Creating Community Connectivity and Independence with AlterMundi

In 2020, we worked with the Association for Progressive Communications (APC) to identify 5 organizations working on projects that strengthen connectivity in their communities – in particular those responding to the COVID-19 crisis. We provided financial contributions to these 5 organizations for them to specifically address the fact that the pandemic has made digitalization and connectivity more necessary than ever before. This series of blogs introduces the organizations that we worked with and what they achieved with their projects.

Weaving the digital social fabric in Argentina

AlterMundi is an NGO based in Argentina that strives to unlock the power of peer-to-peer collaboration from a technological perspective. It is particularly committed to building wireless community networks in order to facilitate independence and self-reliance among these communities.

To this end, AlterMundi utilizes the innovative open hardware solutions LibreMesh and LibreRouter to create community mesh radio networks based on simple, accessible technologies which require little to no technical expertise to instal and operate. LibreRouter is a simple, robust system consisting of the router itself, antennae, cables and power sources. They are housed in Buenos Aires where they are tested and ready to be sent to communities to set up themselves.

Forming part of the Argentine Summit of Community Networks a.k.a CARC (carc.libre.org.ar), AlterMundi has much experience in promoting, building, and sustaining community internet networks.

A primary objective of the organization is to see the state adopt Internet Community Networks as a public policy. While much progress has been made in this regard, the pandemic has impacted progress as all public entities are under tremendous pressure to deal with the COVID-19 crisis.

Towards a digital policy for all

AlterMundi’s activism is in response to the state’s formal policy toward digital implementation, which neglects regions which have poor connectivity or none at all. For practical purposes, AlterMundi’s campaign focuses upon promoting network deployments in communities that have already initiated network projects but need to cover the cost of equipment to begin the deployment phase.

In this respect, those communities that have begun their journey toward digital independence are grateful for the financial backing of 48percent.org and the logistical support of AlterMundi. Aside from galvanizing communities with energy and hope, this combination of financial and strategic assistance has given the project – despite the adverse conditions – the opportunity to be brought to life.

AlterMundi believes that access to information and communication technology is a universal human right; one the state is obliged to guarantee. However, in reality, the government struggles to fulfil this obligation and it is the people themselves who take the initiative to ensure their needs are met and their rights protected.

This is most often the case in remote, rural or digitally marginalised areas. It is here that AlterMundi has stepped up to provide affordable communications solutions for communities overlooked by public policy. The success of these projects allows AlterMundi to provide palpable proof to the Argentine state that – especially in the context of the pandemic – community networks are the solution to technological and communicational independence.

Closing the digital divide

AlterMundi set out to facilitate connectivity in three communities in Argentina that were in a position to deploy their own community networks. The communities in that position that were identified were: San Vicente, Paraje Santa Cruz, Chepes, La Rioja; Red Gallo, Piedra Blanca, Córdoba and Nueva Esperanza, Cieneguillas, and Jujuy.

The projects were designed to meet three primary objectives. The first was to adapt AlterMundi’s deployment of wireless community networks to the current mandatory Argentinian lockdown conditions while the second was to provide hands-on guidance and support in completing the project in order to achieve the best possible network performance. Thirdly, the projects strengthen the political and regulatory advocacy promoted by CARC by providing conclusive proof that community networks must urgently become state policy in order to close the digital divide.

In San Vicente, members of the community became familiar with the LibreRouter equipment and how to assemble and activate it. The topography and distribution of households in the territory was explored to reach an optimal network design determining the placement of each node. Collaborating with the community, the mayor of San Vicente had the electricity company erect four tall poles upon which the community installed the LibreRouter nodes. They also deployed some wired connections and collected some home routers to extend the wi-fi signal to other homes near the nodes.

In Red Gallo, the community made exceptional progress by assembling, preparing and installing the LibreRouter nodes in a single day. A remarkable element of the project’s deployment here was the participation of young women: despite having had no formal technical training, they took to the task with great enthusiasm and quickly came to grips with its requirements.

The AlterMundi project in Red Nueva Esperanza has also achieved considerable success. Prior to the deployment of the community network, people had to go to the plaza or to the city center of La Quiaca in order to obtain a modicum of internet connectivity. But now, with the LibreRouters in place, they have been using the Internet to communicate with relatives; study; work; learn new techniques through self-teaching and to improve the manufacturing techniques of the products they sell to maintain their livelihoods.

Community recognition

The LibreRouter project is positive proof that technical skills are not an impediment to the digital self-sufficiency of communities excluded from formal government connectivity programs. Supplied with basic equipment, communities drew from their deep well of resourcefulness and tenacity and became their own agents of change. They gained invaluable learnings and experience in the process, with two or three members in each village surprising everyone with their hidden talent for network engineering.

On the government policy side, Argentina’s National Communications Agency recently published its initial regulation on community networks. This marks a historic moment as it is the first time that community networks have been recognised by the state. This resolution allows AlterMundi to request licences for non-profit operators who are exempt from payment of fees whilst re-affirming the importance of building, supporting and promoting community networks.

This represents a significant step forward in the recognition of digital community independence as an element of government policy. Although an important battle has been won, the pursuit of a comprehensive regulatory framework that understands, recognises and favours the emergence and development of community networks continues.

Towards community autonomy

These examples of the AlterMundi project in action demonstrate the fundamental need for equal access to the internet by everyone everywhere in the country. Without such access, one is prevented from working, learning, communicating, organising, socialising and keeping abreast of local and global news and developments.

The road towards full recognition by the state and civil society of the social and economic potential of digital community independence remains a long one. However there is growing awareness of the inherent advantages of this undertaking and increased recognition of AlterMundi as a key strategic partner in the ongoing efforts to connect the disadvantaged regions of Argentina.

The ultimate goal for AlterMundi is to see the communities who piloted the LibreRouter project – and the many more such communities they represent – to establish and maintain digital independence in order to connect and prosper. By eliminating dependence upon external assistance, communities can achieve fully connected integration with Argentinian society and the world at large.

Photo used by permission from Altermundi under a CC BY SA License