By Naim Zard
Through the Beyond the Net Funding Programme, the Internet Society Foundation supports Internet Society Chapter projects that promote the development of the Internet and its use to empower people and transform lives around the world. We’ve invited the project leads to share their stories.
Today, we read about advancements in technology, including terraforming Mars – yet more than half of the world is still without a proper Internet connection.
It’s not just developing nations that lack access. Rural areas are affected, too.
Community ISPs can answer this gap. Locals build and operate networks covering the last mile for their communities in return for monthly subscriptions. Since they are close to their service area, they have lower maintenance costs, which gives them an edge over big ISPs. Also, community ISPs contribute to sustainable development because they don’t depend on government grants to keep going. They are self-started, autonomous, and they create local jobs, which is good for the economy.
Starting a community ISP, like any business, has its own challenges. It requires initial capital costs and there is a learning curve. The capital costs go for buying cables, wireless gear, client-premises-equipment (CPE), leased lines subscriptions, and setting up monitoring and management systems. Learning the technicalities and business best practices can be found online. There are also virtual communities to get help and discuss everything from technical to business matters.
About ten years ago, we wrote software to manage the billing for a local ISP in Lebanon. The results were so great that a couple of neighboring ISPs asked to have it installed. We were happy about that and installed it for free. Then we started getting more requests from ISPs all over the country. We decided to set up a website and automate the installation process. Surprisingly, after launching our website, we received email from India, South Africa, and Pakistan. We discovered that community ISPs are not restricted to Lebanon – they are everywhere, specifically in rural and remote areas. We have engaged with the ISP community globally and have learned about industry challenges.
Zima and the Beyond the Net Funding Programme – Supporting Community ISPs
Since we discovered how important community ISPs are to connecting the remaining half of the world, we have been dedicated to empowering them in many ways. First, by working on making Zima accessible for all countries, regions, and languages. Second, by doing research about the pressing challenges facing the industry and publishing solutions and best practices.
One of our recent studies is on Internet peak time and the metrics that guarantee complete transparency between ISPs and their end users. The transparency about Internet offerings is currently a highly-debated topic worldwide. In Lebanon, for example, shared bandwidth plans represent more than 90% of residential Internet offerings. Our Beyond the Net project’s aim is to provide the metrics that make ISPs accountable. The study is based on Contention Ratio, which indicates how much an ISP is over-subscribed. If the methodology proves simple enough, it can be included in future regulations about transparency in bandwidth offerings.
In addition, our support from Beyond the Net will help make the Zima Network Mapper software a free tool for everyone. Zima Network Mapper includes an adjusted geographical map where community ISPs can draw and save their network layouts. Community ISPs can also store information about their antenna’s sectors bands, IPs, and other important information. They can measure cable lengths on the map instead of having to measure them on-premises – which takes a lot of time and effort. Currently, the alternative to Zima Network Mapper is pen and paper or using diagram software not adapted to this work.
We are happy to have learned about the Beyond the Net grants programme and we’re thankful that it will enable us to finish these projects. Stay tuned for periodic updates about our progress.
Naim Zard is a computer engineer turned product manager of a framework for community Internet providers called Zima. Remote and rural areas are often abandoned by the government and big telcos but when the local people decide to take charge of connecting their communities, Zima is there to make it possible.