To start a community network the most important factor is the community!
🙌 As a starting point, it is necessary to form a group of people interested in working for the autonomy of their communications, and who feel the need to undertake this project that is so technological but, and above all, so social.
✓ Analyze the community
Socio-cultural analyzes interrelate the factors of the social context that, together with an understanding of the needs, norms and values that define the community, allow a precise formulation of solutions to be made.
The analysis of this reality as a community helps us to make the right collective decisions and generate an identity that represents them.
Decisions regarding the characteristics of the free and community network will be made based on the type of relationships that exist within the community.
That is why it is so important to carry out this analysis so as to anticipate the limitations and needs that may arise in each network project with respect to the people who will use it, as well as the functions and objectives that are to be promoted by the network.
In order to guide yourself in this analysis, please take into account the following:
- What causes have motivated the construction of a free and community network?
- How many people live in the community?
- Who would use the network and for what purpose?
- An estimated census of age brackets, gender or other relevant characteristics can also be undertaken.
- It is important to consider whether a particular condition such as seasonal work activity causes the community population to grow or fall abruptly, depending on the time of year.
- What labor activities predominate in the surrounding area and how could the existence of the network affect them?
- Are there any recurring threats?
- Who takes part in the network, and what usage and access do they have to technological devices?
- According to previous experiences in other projects, what level of social commitment exists within the community?
To note some examples: Networks exist in tourist destinations that have had to limit access during the holiday period. Other localities had to make a plan of “patrons” to assist families that for different cultural reasons were unable to self-manage their node. There are also places that have decided to maintain their network accessible and open in areas of public transit due to the total absence of coverage from other communication services.
Ideally you should create a digital and people network with strong links to the community. To achieve this objective, the inclusion and participation of entities and spaces for the common good is extremely important, such as schools, clubs, government bodies, the media, housing, cultural centers, squares and public transport stops.
✓ Organize the intervention
Design an organization of work, communication, learning and gatherings that involves and inspires everyone to participate is a great and vital challenge for the functioning of a free and community network.
Usually, when people meet together to work collectively, their diversity highlights their unique and complementary personal knowledge and attitudes.
Defining participatory roles, collective areas of work and internal communication methodologies favors the self-management necessary to maintain the project over time.
Choosing a name for the network and designing a representative logo or image contributes to the construction of the collective identity. Creating a website is also supportive.
Defining short and long-term goals, while helping to streamline processes, allows for fluid group activity. Furthermore, this helps channel the will to assume proactive roles in problem-solving and collective participation in decision-making.
It is to be expected that there will be different degrees of commitment from the people participating in the network. Some will put in more effort than others or will develop different skills.
Therefore, it is helpful that there is a well-defined minimum collective commitment that all participants must fulfill to be part of the project.
The elaboration and sharing of the network’s characteristics, discussing what the network is all about, and how people should act and the specific roles of each participant, makes the project much more clearly defined.
Regular face-to-face meetings are a very important tool for generating community meeting spaces, as well as for decision-making, knowledge sharing, planning and problem solving purposes. Meeting together also provides a place where a collective and community identity is forged and encourages other people to join the network.
To give some examples:
There are networks that hold bimonthly meetings, previously preparing a list of issues to be discussed and taking a written record during the meeting. Consequently, a summary of what has been discussed can be shared with those people who were not able to attend the meeting, while also allowing the network to build its own memory archive.
In other cases, face-to-face talks and workshops are organized for people who want to be part of the network. Meetings are sometimes mandatory for new participants.
In some networks, regular conversations between the participants take place through a form of group social media, exchanging opinions, specific problems and information.
✓ Consider the financing aspect
Carrying out an economic analysis will allow network participants to estimate and plan the monetary investment necessary to carry out the project and to sustain it over time.
Knowing the amount of money that is needed for the network to function will allow an evaluation to be made of the various mechanisms of self-management and financing for the different stages of purchase, construction, assembly, repair, expansion and updating of the network.
Thus, on the one hand, participants have to foresee how much money and other resources are needed and, on the other, what needs to be done to obtain such resources.
There are various ways to obtain resources, such as the following:
- Donations and non-monetary exchanges, such as barter
- Direct financing such as subscriptions, monthly fees of the network participants or donations
- Shared capital such as mutual aid funds
- The participation of foundations or civil society associations in the community
- Public financing such as grants or agreements with government entities, as in the case of Universal Service in the countries where it exists and that is beginning to be used for community networks
- Donations or contributions made by companies
- And holding events for collective fundraising purposes, among others.
- A combination of options increases the sustainability of the project.
The initial deployment and construction of the network is usually the most complex and demanding period, given that in addition to the nodes, it will be necessary to obtain the necessary tools and materials and even consider some surpluses to have as spares.
Wholesale and collective purchases significantly reduce costs and generate availability of materials, although at the same time they require a greater monetary investment.
For example, there are community networks where each person who joins has to assume the cost of their node individually. In other networks, only the node is paid for at the time of installation while repairs and updates are covered by a collective fund set up with monthly contributions made by each participant.
There is also a network in which the first nodes were financed by an NGO, a provider from a neighboring town was in charge of the connection with the Internet, and the people who participated in the network carried out the deployment.
✓ Organize administration
Maintaining a reliable record made by the people participating in the network who want to assume the role of administrators is vital for the organized and orderly operation of the network.
This will allow participants to have a collective knowledge of the movements of money, materials, tools and other resources. Some of the most common records are as follows:
- Purchases made and planned.
- An inventory of materials and tools, with the places where they are stored
- A price list of available materials, considering their future replacement
- A detail of money or securities entering the network
- An archive of agreements and important documents for the project
- Maintaining a calendar of periodic responsibilities, such as payments, reports, etc …
- Contact registry
✓ Planning the project’s deployment
Carrying out a technical analysis prior to the deployment of the network allows its participants to efficiently organize tasks and resources. Having everything available when carrying out a task helps members of the group to be agile and well-organized and the work to be completed in a timely manner. This includes both the material and the knowledge required for its realization.
Although there are numerous technological alternatives for building a community network, this model proposes the LibreRouter as a fundamental device. The LibreRouter facilitates the deployment of free and community networks because it was conceived with this objective in mind. The vast majority of nodes on the network will not present great challenges. However, there will be cases that require a more creative or technical focus. The collaboration of external people with specific knowledge may even be necessary to resolve specific problems.
Thos participants who have a more technical profile could discuss, for example, the following issues:
- What will be the structure of the network, both initially and its extensions
- How to strengthen the network by building redundant links and thus reach the same point by more than one path
- Identify nodes with higher data traffic or overexertion and guarantee their correct operation
- Ensure that there is more than one path to the relevant points of the network, such as the connection to the Internet or to local servers
- Identify the need for specific or more powerful equipment
- Resolve unconventional electrical power issues
- Assist with respect to the methodologies of sharing services and content through the network
In some cases, it may be necessary to mount nodes with different antennas from those that others are using. It may also be convenient to deploy sections of the network via cable instead of via air. Some situations will demand unconventional systems of power supply or redundancy mechanisms using batteries. Each network will reveal its technical peculiarities that must be resolved, with patience, creativity and internal and external collaboration.