Internet access is neither universal nor equal.

In rural and low-income regions worldwide, including in Europe and North America, access can be slow, scarce or nonexistent. Companies and governments often consider expanding communications infrastructure simply too costly, or a low priority.

Even in wealthy cities that boast lightning fast Internet speeds and claim universal availability, residents can find themselves priced out of services.

Fortunately, creative civic solutions are emerging. And many of these solutions can be transplanted and scaled, as needed.

The Gram Marg project at the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay hopes to connect thousands of rural villages across India. One of their techniques is to leverage unutilized television spectrums to transmit low-cost, wide-range Internet connectivity, so-called frugal 5G.

“We are focusing on solutions that address energy efficiency, affordability and high throughput,” says Professor Abhay Karandikar who leads the project. Gram Marg has already equipped 25 villages in the Palghar district of Maharashtra with the technology.

In South Africa, the non-profit Project Isizwe deploys free, fast Wi-Fi across low-income communities through a variety of financial models: access can be subsidized by municipal governments or unlocked by engaging with a sponsor’s content. In one community, Wi-Fi vouchers are earned by recycling household litter.

Project Isizwe’s founder, Alan Knott-Craig, believes their approach can be scaled across the African continent. “Wi-Fi is the most affordable technology in the world if you want to lower the cost of Internet access,” he said at Mozfest in London in 2017.

A 2017 Internet Society report also sees potential for the reach of community networks to expand across Africa. In their investigation of 10 different networks in eight African countries, they highlight groups like BOSCO-Uganda, which operates a network of Internet stations and digital training centers in remote communities recuperating from war.

Another creative solution has taken root in Chattanooga, Tennessee, in the United States. “Most Internet-related service was controlled by two giants: Comcast and AT&T,” says former mayor Ron Littlefield. “In such a monopolistic environment, the customer was constantly on the defensive.” That changed in 2010 when the Electric Power Board of Chattanooga, a city-owned electricity utility, installed fiber-optic cables and began offering high-speed Internet. As a result, Internet access now functions more like a public utility, serving nearly 200,000 homes and businesses across Tennessee and Georgia.

It’s still early days for community networks. Around the world, there are challenges, like fierce opposition from incumbent Internet providers and regulators. But there are also positive developments, like legislation supporting community broadband networks. If governments, communities, industry and technical experts – with support from academia and civil society – work together for more connectivity, they can provide a realistic alternative to people who lack quality Internet access.

Further reading:

Supporting the Creation and Scalability of Affordable Access Solutions: Understanding Community Networks in Africa, Internet Society, 2017
Mapping Broadband Availability in American Neighborhoods, Brookings, 2017
Community-Owned Fiber Networks: Value Leaders in America, Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society, 2017