Digital Empowerment at the Grassroots: Community Networks in Kenya and the Philippines

Tech For Good Institute recently published an article authored by Adrian Wan, who is the Senior Manager for Policy and Advocacy at Internet Society. The article highlights the role that community networks play in Southeast Asia to bridge the digital divide. Wan demonstrates how a “do-it-yourself” network (or a community network) in the Philippines has enabled 1,000 households to access the Internet. 

USAID, through its Better Access and Connectivity (BEACON) program, partnered with the Philippines’ government agencies, namely the Philippines Space Agency (PhilSA) and the Department of Science and Technology – Advanced Science and Technology (DOST-ASTI) to successfully launch six (6) community networks. 

Tanda Community Network (Tanda CN),  a community network based in Kibera (an informal settlement in Kenya), seamlessly integrates into this narrative of a success story of community networks in the Philippines. Tanda CN’s robust internet infrastructure that permeates through Kibera slums has enabled schools, hospitals, and activist groups to access the internet. Their network has 85 nodes, covering all the thirteen (13) villages in Kibera.

Major internet service providers have failed to adequately serve informal settlements and rural parts of Kenya due to a lack of motivation brought about by their foreseeable low profits and security concerns. Often, Kibera residents are faced with a dilemma between meeting their basic needs and covering the expenses of internet connectivity.

Tanda CN facilitates daily internet access for hundreds of these people, empowering them to fulfill various needs such as accessing educational materials, online job opportunities, government services on the e-citizen platform, staying connected with loved ones, and enjoying entertainment.

The Philippines’ six community networks are also enabling many people who would otherwise remain unconnected to reap the benefits of arguably the greatest invention of the 21st century: the Internet. The backhaul connectivity for these community networks is provided by Elon Musk’s SpaceX Starlink.

SpaceX Starlink is authorized to operate in Kenya, however, due to policy regulations and cost implications Kenya’s community networks cannot deploy using Satellite technology. But they can still utilize the backhaul provided by satellite technologies – conveniently through an authorized Internet Service Provider (ISP). Nonetheless, some of Kenya’s community networks have found alternatives in fiber and Tarra’s laser beam (fiber-optic internet without cables). Currently, Tanda CN deploys internet through wireless hotspots, but plans to deploy using hybrid connections, exploring fiber, other wireless technologies, and TV White Spaces (TWS).

The Communications Authority of Kenya (CA) stipulates in the Licensing and Shared Spectrum Framework for Community Networks that community networks are allowed to deploy communication infrastructure within a sub-county using various forms of technology apart from Satellite Communications. 

Just like Kenya, Philippine’s community networks are also grappling with multi-faceted challenges. For instance, while the Philippines’ community networks struggle with high license fees of USD 1,600, their Kenyan counterparts grapple with the high cost of deployment and capital expenses. 

In Kenya, for a license period of 10 years, community networks pay a license application fee of 1,000 Kenyan shillings (USD 6.30), an initial operating fee of 5,000 Kenya shillings (USD 31.65), and an annual renewable fee of 5,000 Kenyan shillings (USD 31.65). A survey conducted by Tanda CN in 2021 reveals that the primary barriers to establishing and maintaining community networks in Kenya are the high costs of acquiring equipment and backhaul capacity, setting up the network infrastructure, and knowledge and skills transfer.

Kenya and the Philippines, despite being located in different regions of the world, share numerous similarities. For example, they are both dominated by a growing population of young people, which promises a productive economy. The agricultural sector is also significant in both economies. As a result, learning exchange programs – similar to the annual Kenya National School of Community Networks – to share knowledge and experiences that could streamline the operations and expansion of community networks in the respective countries can catapult the growth of these complimentary networks while bridging the digital divide. 

In Kenya, community networks have proven beneficial for bridging the digital divide and extending opportunities to those who would otherwise never access them. They integrate the connectivity into the economic, social, and cultural fabrics of a community, hence, empowering beneficiaries without requiring them to compromise their values and belief systems. Unlike the commercial internet service providers that are mainly driven by profits and do not prioritize upholding the values and belief systems of the communities they serve.

In addition, community networks have become channels for the government to integrate its services to reach those residing in mashinani (in remote areas). For example, as part of its “Digital Super Highway” plan, the Kenyan government is gearing up to digitize 80% of its services, roll out 25,000 Wi-Fi hotspots, and set up 1,450 village digital hubs. To achieve these, the government’s relevant organs need to forge partnerships with community networks, hence, ensuring capacity building and proper utilization of the e-services by the intended audiences. In fact, in line with this, the ICT Authority (ICTA) director and the Universal Service Fund (USF) officials, through a meeting, acknowledged the role that community networks play in bridging the digital divide and deliberated on their potential roles in realizing the objectives of the Kenya National Digital Master Plan 2022 – 2032 (pdf).

The CA’s role in shaping the community networks movement in Kenya cannot be overstated. Firstly, the regulatory body recognized the movement by formulating and implementing a licensing framework to make sure that they operate within the stipulated Kenyan laws. Secondly, it recognizes the financial challenges that these grassroots telecommunication networks face and exempts them from USF contributions. Thirdly, it reserves a seat at the table for community networks during gatherings that require their involvement. Fourthly, it exempts community networks from spectrum charges because they are allowed to utilize the widely used license-exempt frequencies – that is, the ISM band (2.4 GHz and 5 GHz).

The Association of Kenya Community Networks, a membership alliance that brings together community networks in the country, should continue engaging relevant stakeholders – such as the CA – to discuss and revise pertinent policy issues related to last-mile connectivity. Also, they need to continue forging partnerships with global networks of non-government organizations – such as the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) and the Association for Progressive Communications (APC) – and internet governance bodies – such as the Internet Society – worldwide to increase their collective bargaining power.

Risper Arose and David Ochiel work at Tanda Community Network as partnerships lead and network & infrastructure lead, respectively. Melkizedek Mirasi is a digital freelancer and consultant who currently works as a Regional UX Lead for Colmena, a DW Akademie-funded media toolkit for grassroots media organizations.

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