Musing on community networks and local economics

12 December 2021

David Johnson

In my journey building community owned networks with communities, I have always dreamed of the scenario where members of the community are empowered to expand infrastructure and services themselves without much intervention from people who are outside the community. I have seen this happening in communities like Altermundi in Argentina, in Spain and Freifunk in Germany.

There was a mix of drivers in these communities: (i) needing connectivity where operators had failed to provide access due to the lack of a market, (ii) an inquisitiveness that drives those with technical capability to see what’s possible when hacking WiFi equipment and building local network services, and (iii) a libertarian driven philosophy that uses these community-owned networks to protect political freedoms, data sovereignty and ensure that governments or multi-national companies can’t carry out surveillance.

In Africa, I have only seen aspect (i) being a key driver for building community networks, but almost always the drive came from outside parties (academics, NGOs etc.) intervening in a community and training community members to build a network. Outside intervention is often needed on a continuous basis as there is often little networking technical capability or “networking geek density” to start with. However, these so called "low-resource" rural or urban communities have entrepreneurs, talented artists, skilled artisans, resilience and resourcefulness waiting to be unleashed. This is often not seen or appreciated because the privileged digital citizens upload their creations continuously without data pay walls  and the geeks in the privileged world leisurely purchase equipment they need  and learn skills on YouTube or Udemy that make it possible for them to build networks or services or whatever they want as a hobby or as an side income.  


The successful community networks in Argentina, Spain and Germany never envisaged the network itself to become a profitable business, they are either run as a cooperative or simply maintained by volunteers without much formal organizational structure.


To understand what would make a successful community network in many communities in Africa, we must start with the drivers within the community. In the community, I currently work with, in Ocean View where there is very high unemployment, somebody would create a food garden, a hair solon, or a cell phone repair business because they can earn a living from this. For adults there is generally no time for a side pursuit, such as building a network because it fascinates you, when you need to put food on the table for your family; experimenting with computer networks as a hobby is however often still possible for school children and university students.


Although, this may even be frowned upon by the purists in the community network movement, tools are needed in a community like Ocean View that allow a community network to operate like hybrid between a small WISP and a community network where some members of the community network can earn a fulltime living, and some can supplement their income. A pure WISP acts as an external party to the community – sometimes employing local community members, whereas the Ocean View community network operating as a hybrid between a WISP and a community network will still be a community-owned and community-centred networks as the owners and decision makers in the network are from the community. The commonly used term that has some overlap with this business model is a "social enterprise".


Most of the resources in Ocean View, including food, data, goods, and services - approximately 70% according to a community member - come from outside the community. If more local businesses could be built that supply and exchange these resources, unemployment could be reduced, and a local economy could grow. Most data is purchased from mobile operators and the amount of income spent on data may be between 10 and 15%. If just 5% of Ocean View’s income could be spent on a local community network, this could start a virtuous cycle of employment for local community members and the potential to circulate some of this income to other local businesses; including digital services that can be hosted on the network. To help create a circular economy a local community inclusion token can help incentivize community members to use local businesses.


This is what the “Incentivized network and localized services growth with blockchain-based community inclusion tokens” ISOC project is all about – bootstrapping a local economy in the community by using a local-owned network and community inclusion token as a catalyst. The Community Inclusion Token (CIT) will be used to purchase data and other local goods and services from businesses that accept the token.


A CIT linked to data is always a good place to start as everyone needs data and its value is well understood. If you think about it people already trade airtime. For example, people can send each other airtime for helping with a task or for exchanging some goods. We would simply be replacing this airtime –which is an externally owned token ­– with a locally owned token that encourages local spending on a local community network or other local goods and services. The local community network will also charge between 80 and 90% less than a mobile operator, thus saving the community a large amount of their typical monthly spend on data or providing much more data for their typical spend and supporting local businesses.