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Community-led networks democratize web

In 2012, six teenagers and young adults from the Ochiichagwe’Babigo’Ining Ojibway Nation in Ontario – tired of having little internet connectivity on their rural tribal lands – took matters into their own hands. A year later, they launched the First Nations community ISP, offering high speed, unlimited bandwidth broadband service for $40 a month to anyone who wants it.

This is one of the best examples of a rural indigenous community forging its own path to the network, but it’s certainly not the only one.

Community internet networks like this – DIY infrastructures created by and for groups of individual citizens to meet their own communications needs – are increasingly being built and employed as an effective and affordable connectivity option in regions where the geography is a challenge and internet service is either nonexistent or big service providers have too little competition to be affordable.

On the Eastern Cape of South Africa, in Mankosi, one community created its own telephone and internet company. In Guerroro, Mexico, another community built a wireless network that provides access to emergency resources. And in Chanderi, India, internet connectivity and education through the Wireless for Communities project has fostered micro-enterprises that have helped household incomes double since 2010.

This community networking movement is an important one to all of us. At its most basic, the internet brings health care and educational options to people in underserved areas. But in the right hands, it can also spark ideas, innovation and economic development that can reverberate with opportunity across entire regions.

What this means is that if the internet isn’t in the hands of everyone, we’re missing genius – and nowhere does that potential loss feel more acute than in a place as culturally rich, and creatively prolific, as New Mexico.

So how far do we have to go? According to the Federal Communications Commission’s most recent Broadband Progress Report, 10 percent of all Americans lack access to quality, high-speed internet, compared to 4 percent of urban Americans. This number jumps to 39 percent for rural Americans. The divide is even more stark for those living on tribal lands, where 41 percent lack access to high-speed internet, and 68 percent living on rural tribal lands don’t have internet access at all.

Just as technology has played an ongoing and irrefutable role in bridging cultural and economic divides, the lack of technology has the opposite effect. It’s now more urgent than ever to recognize that if we are going to be able to build a digital future that benefits everyone, we need to embrace new ways of working and new ways of thinking about the issue of internet connectivity. We need to consider community networks as an option within reach, and we need new ways of sharing information and best practices about building them.

We’re taking an important step in that direction with the Indigenous Connectivity Summit (this Wednesday and Thursday), Nov. 8-9. Presented by the Internet Society, in partnership with its newly launched New Mexico Chapter, New Mexico Techworks, the 1st-Mile Institute and the First Mile Connectivity Consortium, the summit will bring indigenous people from around the world together to share how they have successfully built and utilized networks in their own communities – on their own terms.

The free two-day event at the Hotel Santa Fe will facilitate dialogue between community network managers/operators, indigenous-owned internet service providers, community members, researchers, policy makers and indigenous leadership. Dialogue will address building and using a network, with topics including using digital platforms for cultural preservation. And while the goal is to support increased network access for indigenous communities, anyone interested in building a network is welcome.

Through community-led networks, we can finally democratize connectivity in the United States, and there’s no better place than New Mexico to serve as the catalyst.

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