Bringing the Internet to one town at a time
Bringing the Internet to areas and towns where no commercial service is available and allowing beneficiaries themselves to manage the service under a model of self-provisioning Internet access. In that spirit, Altermundi, an NGO based in Cordoba, Argentina, created the QuintanaLibre project to promote a system of easily reproducible communication services for people without specific knowledge living in digitally excluded regions.
This initiative has allowed many communities far from major cities to satisfy what is now considered a basic need for human development: access to digital communications.
In 2015, the FRIDA Awards+ Program recognized Altermundi for creating a digital community network in an area where there was practically no Internet access (province of Cordoba, Argentina)
Nicolás Echániz, one of the promoters of this project, spoke with LACNIC News about Altermundi, about his experience with FRIDA, and about the possibility of replicating the initiative in other Latin American and Caribbean regions.
How did the AlterMundi project come into being?
I began shaping the idea behind Altermundi back in 2002. While working on ecovillages, appropriated technologies, local exchange systems, free software, cooperatives, fair trade and other apparently unconnected initiatives, I had a very simple epiphany: what these things had in common was that, as opposed to the concentrated model, they all focused on peer collaboration. I then took on what some might call a mission, which continues to be at the heart of Altermundi: to help bring to life a paradigm based on freedom and built upon peer collaboration.
It was only in 2012 that we began formalizing Altermundi, after our participation in the Arraigo Digital project (within the orbit of Argentina’s Ministry of Education). Since the, our daily work has focused mainly on community networks for small populations, although we would also like to diversify into other areas.
What can you tell us about the model proposed by Altermundi for providing free Internet access?
The goal was never to provide free Internet access. In fact, Altermundi does not provide Internet access but rather a solution for backhauling traffic from local networks to and from the Internet. Internet access may be received in the form of donations or purchased collectively where economic o political conditions are more convenient. For example, in the case of the Paravachasca Valley, Altermundi and members of various networks in the area set up a backbone that reaches the National University of Cordoba. This allowed us to provide community networks in the area with transport to carriers who donate or sell transit to the rest of the Internet.
The model we propose is to once again increase the relevance of network edges; that members of a network understand the Internet as a true peer network. From this point of view, the edges are more important than the connections. Just as a highway that crosses over a territory is nothing without the populations it interconnects, in a digital landscape this increases the value of the edges – the center of attention are the people, not the cables connecting them.
How is the project funded?
Our policy focuses on obtaining the necessary resources trying to minimize actual money exchanges. Thanks to agreements with various institutions, organizations and individuals, Altermundi has its own data center space, network infrastructure, and autonomous system and IP resources, among other things that are part of the association’s network resources. Our greatest asset is the volunteer work of Altermundi members, but also that of others who decide to devote their efforts to the common good, whether they benefit from our projects or not. Networks in particular also operate in a similiar manner. Each network communally decides how it will solve its own internal sustainability, but the strength of each network will depend on the level of involvement achieved by each of its members and everyone’s dedication to learning and solving specific problems. It is like an organic body where the angry, the paranoid, the idle, the confident, the proper and the willful coexist, and where success depends on the balance between each and every component.
How do the project’s target communities react when they receive you and begin to see results? Are the communities committed to developing the network?
The involvement of at least part of the community is required, otherwise it not be a collaborative project among peers. Our role is to help communities understand how to build networks, how to start them up, and how to and keep them working properly. During this process, we help make them a reality, but it would be wrong to say that we make the networks.
Most challenges are of a social nature, involve communication issues, organizational aspects and basic technical knowledge – this is where members can participate as equals. Reactions and responses are varied and will depend on how each person understands and feels part of the project. Our experiences have led us to confirm that willpower and commitment are the key components of a community project.
Are community networks an alternative for the digital inclusion of populations not served by commercial companies?
Indeed. The more isolated the town and the fewer options it has, more people become involved in solving this need. Necessity is one of the best catalysts for community projects; these networks are no exception.
If it is not profitable for conventional providers to offer a certain service at a certain location, they will certainly not offer this service or will make it profitable by setting prices which many will find prohibitive, thus replicating a model of exclusion. People are left waiting for another provider or the State to take action, or they can take matters into their own hands and work on solving their need themselves. The provider itself might be the one to deploy this model, as in the case of Guifi.net, the world’s largest community network, in Catalonia, where enthusiasts and commercial providers coexist and maintain the principles of an open, free and neutral network.
Do you think that the Altermundi initiative (its networks) can be replicated in other countries in the region?
The network model developed by Altermundi is based on open source firmware and routers easily available on the market. Many projects have already begun to use this model in Brazil, Nicaragua, Colombia, but also outside of the region, such as in Spain, Italy and the USA.
Why did you decide to participate in the FRIDA Program? What did you learn from your participation? Would you recommend that other organizations participate in the FRIDA calls for proposals?
Because it is a LACNIC initiative, the FRIDA Program is of special interest to us, as our work has had an impact mainly in Latin America. The experience of having implemented the project for which we received FRIDA funds along with the award resulted in a significant improvement in the quality of the backbone that interconnects the different towns of the Paravachasca Valley. In addition, having participated in the Internet Governance Forum as guests of the FRIDA Program led to the creation of the Dynamic Coalition on Community Connectivity, which we hope will have a role to play within the framework of the IGF in the coming years.
In our case in particular, FRIDA gave us an opportunity to fund specific projects, but mainly a chance to connect with other projects and people interested in technology as a vehicle for inclusion.