Introduction

Bridging the digital divide between urban and rural communities is critical to the development of any community. This can be achieved by extending the reach of the Internet beyond the economically viable areas that ISPs and other commercial operators normally target. In the first quarter of 2020, Zimbabwe recorded a 2.5% decline in data and internet subscription as well as a decline in overall voice traffic of 6.9%[1].  This was mainly attributed to the tough economic conditions that the country is experiencing. This is a huge concern as it shows a shrinking internet penetration rate and calls for strategies that can help arrest the situation. Community networks have emerged as a means to enable affordable Internet connectivity and broadband access for rural and underserved communities. Community networks are therefore critical in connecting the unconnected.

To harness the power of community networks, policy and regulation should facilitate the development of community connectivity and the deployment of community networks. This paper explores the policy and regulatory framework within Zimbabwe in relation to community networks.

What is a community network?

Community networks (CNs) are networks built in a collaborative, bottom-up fashion by groups of individuals who develop and manage new network infrastructure as common goods[2]. CNs are created by communities or organized groups that decide to share a telecommunications service through their own network. Their infrastructure is built, managed, operated, and administered by a community-driven organization or by a community itself by pooling their existing resources and working with partners to start-up and scale their activities[3].

Zimbabwean Legislation and Community Networks

The current Zimbabwean legislation does not recognize CNs. However the importance of community networks cannot be underestimated and as such, there is need for substantive legislation and  a regulatory framework. Only one documented CN has been established in Zimbabwe – Murambinda Works. This CN was granted rights to operate by the regulator but under terms and conditions which cannot be replicated in other areas. The CN operates as part of a licensed operator TelOne, through whom they have access to spectrum.

There is need for a broad policy and regulatory framework to specifically address the needs of CNs.

The legislation on community networks needs to address:

  • Registration of community networks – there is need to set minimum requirements for recognition of a CN. This should address recognizable governance models, regulatory and ownership models.
  • Licensing and license fees – should determine when a CN requires a license, minimum requirements for licensing, license fees, duration over which a license is valid.
  • Spectrum issues and spectrum fees – should address how community networks can access unlicensed spectrum. Unlicensed spectrum has great potential for the success of CNs and has been successfully used in other countries such as South Africa. The regulatory framework on CNs can consider issues such as spectrum reuse, use of TV white spaces, frequency sharing and other innovative ideas that allow communities to take advantage of idle spectrum.
  • Regulatory issues – there is need to spell out clearly which regulatory issues have an impact on CNs.

What partnerships are possible for community networks?

  • Non-Governmental Organisations are very active in rural communities within Zimbabwe and as such would make good partners in the establishment of CNs through providing funding for initial deployment as well as training.
  • Private businesses who can take advantage of community networks to bring more visibility to their products and expand their customer reach.
  • Universal Services Funds – synergies can be created between communities and agencies responsible for the management of universal services fund in the deployment of community networks and underserved communities. Zimbabwe has a USF[4] whose major mandate is to deploy telecommunication services to underserved and under privileged communities.

Current Initiative

The Government of Zimbabwe has made some strides in trying to bridge the urban-rural digital divide and connect the unconnected. Many projects have been deployed through the Universal Services Fund and make a good basis for establishment/expansion of community networks:

  • Establishment of community information centers (telecentres)in all district, aimed at bringing ICT services and offer basic ICT skills training course free of charge to the public, in all districts. There is potential of reducing running costs by adopting their use to becomes hubs for community networks connectivity.
  • Rolling out of internet connectivity and distribution of computers to schools in underserved communities. In one such program named “Connect a School, Connect a Community”, the aim was to have the school as the hub from which the surrounding community can access Internet connectivity and learn the use of computers at very low costs.

Educating Stakeholders

One of the major requirements in Zimbabwe to allow for deployment of community networks is education of important stakeholders. These stakeholder include:

  • Community members- communities need to learn and understand that there are alternative ways they can build networks cost effectively, to better serve themselves. This knowledge will empower the grassroot users to lobby for policy makers to allow this to happen.
  • Policymakers – Policy makers have a duty to ensure that the rural-urban, privileged-underprivileged digital divide is bridged. Currently policy makers have been pushing for CICs deployment because they understand their potential in bridging the digital divide. An understanding of the greater impact that can be achieved through CNs could result in a change of focus and an acceleration of the corresponding legislation.
  • Regulators –There are knowledge gaps which can only be closed by having close dialogue among all stakeholders. CN specialists could be instrumental in guiding regulators.
  • Current network operators – current operators can be educated and understand that community networks are not necessarily competition, but an avenue through which their products can be consumed.

Recommendations

  • Streamline the process of registering and licensing of community networks and make it different from the process used for commercial operators as community network might not have the legal expertise and financial resources to undergo a long application process.
  • Easily avail information pertaining to policy and regulation on community networks.
  • Look at establishment of special licenses categories to cater for community networks and their special needs.
  • Benchmarking with other countries on regulation is a good starting point. The experiences and lessons from Murambinda Works can also be used  to create a check-list of policy and regulatory changes that need to be addressed to facilitate community network development.

[1] POTRAZ, 2020, Sector Performance Report, 1st Quarter – 2020

[2] Baca C et. al, Challenges, Regulations and Solutions, APC, FGV Direito Rio

[3] Srivastava R, Community Networks: Regulatory Issues and Gaps, an Experience from India, Internet Society, Digital Empowerment Foundation

[4] Government of Zimbabwe, Postal and Telecommunications Act, Chapter 12:05, 2000, Rev 2014