16 Nov 2021 Malawi: Bridging the connectivity gap via Community Networks
WACC is supporting a new project in Malawi that aims to contribute to a conducive policy and regulatory environment for establishing and developing Community Networks to help address the connectivity gap in the country.
Only 13.1% of Malawi’s population of 17.1 million have access to the Internet, one of the lowest in the world, according to the latest data from the International Telecommunications Union. The few who have access to the Internet face slow speeds and high costs.
Telecommunication services such as mobile telephony and broadband are prerequisites for human development in the 21st century, according to the World Bank’s World Development Report 2016: Digital Dividends. “Without connectivity, communities face significant barriers to participation in economic and social networks,” said Lorenzo Vargas, WACC program manager for Communication for Social Change.
“Due to growing awareness of the limitations in the current connectivity models, there is increasing interest in exploring alternative strategies for reaching the unconnected,” he said “Innovations in low-cost technology have created possibilities for the development of affordable, locally owned, and managed communication infrastructure, commonly called Community Networks run and managed by communities themselves using off-the-shelf low-cost commodity networking equipment to build Wi-Fi, GSM, and fiber connections.” Examples of successful Community Networks that are connecting thousands of people include Rhizomatica in Argentina, and Zenzeleni in South Africa.
Community Networks have not fully accepted in Malawi because of a lack of knowledge about their potential to bridge the connectivity gap, said Vargas. There are also “overwhelming regulatory and licensing regulations” that require Community Networks to follow same start-up processes as any other private internet service provider and huge financial, technical and economic requirements at startup with no or little opportunities for funding.
The project, Catalysing Better Policy, Regulatory and Financing framework for Community Networks in Malawi, will include various activities such as awareness-raising programs, building on the Community Network Movement began in 2019, and desk research on policy, access to backhaul, and spectrum framework on Community Networks and financing in Malawi to analyze the current policy environment and financing options for Community Networks in Malawi.
About 20 participants from project partners and the Community Network Movement will take part in a training on policy advocacy and the development of an advocacy strategy on policy, regulatory, framework and financing of community networks.
Advocacy will target the policy holder, the Ministry of Information, and the regulator, Malawi Communications Regulatory Authority (MACRA) to ease policy, regulatory and licensing requirements.
A virtual symposium on Community Networks, policy, regulatory framework, and financing models, will also be conducted.
UmozaNet, the ICT Association of Malawi (ICTAM), and Mzuzu University will implement the project. UmozaNet, a Community Wireless Network championed by the Centre for Youth and Development, offers a low-cost wireless wide area network architecture for providing access to local digital resources services in Mzuzu. ICTAM is an umbrella body of all ICT professionals in Malawi that provides ICT leadership by catalyzing policy changes and supporting related developments aimed at enabling Malawians to participate effectively in the modern technology-based global economy. Mzuzu University’s ICT offers academic programmes, conducts research and consultancy in ICT governance and ICT4D among other areas; it hosts a tech incubation centre and a centre for ICT professional studies.