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Connectivity & Infrastructure: Notes from NetHope’s Global Summit

We certainly saw an increase in the diversity of subjects and many new faces from every corner of our planet.

December 21, 2021

By Duncan Drury, Lead of NetHope’s Connectivity and Infrastructure Working Group

NetHope's annual Summit is always a great opportunity to get new ideas and inspiration for ways to improve the value that NetHope Members can get out of their technology use. While many of us are sad that the Summit again needed to be virtual, the silver lining is that not requiring travel to a particular location allowed for a greater range of both speakers and attendees. As a result, we certainly saw an increase in the diversity of subjects and many new faces from every corner of our planet.

Here are some highlights that I noted from the sessions I attended, with links to the recordings - these are available to those who attended the Summit. (Note: Only Summit 2021 ticket holders can access these recordings until February 15th, 2022. After this time all the recordings will be available to all NetHope Member’s staff regardless of if they attended):

Community Networks are Growing the Internet & Bridging the Digital Divide

Communities in areas unserved by internet service providers and mobile network operators are building their own computer networks to meet the need of business and people of all ages to access the internet. Joseph Bishi gave a deep dive into the Murambinda Community Network in Zimbabwe, which grew from an internet café to a grassroots internet service serving 108,000 users, 80 schools and a hospital, and Michuki Mwangi from the Internet Society gave an overview of this growing movement.

NetHope Members face challenges connecting their staff in the same locations - often the only option is an expensive satellite connection. For several years, NetHope has pioneered the concept of demand aggregation - bringing together the needs of multiple international non-profits to help direct investment in telecoms infrastructure. In many ways, the Community Network concept serves the same purpose, but potentially at a larger scale that seeks to meet that need itself rather than attract commercial investment. A challenge that Community Networks face is stable demand from small scale communities. As a matter of fact, NetHope Members may represent a part of much needed stability that helps community networks get off the ground.

I had two questions following the Summit

  1. Should NetHope Members seek out community networks when looking for connectivity options in difficult locations?
  2. Could NetHope Members, working in a location that is hard to connect, initiate a Community Network as part of meeting their own needs, and build something of lasting value in the community they serve? The Internet Society estimates that it takes a $40,000 investment to get a Community Network up and running. This is likely less than only a small number of international organizations setting up their own VSAT connections. Is this worth further exploration in the Connectivity & Infrastructure Working Group?

Infrastructure For Home, For Work, For the Village

Ok - I chaired this panel session, so perhaps I am biased in thinking it was excellent. Rosalyn Muringo from MSF, Francis Mwaniki, a technology consultant in Kenya, Mark Hawkins from Save the Children and Phil Jackson from Vodafone came together to talk about the changing telecoms needs that have emerged through the pandemic. We heard how NetHope Members had pivoted their approach to connectivity to meet the needs of staff suddenly working from homes and the field, and how ISPs and MNOs like Vodafone had faced the same challenges and found flexible ways to serve their customers better. As Francis Mwaniki said, "our users are all on the cloud now" - we need to design our systems to stop worrying about where the people are located, much as we have done with our servers and online services over the last 10 years. Even as the pandemic eases, we should no longer assume that the majority of our users will be based in a small number of fixed offices. Remote working is here to stay, and flexibility is going to remain an essential demand to manage.

Mobile data collection for Asset Management in WASH in Afar Region, Ethiopia

Brad McSpadden from IRC gave a fascinating retrospective of a 5-year project that used IoT devices to monitor and manage water supply installations in Afar. There are some great learnings here that will apply to any IoT or data collection project including drawbacks and benefits of different methods for connecting IoT devices. For example, GSM is cheaper than satellite, but more prone to outages which impacts the quality of data). In addition, project design (expressions of the importance of data at the outset of the project were greater than the demand for the collected data later) and the it is hard to fund data collection until it is proven useful. While IoT solutions might seem a panacea for low effort automated data collection, human challenges will still be core to the success of IoT projects.

Improving NGO Field Communications Through Low-Earth Orbit Satellites

Leland Graham from Leonardo DRS chaired a lively panel discussion with David Hartshorn from Geeks Without Frontiers, Philippe Schleret from Telesat, and Ram Rao from Leonardo DRS covering many aspects of the forthcoming Low-Earth Orbit (LEO) satellite services so many of us are excited about. We had a great overview of LEO and how it fits into the satcom ecosystem - something that is essential to cut through the hype around a new type of service. This was a great opportunity to hear views from a LEO operator (Telesat), a system integrator as many of us are familiar working with (Leonardo DRS) and a long-time leader in the satcom field (David). As we wait to service in the places we struggle to connect, it is a great time to get more familiar with what is coming up so one can be well placed to make decisions when the services finally arrive. It is particularly important to be informed as a number of competing services will become available within a relatively short period of time. Stay tuned to NetHope's Connectivity & Infrastructure Working Group to keep up to date with developments in this fascinating area.

Inextricably Linked - How the Programs and IT Departments Can Lead Digital Transformation

This workshop run by Ariel Griffin and Max Perez from Children International focused on breaching the cultural divide between the people working in Programs, and IT teams, in our organizations. It was a great to see organizations recognizing that sometimes the way people with different goals and perspectives approach each other can be one of the biggest challenges we face, especially if there is not a focus on connectivity or infrastructure. Nonetheless, facing this can be the source of creativity and new ways of working. I was really impressed by Ari's approach to partnership. We need to develop our skills and approaches in order to best meet the needs of our organizations, however technically adept we may be.

We also welcomed four new Member organizations to the NetHope family. I am very excited about these new Members as they bring different needs and ideas to the table - this helps all Members improve their own practice relating to connectivity and infrastructure. I am particularly excited about the addition of Trek Medics International and Humanitarian OpenStreetMaps Team (HOT) as they are almost purely focused on delivering services digitally to their communities. The journeys that they have taken to get there will guide more traditional NetHope Members who look forward to learning from their perspectives.

As in every year, the NetHope Global Summit was a great place to get fresh ideas, different ways of looking at familiar problems and catching up with old and new friends. Did you attend the Summit? What were your highlights? What did it inspire you to do in 2022?

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