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 Empowering communities in wireless network provision

Empowering communities in wireless network provision

 
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A research project into community-owned and run rural wireless networks led by PhD candidate Carlos Rey-Moreno and supervised by Prof. Bill Tucker at UWC’s Department of Computer Science, was recently awarded €90 000 (about R1.2 million) from the European Commission FP7 (The Seventh Framework Programme of the European Union for the funding of research and technological development). This research project, entitled the Impact of Community networks as Alternative infrastructure in remote and Underserved areaS (ICARUS), is conducted jointly by several departments at UWC including the Institute for Social Development and departments of Computer Science and Statistics, respectively.

The UWC team is the only African team that is affiliated to the Community Networks Testbed for the Future Internet (CONFINE) consortium. CONFINE targets the exploration and advancement of a community networking model, aimed at providing a high quality experience and the sustaining of community networks by doing research on the social, technical, economic and legal implications. ICARUS is the only such proposal accepted from the African continent. Its main goal is to examine the socio-economic impact of community-owned and run mesh networks to the Internet which are also affiliated to CONFINE consortium.

Although the connectivity gap in remote and underserved areas is increasingly being reduced by mobile phone operators, access remains low due to services being unaffordable. Community networks are a potential solution to this problem due to the additional developmental benefits they contribute. However, very few real examples exist and very little is known about their socio-economic impact.

The UWC project commenced in April 2012 in a remote community in the Eastern Cape. After conversations with local authorities, training and support were provided for the installation of a solar-powered wireless mesh network connecting 10 private houses spread over 30km. Local in-village voice service ‘uptake’ has been low due to the inability to call outside the mesh to mobile phones and get Internet access. A resolution is to provide these services legally, with a local co-operative acting as an ISP (Interenet Service Provider) and this will be available from May 2014. According to Prof Tucker, ‘this research will provide data about the socio-economic impact of information and communication services provided by and to the community in a rural and undeserved area. We hope the results will lead to replication of the model in other communities’.

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