Creating Ecuador's first community network in the aftermath of an earthquake

Rising Voices (RV) is partnering with the Association for Progressive Communications (APC) which produced the 2018 Global Information Society Watch (GISWatch) focusing on community networks defined as “communication networks built, owned, operated, and used by citizens in a participatory and open manner.” Over the next several months, RV will be republishing versions of the country reports highlighting diverse community networks from around the world.
This country report was written by an anonymous writer who describes the process of creating a community network in their rural community of about 50 people. Please visit the GISWatch website for the full report which is also available under a CC BY 4.0 license.

Rapid changes in Ecuadorian public policy, law and regulations during the past 10 years have left an uncertain field of action. The laws can be interpreted as favourable to community networks, even though community networks are absent from the regulations. At the same time, the economic situation makes the creation of community networks viable though not trivial.
In Ecuador there are laws in favour of community communications but no policies specifically addressing community networks. We have also not found detailed analyses of the country's internet or spectrum regulation from the perspective of community networks, although a very useful spectrum analysis from 2011 still seems relevant even though laws have changed. A government presentation from 2008 recommended four regulatory alternatives to strengthen community networks, but they were not implemented as far as we know.
As mentioned in GISWatch 2017, the development of the internet in Ecuador has favoured the private sector, especially multinational corporations, with some focus on the public sector, and very little functional influence from civil society, or the “community” sector as it is sometimes called in Ecuadorian law. A 2016 report indicates that spectrum regulation and network neutrality are at risk of political influence.
In 2016, the last year for which data is published, the state reported that of individuals asked if they had used the internet in the past 12 months, the national average was 55.6%: the urban average was 63.8% and the rural average 38%.
Motivation, luck, knowledge and friends enable Ecuador's first community network
Our network exists because we want it to exist; we build it, we maintain it, and we use it – and sometimes we break it, we argue about it, we insult it when it goes slower than we like or cuts off entirely, and we get frustrated about it… but mostly it works and we are thankful. Our network also works because a friend shares his internet connection with us and allows us to tie our antenna to his balcony – many thanks!
On 16 April 2016, an earthquake off the coast of Ecuador caused significant damage and loss of life. As part of the response to the earthquake, a part-time community member living in the United States gathered donations from friends and colleagues and came here with a friend to help rebuild. When the reconstruction activity in our community ended, we decided to invest our attention and the remaining money in creating a community network for internet connectivity. We decided that this fitted within the scope of building community resilience to handle future disasters.

https://rising.globalvoices.org/files/2018/12/27011393370_6867f8b4f5_k-4... 400w, https://rising.globalvoices.org/files/2018/12/27011393370_6867f8b4f5_k-7... 768w" sizes=" 800px) 100vw, 800px" />Humanitarian relief to Ecuador’s earthquake victims. Photo by EU Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations and used under a CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license.

We had already started investigating the possibility of a community network. We had looked at the topography of our community and the rest of our canton; the nearby telecommunications infrastructure; the history of rural internet in the country; companies selling networking equipment; local organisations that could give social structure to the network and use the connectivity; and national organisations involved in community communications.
We asked for advice from AlterMundi, contacts in Ecuador, and others. We also contacted a small internet service provider (ISP) mentioned in a 2008 article about community connectivity projects in Ecuador and they visited our community. The response from everyone was more or less, “Start simple, with a single connection in your community.”
Before we found a line of sight to a place with internet, an invitation arrived from AlterMundi to participate in a seven-day hands-on community network workshop with people from farming community organisations in Colombia. We spent some of the earthquake relief money and some personal money to make the trip with one community member and two young adults from a nearby farmers’ union. The workshop helped us understand many things, such as how other communities organised their networks and how to configure Ubiquiti Wi‑Fi devices to create long-distance links.
After the training, two members of AlterMundi came with us to our community, and provided the spark necessary to get our network going.
They advised us: Climb up to high places at dusk to identify potential links, and then just try the most obvious link in the fastest, least expensive way possible – fastest in terms of just buying an antenna instead of making antennas yourselves, and least expensive in terms of using a friend's internet connection instead of contracting your own. In order to take a first step, let go of the idea of building a network for five communities all at once. Maybe that will happen, but it's not the first step. Start with a single link, and that small, practical step will teach you things that enable you to grow the network later.
This turned out to work. One evening we climbed up to the top of a house being built on a hilltop and ta‑da! The lights of a town twinkled in the distance! We spent the remaining earthquake money on the equipment to create the first part of our network and a few days later we had Wi‑Fi internet in our community!
A few months later we applied for a grant to expand our network to other communities, and we learned a lot in the process of applying. We did not get the grant, but we gained knowledge.
Connection and infrastructure
Our connection to the internet for the first 17 months was a DSL line with a connection of 5 Mbps and an 8:1 contention ratio from the national public ISP, Corporación Nacional de Telecomunicaciones EP (National Telecommunications Corporation – CNT), shared with a friend in a small town. It cost about USD 33 per month. Now, after 17 months of asking them various times, the ISP activated a fibre optic connection at our friend's house that is supposed to be 10 Mbps download and 5 Mbps upload with a 2:1 contention ratio for USD 79 per month; but in the first three weeks it has not performed better than the DSL.
Our network connects that internet connection to our community via a 22 km (line of sight) wireless link, and the network within the community is currently made up of Wi‑Fi routers connected via outdoor UTP cable. We use cable instead of Wi-Fi because dense forest and hills block the line of sight between the houses.
Some future connections will be wireless where there is line of sight. For those links, we want to use inexpensive antennas connected to TP-Link WDR3500 routers (or other routers compatible with LibreMesh with disconnectable antennas), but if that proves too difficult or the price is close to the price of Ubiquiti devices, we will use Ubiquiti devices. We hope to acquire at least one LibreRouter and backup power supplies, and to use alternative energy sources (solar, wind, micro-hydro, biogas).
The current infrastructure set-up is as follows:
We use two colours of electrical tape – red and green – for colour-coordinated markings that indicate what cable plugs into what port, so that we do not confuse what cables connect to the power-over-ethernet boxes.
Failure and reorganisation
In December the ISP's DSL modem/router failed and we did not have internet for nearly a month, until the ISP fixed the problem. In April the connection between the antennas disappeared and no one could fix it from our community. After a month without internet we went to our friend's house and saw that a palm tree had grown in front of the antenna and blocked the signal.
The loss of internet gave us a chance to renew our way of organising the network. We started to have meetings at least once a month and soon we started contributing money and signed a contract for a fibre optic connection.
We had various challenges that we do not have space to discuss here:

  • Debates about whether to connect the community centre or more homes first
  • Misunderstandings about money and motivations
  • Frustration about lack of participation
  • Lack of clarity about what routers and antennas to buy, or how to make our own antennas
  • Concerns about negative effects on human and ecosystem relationships.

Gender, age and network uses
Part of the motivation to build the network grew specifically out of the vulnerability highlighted in the April 2016 earthquake, and also from the understanding that communication enables people to interact with many processes that affect the stability of their lives.
Having internet in our community makes it much easier to coordinate tourism, an educational programme in the community, or volunteers, and internet also attracts more visitors. This benefits the members of the community tourism association, most of whom are women. When people visit the community, women earn money by cooking for them and cleaning the community centre where they stay or have meetings. Men are occasionally hired as tour guides to take people on hikes in the forest. Many community members also appreciate the cultural experience of meeting people from other places.
Men tend to use the internet to communicate about work, some women use the network for academic study, and everyone uses the network for social communication with family and friends and entertainment. Women have participated in almost all the community network activities, such as meetings, installing the gateway node and antennas, and extending the network to more houses.
We have given specific attention to including women, people from all the families in our community and people of all ages in the conversations that guide our network and in the considerations of the impact of the network. The conversations happen in community meetings and in people's homes. The core group that has implemented the network so far makes an effort to include people in the construction of the network, to explain how it works to everyone interested, and awaken interest and a sense of capability in everyone in the community. We think that with encouragement, everyone is capable of understanding how the network functions and participating in the network as they choose.
The list below gives an indication of the gender breakdown in participation in various network activities:

  • First months of preparation and coordination – one male, in conversation with many people.
  • Installation of primary link – two females, three males (of these, one female and one male from AlterMundi providing support).
  • First meeting – participants not recorded.
  • Second meeting – four females, five males (after the meeting one male taught one female how to put RJ45 connectors on a UTP cable).
  • Third meeting – seven females, nine males.
  • Fourth meeting – six females, six males.
  • Reposition of source antenna – two females, four males.
  • Communicating with ISP to contract fibre optic connection – one male (contract signed by one female).
  • Visit to town with internet connection for fibre optic link activation – one female, two males.

All installation and maintenance activities have involved people between the ages of 19 and 35. At meetings the age range has been about 10 to 65. The network offers teenagers and young adults in our community a chance to take responsibility for a community system, to learn and to demonstrate to their parents and themselves that they are capable of managing the community network. The adults already manage the water cooperative, the community bank, and the community tourism association.
State policies and laws
We have not dealt with national internet policy directly, other than interacting with its effects: the lack of internet access in our community.
Our community and the surrounding area have very little state presence, so we have not found it necessary to approach the state (public ISP, regulatory agencies, legislators, elected officials) and we have not yet read all the laws and regulations – we just maintain our network and move along with our lives.
However, for our network to survive in the long term and to support the creation of new community networks throughout Ecuador, we consider it wise to understand the law and to influence it and interpret it in ways that defend and support our community networks. As far as we know, the legal system, the regulations and the people tasked with enforcing them have not interacted with community networks, since we are the first such network here.
Due to 10 years of tight state control in many areas of society (2007 to 2017), we have so far chosen to remain unnoticed, rather than risk state attempts to co-opt, regulate, or shut down our network. Recently an ally in contact with state telecom institutions told us that the current national government is favourable towards the idea of community networks and community spectrum use. We have also had some contact with a rural mayor who wants to support a community network in his canton even though we explained that the legal aspects are unknown.
We serve as an early experience of the potential of community networks in Ecuador, and we plan to use our experience adapting this model to our context as a basis for conversation with other communities, organisations, ISPs and the state about how to support this new way of co-creating internet infrastructure. We hope that the state and ISPs of all sizes adapt to this reality, rather than trying to stop or control the formation of community networks.
Conclusions
We draw the following conclusions from our experience of setting up a community network in Ecuador:

  • The conditions in Ecuador are ripe for community networks, but a spark and organising initiative such as a national coalition has been lacking until now.
  • In our community, communicating clearly and organising ourselves is very important. Even if no one is charging us money for our internet connection, we still benefit from organising ourselves, and it makes sense to collect money for future expenses.
  • Achieving and maintaining connectivity requires attention, time, money, understanding, confidence and perseverance. Otherwise people give up and say “I don't know how” or “We don't have time and money to go wait for the technicians to install the connection.”
  • Communication with external actors is a key part of organisation.
  • In many communities we (humans) get things working just enough, and then shift our focus to the next urgent issue. In our case we created a precarious connection and did not focus on stabilising it until it broke down for a month, and when we started to help set up other networks in other parts of the country and wanted our network to serve as an example of a well-run community network.
  • Extending the physical infrastructure starts with deciding who pays for equipment, who performs maintenance and management, what the technical design is and what hardware will be used. In order to create clear understanding among network members, it helps to make these decisions before heading out into the field.
  • Interact with other communities that have experience in or the desire for community communications and self-managed infrastructure. Connect community networks (the organised people, the infrastructure, and the concepts) with the global and local movements towards well-being and freedom based on peer-to-peer cooperation.
  • Participating in movements helps us to learn, build community relationships, and improve our ability to influence state and commercial processes.
  • Support communities to create their own processes of appropriating information and communication technologies, recognising that our current concept of “community network” is shaped by our cultural perspective and our history of appropriating technology, and can look different in different communities and change over time.

For more information regarding action steps for Ecuador, please visit the full report on the GISWatch website.
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