To bridge Asia’s growing digital divide, help DIY community networks to flourish

South China Morning Post 發布於 2019年08月25日07:08 • Rajnesh Singh
  • Built and operated by communities themselves, DIY networks are a low-cost way of getting rural areas online. Governments can support this with regulation and innovative approaches to spectrum licensing
Since 2002, rural internet entrepreneur Mahabir Pun and his team have been bringing community networks to rural Nepal, connecting dozens of villages to Wi-fi. The crux of the project is this relay station high above the Budi Gandaki valley, close to the entrance to Tsum Valley. Photo: Retailnewsasia.com

For many of us, a slow internet connection is annoying, a slow-loading screen or a frozen app is unbearable and going without the internet for just a few hours is unthinkable.

Yet, for almost half the world's population, the internet is simply unavailable. To them, internet access, never mind its speed, presents not just connectivity but new opportunities in life.

The digital divide is particularly stark in the Asia-Pacific, which has some of the best and increasingly connected societies in the world " Taiwan, Singapore, Japan, Hong Kong, and New Zealand " and some of the least connected: Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Papua New Guinea and East Timor.

Statistics from the International Telecommunication Union, a United Nations agency, estimate that, for the first time, more than half of the global population " 51.2 per cent or 3.9 billion people " used the internet at the end of 2018. Yet in the Asia-Pacific, only 47 per cent of the population did so.

The UN's Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (Escap) said that less than 2 per cent of people in 18 of its over 50 member states had fixed broadband subscriptions in 2016. Data for 2017, the latest available, showed no improvement for these countries. In the case of mobile-broadband subscription, only a third or less of the population in 16 countries had access in 2017.

The connectivity gap exists in urban, rural and remote unserved and underserved areas in many countries, particularly in developing and least-developed nations. Reasons include a lack of affordable access, infrastructure barriers, regulatory and policy barriers (including licensing, taxes, and spectrum allocation practices), high deployment costs and the lack of digital skills and local content.

While the more fortunate among us enjoy the benefits of an open internet, which is becoming ever faster and more reliable, millions of people in the Asia-Pacific are being left behind in the widening digital divide. New digital divides are also being created based on the quality of access and user experience for people in different locations.

The internet should be available to everyone, everywhere. One way to extend the reach of the internet is through community networks " "do it yourself" networks built by local communities that are increasingly becoming a way to help bridge the digital divide in areas where commercial operators may not find it viable.

The digital divide is stark in the Asia-Pacific, which has some of the least connected countries in the world, as well as the most connected, such as Japan. Women show off smartphone screens with Reiwa, the name of Japan's new era, in Osaka on April 1. Photo: Kyodo

With the right conditions and support, connectivity can happen from a village or community, where the last mile is essentially a first mile.

Community networks are built and operated by people in the community; they are the result of people working together, combining their resources. These community-led networks make use of readily available low-cost equipment. Often, the technology required to build and maintain the network is as simple as a wireless router.

They range from Wi-fi only to mesh networks and mobile networks that provide voice and short messaging services. While they usually serve communities under 3,000 people, some serve more than 50,000 users.

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Each community has its set of technical, financial, social, regulatory, and legal challenges before they can connect to the global and open internet. For more such networks to flourish in Asia-Pacific, it is crucial that policymakers and regulators understand that they are clear ways to unleash social and economic development and progress towards the achievement of the UN's Sustainable Development Goals.

Community networks should be widely recognised as a complementary connectivity option that brings the internet to unconnected areas. Solutions such as this help close the digital divide, village by village, community by community.

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However, to connect the hundreds of thousands of communities across the Asia-Pacific, policy and regulatory frameworks are needed to help communities connect themselves. Governments can start now by looking at innovative approaches to spectrum licensing and allocation.

While society tries to improve the availability and affordability of broadband internet across the Asia-Pacific " which we are doing through a partnership with Escap on the Asia-Pacific Information Superhighway " it is critical that we also ensure everyone has access to the internet, and by extension the opportunities it brings. We can start today, one community at a time.

Rajnesh Singh is Asia-Pacific regional director of the Internet Society

Copyright (c) 2019. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

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