Internet by the people, for the people – a view from the Digital Empowerment Foundation

The Digital Empowerment Foundation believes building community networks is something everyone can do. And people are doing it.

Internet connectivity may be important for our global society, but in rural India it’s a luxury not many villages have access to. Osama Manzar, the founder of the Digital Empowerment Foundation, has spent the last decades trying to change that. The former journalist turned digital developer works to create equity in Internet in India.

In many parts of the world, Internet connectivity and infrastructure are set up by private entities and companies. But these entities do it for profit, not for human good, and in rural areas, the benefit-cost ratio doesn’t compel them. Manzar fights the lack of development by going into villages all over the country

Masts installed in the Daun area of Valmikinagar Wildlife Reserve forest, in West Champaran, India. Photo: courtesy of the Digital Empowerment Foundation.

“Internet is not necessarily technologically advanced,” he said. “Anyone can install it and be knowledgeable in it. Electricians and carpenters learn their trade on their own in a non-technological manner, and Internet can also be done like that. If you see people who manage their connectivity within the house, they’re not technical but they learn how to manage it. You can create that level of confidence and anyone can do it.”

And people are doing it. Dozens of villages across rural India are now connected and running on their own, with the residents in charge of upkeep, tech, and maintenance. Manzar has been working to eradicate what he calls information poverty in the country since 2002 via the Digital Empowerment Foundation.

We have built 150 community networks in India, and trained hundreds of thousands of people,” Manzar said. “We want all villages to have these networks and govern themselves.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has heightened the need for this connectivity on virtually every level, according to Manzar. People are suddenly talking about the digital divide because the virus has pushed everyone inside, he says.

“When you are stuck at home, you have to work from home, get educated from home, get medical attention at home,” he said. “Everything you were going out for, you have to get to home, and when you bring everything to home, you need digital infrastructure, so you can communicate for your disaster necessities. You are now dependent on that infrastructure so much more.”

So, he coordinates this connectivity. These wireless connections are not just point-to-point in the abstract. They are dealing with both distance and line of sight. When creating small community networks, the points of connectivity must be close enough together to keep the signal, and just as importantly, there must be nothing in the way, blocking the path of the signal, including natural topography.

“You want to look for natural heights: hills, buildings, water tanks, and the like; things that don’t cost money. We use old iron rods, and things like that.” Manzar said. “There is a great sense of culture that we create locally that you can not only own the network, but you can build the network physically by manipulating all these factors.”

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