Shared connectivity model has shown to provide a community access model that can be sustainable from an organisational, technical, financial and ownership perspective
Since the year 2000, the International Institute for Communication and development (IICD) actively supports a large-scale ICT for development programme in Bolivia: TICBolivia (www.ticbolivia.net). The programme is operational with 15 projects at department and national levels in Bolivia in the sectors of agriculture, governance and education. At this moment 50,000 end-users using Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) are reached directly through the 90 information centres or school laboratories operating in all departments of Bolivia. Around 500,000 farmers, indigenous people, teachers and students benefit indirectly through a combination of access to rural information centres, radio programmes, websites and printed information materials. However, since the start of the programme, project partners and end users have indicated that lacking access, low quality and high pricing of telephony and Internet connectivity remains a key limitation to effective and sustainable implementation of ICT for development.
IICD and the local partner organisations, including both grass-root organisations and non-governmental organisations (NGOs), bundled efforts and have searched for more effective technical and organisational models for rural connectivity. This article describes possible technical and organisational solutions for sustainable universal services solutions in rural areas on the basis of 3 years of on-the-ground experience with a shared satellite connectivity model operational in 11 communities in Bolivia.
Sustainable rural connectivity model
In order to satisfy the needs for information and communication, partners have experimented with combinations of traditional and modern digital connectivity modes that respond to the technical and financial possibilities in each particular area. The most challenging solution for rural connectivity is found in the shared satellite connectivity model, very suitable for regular high-quality access. This model can allow multiple partners, if properly addressing technical, financial and particularly management issues, to make optimal use of the exchange of information and communication services at an affordable level.
The shared satellite connectivity model is based on the sharing of a satellite – VSAT – link between local organisations at community level. In this case, one organisation active in the community contracts a VSAT service. The costs of investment and operations are then distributed among a group of local organisations. Local organisations are linked to the connection via wireless linkages, either through WiFi or Mesh solutions. After three years of study and trial and error, the shared connectivity model is operational in the 11 participating communities. In five of the communities, the service is technically and financially sustainable, whereas others are still in the process of finding a fully sustainable approach.
The shared connectivity model has shown to provide a community access model that can be sustainable from an organisational, technical, financial and ownership perspective. On the basis of both the successes and especially failures, a number of lessons can be learned:
Organisation and capacity aspects: During the pilot projects, the organisational aspects have shown to be a key success factor. It is important to set a clear and formal organisation structure including a service agreement with all parties in the community involved. The agreement is to address issues of network administration, service levels and billing conditions.
Our partner organisations played a key role in ensuring collaboration between local organisations to certify joint negotiation with service providers. Due to differences in management style, collaboration among potential parties at community level is often difficult to establish. Professional legal advice was found to be necessary to ensure good contractual terms and conditions of the service agreement.
From the start of the project it is important to ensure involvement of participating organisations’ management and the mayors of the communities. This requires that the project manager and technician explain the concepts, consequences and the importance of making these major investments in connectivity. A solid understanding of the way these installations are structured saves lots of time and makes management an ally in promoting the model.
Administrators of the information centres need to be trained in organisational and financial management to ensure that the centres are run in a viable way. The most successful information centre administrators are those with a thorough knowledge of their target group. A related problem is the fast turnover of trained administrators, which requires a continuous training programme integrated as part of the project.
It is important to start training of the local technicians from the start. Therefore the projects have consistently focused on building strong technical teams on the ground. The other key component is to have regular knowledge exchanges between different projects throughout the country.
Technology aspects: IICD partners had to learn the hard way that service provision is not guaranteed. The biggest problem encountered during the last years was the low service quality. In many cases the actual bandwidth provided was below promised or no bandwidth at all was available for days. A lacking regulatory framework currently makes it difficult to claim restitution of service costs or to change to alternative providers. The only counter measure available was to withhold payments, until service was re-established. The service descriptions given by providers are often so limited that there is almost no possibility to have any guarantees to what service was bought. It is very difficult to find out whether a ‘clear channel’ is really clear channel, as in many cases a connection is shared up to even 1:100. Furthermore, measurements of the actual capacity provided indicate much lower bandwidth than promised.
If there was upload speed, lag-time of in certain cases 16 second delays made voice communication impossible. This directly affects the willingness of partners to share costs. More so, it de-motivates end users from using the ICT services, especially painful when users have travelled to visit the information centres. As a result of poor service levels the sustainability of the services is difficult to secure.
In the case of the shared connectivity model, a community obtains access to Internet, e-Mail and chat services but has also an option to telephony via VoIP. A combination of Internet and telephony will allow communities to dramatically enhance the changes to introduce financially sustainable connectivity solutions. Yet, there are two main barriers that currently complicate the introduction of VoIP. Whereas the download bandwidth of satellite connections is fairly decent and reliable, upload bandwidth is often very poor, directly affecting VoIP calls.
Communities providing VoIP over their shared community network can also be accused of making illegal phone calls and false competition with service providers. A license fee requires a lengthy legal process and extremely high costs beyond all means for most remote communities. In Europe and the United States the major telecom providers are now rapidly switching their revenue models. Telephony both local and nationally is almost free, because the existing infrastructure can transport voice and data over copper wire and fibre optics facilitating broadband Internet. Almost all calls are now switched over Internet as telecom operators are using the different distribution networks already available. South-America is different in that there is no widespread network of copper or fibre yet.
It was noted that clients were supplied with old and outdated VSAT equipment. In certain cases the installation costs could have been less costly if a newer, and often, smaller satellite would be installed. This would have reduced transportation cost and installation time.
Electrical engineering was a serious problem. Wiring of and connecting to the other locations in the community were often done in a haphazard way. Open, unprotected wiring was hanging loosely in the air or over the ground without any tubing. Electricity installations sometimes were connected with loose ends and risk of power failures. In some cases lightening struck installations, causing routers and modems to be fried. In many places stable electricity is a serious problem. Therefore back-up generators are needed to guarantee maximum uptime. Power backup systems are often costly and weigh heavily on the installation budget.
Many of the installations did not have any proper security measures in place. No firewalls were installed, no anti-virus software, which resulted in some cases to servers completely being infected and no longer workable. To resolve these issues servers need to be re-installed from scratch.
Financial aspects: To sustain the service financially the project experience indicates that at least four community organisations should commit to sharing the costs of satellite services. These can include the local government office, schools, hospitals, farmer associations, etc. In some cases, the organisations have to make available a specific budget for communication. In this, the members of the organisation – in case of farmer associations or the partner association in the schools – introduce an additional fee. In most cases however, the organisations have replaced the regular budget for telephony and part of travel costs for the payment of connectivity fees. It was found that organisations have been spending a lot of money on communication anyhow, due to high travel and telephony costs.
To ensure sufficient organisations to participate in the cost sharing model, it is advisable to focus on a medium sized community which is able to sustain the cost and then in a later stadium try to link up a smaller community.
Another challenge is the presence of a simple but reliable financial control system to charge for use of the Internet in the information centres and the development of a coherent pricing strategy for use. Initially the centres only charged for the Internet connection, and forgot to charge for any of the other overhead costs such as office rent, electricity, salary for the administrator, maintenance and expenses for technical support.
Ownership and local content aspects: From the experience it is seen that the key factor to sustainability is related to ownership in the community and the development of relevant information content. If these conditions are met, the shared connectivity model is found to be financially sustainable. As for the ownership issue, it is found essential that the community organisations directly involve their users in the set-up and operation of the information centres. Once directly involved, awareness about possibilities of innovative instruments such as ICT can be built and local organisations can identify information needs among the different user groups. This requires that the initiating organisations are very familiar with the local context and need a level of trust in the community.
Interestingly, it was found that users are willing to pay for high-quality services if addressing their needs. In all centres the users have shown a clear demand for two-way communication and information relevant to particular user groups.
In the current projects, evaluation among users indicates a direct economic and social impact of the use of ICT. Participating farmers experience a direct economic benefit from using telephony and Internet services in the centres. They particularly value agriculture information related to market opportunities, prices and better production methods, but also want to use ICT to promote their produce to a wider public via the Web. Teachers and students participating in the projects have indicated that the use of e-Mail and Internet, more than telephony, has directly enhanced the quality of education in rural areas. Through the Internet, they receive better teaching materials for both the teachers and students, but they also enhance the cultural awareness through communication with peers in other parts of the country and in the world.
It was sure that the users were trained in the search and selection of information available on the web or in the use of information collected by the initiating NGOs or grass-root organisations. Yet, equally important is that the users can develop their own content for direct use among their peers and to promote local products and content.
The experience in Bolivia shows that it is possible to implement connectivity in rural areas in a sustainable way. With strong local demand from the farmer and education communities and local governments these connectivity solutions can greatly enhance the universal access policies sought by the government in Latin America. This is not only about connectivity. This is also about enhancing social and economic development and creating new opportunities for people in rural areas.
For additional information, please visit the website www.iicd.org/countries/bolivia