once per week and a city-dwelling child who is unwilling to visit his village-living grandparents have in common? The answer: they both need Internet connectivity.

Sarantaporo is a small village located opposite Mt Olympus, in central Greece. Until 2010, it did not have Internet connectivity. Being a remote, isolated village with low population density, Greek telcos did not consider Sarantaporo worth the investment to deploy modern telecommunications infrastructure. Likewise, the government (due to its economic situation) was unable to provide Internet connectivity, even though Greek citizens are required to use online services such as TAXISnet — the official state-run digital platform — to submit their tax returns.

The case of Sarantaporo.gr Wireless CN

In this gap between the State and the Market, a citizens’ initiative was born. The Sarantaporo.gr team set a goal to provide Internet connectivity to the local community by deploying a local infrastructure as a commons. This was the beginning of the Sarantaporo.gr Wireless Community Network (CN).

Read: TakNet – Community networking in Thailand

The first mesh network was built in Sarantaporo in 2010, comprising approximately 15 mesh routers providing open Internet access to locals and visitors. During the next three years, the Sarantaporo.gr team was asked to replicate the mesh network in 14 more villages in the region.

In 2013, the Sarantaporo.gr Non-Profit Organization was established, envisioning

“a lively, creative, booming and solidary Greek province, which provides its people with opportunities and motivation to stay in their birthplace, and enjoy a flourishing life in a sustainable and environmentally friendly manner”.

Towards this Vision, the Mission we set upon ourselves is

to eradicate digital divide and provide local communities with equal opportunities for access to the digital economy and citizenship”.

Bridging the digital divide

Early on we realized that bridging the digital divide in our rural region demanded a two-pillar approach: build the infrastructure and educate local communities.

Building infrastructure

Using redundant wireless point-to-point links — the longest of which is around 30km — we transfer the bandwidth to the villages where it is consumed via the access layer.

The infrastructure we build comprises of two layers: the backbone and the access. The backbone interconnects 11 villages, three farms and one camp with the University of Applied Sciences (TEI) of Thessaly, which provides a 1GB/s backhaul. Using redundant wireless point-to-point links — the longest of which is around 30km — we transfer the bandwidth to the villages where it is consumed via the access layer.

The access layer comprises of dual-band mesh routers and point-to-point (internal) links. Each village has its own access layer. The number of access layer nodes varies between villages, between 10 and 20. The equipment is accommodated in locals’ houses (node-owners).

We chose to build the infrastructure as a ‘commons’: a common good open to everyone and managed and maintained in a collaborative manner. Engaging local communities in the CN was the only feasible and sustainable approach to maintaining a wireless telecommunications infrastructure in this remote area.

Developing capacity

Training extends from basic computer usage for the local inhabitants of the region to advanced networking issues.

The second pillar is education and training. Training extends from basic computer usage for the local inhabitants of the region to advanced networking issues for members of the Sarantaporo.gr. The sustainability aspect is of great importance to the overall project: training people who will be able to train others in their village or neighbouring villages.

Our intervention in the region has provided local communities with a modern communication infrastructure that strengthens the community bonds with remote relatives and friends. At the same time, the CN is a community per se, which needs to be nurtured to be sustainable. Collaboratively building our CN, sharing knowledge and planning in a participative manner are the building blocks of our approach to achieving this.

Gaining insights

A diverse group of more than 50 local community members are currently actively engaged in Sarantaporo.gr CN. They create social impact and add local value by maintaining a high-quality service, which they can deliver (and expand) where and when they need it.

Relevance with local needs is what motivates them: the need to have their medicines prescribed, to create motivation for their grandchildren to visit them, to be able to communicate with relatives abroad, to access markets in other regions. And all of this in a reliable, affordable manner.

Being engaged and trained, they are forming a community within which they share knowledge and experience. At the same time, they become aware of issues such as privacy, personal data, and online security. Being informed and knowledgeable about such issues is transforming local community members from frustrated customers to empowered, participating community members who take pride in contributing.

Inspiring results

Through the CN, social cohesion is being enhanced in many different ways, both at a micro- and macro-level. Elders are learning to use teleconference services to keep in contact with remote relatives, local festivities are being live-streamed to members of the diaspora, (grand)children visit their (grand)parents more often in the village; and stay longer.

All this provides the local economy with a much-needed digital boost. Farmers are using the Web to discover new markets for their products, find new suppliers, and gain access to the trove of knowledge and information that lives in the digital realm. On top of this, our CN provides a first-class infrastructure to deploy smart farming solutions.

Local community members are becoming increasingly aware of all this potential and work together to broaden the scope of our CN. The value lies not only in Internet connectivity but also in the community itself. Knowledge sharing and support among the CN members are now part of our daily routines.

Last, but not least, access to digital citizenship offers the opportunity to break geographical isolation and engage in society, politics, and government.

If you are interested in learning more about our work, leave a comment below or contact us at info@sarantaporo.gr.

Vasilis Chryssos (@vchryssos) is a member and administrator of Sarantaporo.gr NPO.

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The views expressed by the authors of this blog are their own and do not necessarily reflect the views of APNIC. Please note a Code of Conduct applies to this blog.

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