APNIC celebrates 30 years: Part 8 — The Information Society Innovation Fund

By on 15 Dec 2023

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ISIF Asia grantees participating in the APrIGF 2023 with APNIC Foundation Acting CEO Sylvia Cadena (second from left).

The origins of Internet development grants

The story of APNIC’s last 30 years wouldn’t be complete without mentioning the Information Society Innovation Fund (ISIF Asia).

The origins of ISIF Asia can be traced back to the 1990s to the Pan Asia Networking (PAN) Program by Canada’s International Development Research Centre (IDRC). The PAN Program initiative was among the earliest grant programs in the world to distribute Internet development grants.

APNIC joined as a partner in 2001 along with other organizations, which included the Internet Society, Microsoft, the Asia Pacific Development Information Program and the Asian Media Information and Communication Centre over the years.

This shared grant fund became known as the ICT R&D Grants Program for Asia and the Pacific. Its goal was to identify and support promising and innovative ICT projects via a competitive application process for grants of around USD 20,000 each.  

The ICT R&D Grants Program for Asia and the Pacific ceased operations in 2005 but discussions were underway to transfer its management to APNIC.

By 2008, it was ready to launch under a new name: The Information Society Innovation Fund (ISIF) Asia. The name was chosen to explicitly link with the UN’s World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS).

APNIC Director General Paul Wilson credited Maria Ng Lee Hoon of IDRC for the original vision to establish this fund, and her insight into its potential and challenges.

“As Maria cautioned at the time, it would not be easy to oversee so many simultaneous small grants, including their financial administration and reporting requirements. Maria was absolutely correct, but I’m proud to say that these days at APNIC Foundation, we have good systems and the expertise to manage an efficient program. For that I give full credit to Sylvia Cadena, who has steered and evolved the fund to having big impacts across our whole region, while still operating on a very slim budget,” Paul said.

Over the years, ISIF Asia’s support crystallized into three key areas — InfrastructureInclusion, and Knowledge. With the establishment of the APNIC Foundation in 2017, when ISIF Asia was transferred to the APNIC Foundation (Foundation), these three areas also became the underpinnings for its three programs. During that time, the Foundation’s support for development projects in the region has grown from around USD 200,000 to over USD 2,000,000 per year in contributions to a wide range of activities, including larger scale-up grants, IPv6 deployment grants, and the ISIF Asia Awards.

ISIF Asia’s goal, then and now, is to support innovations in the Asia Pacific that contribute to Internet development. So far, ISIF Asia has supported 145 grants and 34 awards allocating over USD 9.4M across 32 economies.

Tracing the path of an ISIF Asia grantee

In 2008, APNIC held a workshop in Hyderabad, India, to help people prepare submissions to the Internet Governance Forum (IGF). It was also assisting potential projects in making applications to the newly formed ISIF Asia fund.

One of the workshop attendees was Michael Ginguld, who became one of the first ISIF Asia grant recipients and in the following year would be involved in the founding of Indian ISP Airjaldi.

Image of 2008 ISIF Asia workshop participants.
Figure 1 — Participants in the 2008 ISIF Asia proposals workshop held around the IGF in Hyderabad, India. In the back row, centre, are Foundation acting CEO Sylvia Cadena and APNIC Director General Paul Wilson. Michael Ginguld is in the front row, centre.

Now Airjaldi’s Director of Operations, Michael explains how the grants supported their work on connectivity in India.

“Throughout our years of joint work and different project work (and we were thrice recipients of project funding), we witnessed a number of common traits to our partnership with ISIF Asia and the APNIC Foundation. One was a genuine desire to support innovative ideas, even at the risk of these not always fully succeeding. There was also great flexibility and willingness to revise programs during the implementation stage based on experiences gained and a direct, no-frills approach to a funder-implementor relationship,” Michael said.

“These three principles are what enabled us to test new approaches to network optimization and novel ways to provide high-speed Internet to remote areas. They also achieved what any impact investment hopes to achieve — they opened the path to the implementation of these ideas at scale.”

Since their first grant, Airjaldi has expanded to nine states in India and dramatically expanded their operations, while keeping the focus on connectivity for rural and remote areas. Airjaldi’s cooperation with ISIF Asia continues today — in 2019 they worked towards resolving rural power issues of wireless Internet relays and in 2021 they helped bridge existing infrastructure to reach users in the mostly rural state of Arunachal Pradesh with fast and affordable Internet services.

In 2023, Michael joined a panel at the Asia Pacific Regional Internet Governance (APrIGF 2023) that discussed the experiences of those who’ve been hands-on in different types of community networks and projects that improve connectivity in the Asia Pacific.

A group of ISIF Asia grantees discuss their experiences with networks at APrIGF 2023.

ISIF Asia today

ISIF Asia grants remain focused on small-scale projects or aim to be a catalyst for something larger.

“A lot of Internet development at scale is about efficiency for universal service / public utility scale concern,” explains APNIC Senior Research Scientist and former ISIF Asia selection committee member George Michaelson. “That can’t be addressed by a program like ISIF Asia; its state development scale. But some things fall between the cracks in the build-out of national networks, specific groups who can become marginalized, or whose existing life in the margins is only magnified by the digital divide, George said.

Over the years, the fund has empowered researchers and practitioners in the Asia Pacific region to advocate at regional and global forums. This has been crucial in gaining support for their capacity development efforts and attracting funding.

Although the fund has supported IPv6 projects since 2009, it wasn’t until 2022 that grantees could apply for grants exclusively for IPv6 projects.

In 2022, ISIF Asia also introduced grants that focus on the Internet and the environment. These grants were structured to honour the legacy of environmentalist, community access activist and Internet pioneer, Ian Peter.

The Foundation was fortunate to have a conversation with Ian about how it could structure a funding opportunity to support initiatives that were at the intersection of Internet access and environmental activism — the areas he was most passionate about.

The APNIC Foundation was also the recipient of Ian Peter’s papers and personal archives when he passed away in 2021 and is currently working towards their analysis and preservation.

ISIF Asia also gives awards to recipients who have advanced Internet development, supporting endeavours such as village-level connectivity initiatives in Timor Leste, a threat sharing platform built on a honeynet in Indonesia, and most recently, Internet development via Internet Exchange Points (IXPs) in Pakistan, Myanmar, and Malaysia.

The awards were on hiatus during COVID-19 but returned in 2022. One of those awardees was Ulrich Speidel, a researcher with the University of Auckland, who had been the recipient of ISIF Asia grants.

“Sometimes very strange opportunities come knocking! One example was around a decade ago when my then PhD student ‘Etuate Cocker suggested that we apply to ISIF Asia to support our research. We did, and got rejected — on this occasion for formal reasons,” Ulrich recalled.

“But then something very usual happened: ISIF Asia got back to us and said ‘We actually liked your proposal and want you to reapply!’ They then helped us get it into a shape that allowed them to fund us in the next round. And it made all the difference.”

“This was the start of a journey that funded several projects centred around the theme of network coding and supported the work of several graduate students along the way,” Ulrich said.

By the community, for the community

ISIF Asia has long relied on community support, whether it was funding or simply experts giving their valuable time.

To ensure that funding applications are assessed independently, a selection committee of technical experts reviews the applications and issues recommendations for the most deserving ones based on a publicly available set of criteria.

This team of experts is willing to contribute their time, questions, and expertise on a volunteer basis. George Michaelson shared his experience on the ISIF Asia selection committee.

“We had multiple criteria we assessed applicants on, including their ‘road ready’ status, their prior experience with grant-funded work, what evidence there is for the outcome they were proposing, the mixture of capital, operational and travel spend proposed, what were the proposed benefits, and what other work was evident in the field. At least three of us considered every application inside a system ISIF Asia provided on the web and we did multiple rounds of ranking,” George explained.

ISIF Asia has also had a variety of funders across the years, with outstanding long-term commitments from IDRC and the Swedish International Development Agency (SIDA), as well as more recently, the Asia Pacific Internet Development Trust (APIDT).

Despite the successes, the work is far from complete and will benefit from greater community input.

“At this time, I do hope that others — APNIC Members and other institutions — take an interest in ISIF Asia, look at its many successes, and join us to help scale up further. Supporting ISIF Asia will help regional researchers initiate new and exciting projects, and nurture existing ones to further success,” APNIC Director General Paul Wilson said.

Sylvia Cadena responds to a question during the 2023 ISIF Asia awards at the IGF 2023.

The quotes in this article were sourced from private communications. Some have had minor edits for clarity.

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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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