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3. Community networks and new power dynamics in telecom infrastructures

If telecoms policy sets the goal of promoting individual and collective autonomy, what is to be done is the face of growing concentration threats? According to Benkler (2006), law should respond by ‘implementing policies that predictably diversify the set of options that all individuals are able to see as open to them’ (Benkler 2006, p. 152). In the field of communications, this is precisely what community networks can achieve, and the reason why they might subvert the political economy of Internet access.

3.1 The interplay between WCNs and telecom operators

From a political standpoint, following the typology of social movements drawn by Stefania Milan in her analysis of ‘emancipatory communication practices’, we can infer three ways by which community networks can act to counteract existing power dynamics in the telecoms sector.

One way is to address the issue from within the political system, as ‘insiders’, formally interacting with the power holders in order to make them support the deployment of community networks. Another solution is to fight the problem as ‘outsiders’, pressuring both regulators and incumbents from outside the political system, by means of protests, demonstrations and other campaigning tactics aimed at voicing dissent against the practices of commercial ISPs and against the lack of appropriate regulation for community networks.

Yet, most of the community networks we surveyed do not properly qualify as what social movement scholars define as ‘insiders’ (although they sometimes do interact with policy-makers), and much less as ‘outsiders’. Mostly, they fall within the third category—what Milan identifies as ‘beyonders’. They acknowledge that law and regulation will always be late compared to practice and private ordering, and purport to influence the networked ecosystem by remaining beyond the political system. This objective is achieved by building self-organized, decentralized and citizen-owned communications networks and setting up alternative socio-political and technical arrangements as a substitute for the traditional top-down power dynamics typical of traditional institutions. As one member of puts it, ‘our community can show that we can do things in another way, more participative, ethical and transparent, without the extortion of big companies nor the corruption of politicians and opaque public administrations’ (Mr. Pablo Boronat Pérez, pers.comm., 28 March, 2014). In this sense, these networks are ‘prefigurative realities’ that challenge the status quo and ultimately contribute to a new political order (Milan, 2013, pp.126-38): these networks – built ‘for the people, by the people’ – fundamentally embody a form of political action.

WCNs can also be regarded as a distributed counter-power to traditional telecoms operators since they have the potential of being a source of competition to mainstream commercial ISPs. As we have seen, WCN often provide better services than commercial alternatives. What is more, they adhere to specific ethical commitments and governance structures. As opposed to commercial providers, which are sometimes prohibitive cost-wise to the poorest households, and often engage in anti-competitive behavior against the interest of consumers, WCNs promote open and democratic values in governance, network neutrality and consumer protection. They aim for social inclusion and thrive to protect civil liberties. Hence, while they do not directly wage competition against traditional ISP, these nonprofit, community networks serve to increase diversity in the market for Internet access—thereby opening up the range of options available to citizens. This, in turn, affects the operations of commercial ISPs.

WCN also exemplify the process of disintermediation that is characteristic of many other social arrangements brought about by the Internet network. They show that people dissatisfied with commercial offerings can get together and cooperate to create independent grassroots network infrastructures, or simply join those that already exist. From locally-grown food to locally-grown networks, WCNs form part of a wider movement focused on empowering local communities to directly produce and manage the resources that matters the most to them.

At this point in time, however, and although they can be completely autonomous when they operate as closed local networks, WCN eventually rely on third-party intermediaries to connect with the global Internet network. Uplink Internet access is achieved by linking the local network to one or several ‘Internet gateways’ in charge of routing the traffic from and to global backbones. Here, potential bottlenecks resurface.

To obtain such an uplink to the Internet, community networks currently choose from a number of strategies. The first is to use upstream through traditional mainstream last-mile ISPs. Some WCN, like Freifunk in Berlin, prefers not to build any formal relationship with third party ISPs, and simply rely on the goodwill of community members (who are also subscribers of commercial ISPs) to share their commercial Internet connection so as to provide bandwidth and connectivity to the rest of the network. The same is true for Wlan Slovenija.

When relying exclusively on the uplink connections of mainstream ISPs to provide a gateway to the Internet is not possible, or perhaps simply not reliable enough, WCN must act as a legal entity to establish a commercial relationship with transit ISPs. The transit market is generally much more competitive than the mainstream last-mile Internet access markets. Lesser concentration creates a more diverse ecosystem where multinational firms, such as Cogent or Level 3, compete with smaller, local companies. Some of these smaller telecom companies grew out of tech activist circles as community networks, and are keen to offer support (to the extent that it is commercially viable). Diversity therefore drives both competition and cooperation, and allows grassroots community networks to escape the risk of abusive behaviors on the part of incumbent operators.

That being said, one cannot rule out the possibility of a transit operator exerting control over, and even disconnecting, a community network. To the extent that (in both urban and rural areas) a few large telecom operators retain the ability to filter, censor, monitor, and discriminate in online communications, or simply refuse to interconnect, the need for uplink leads to the emergence of new bottlenecks that replicate the problems that community networks aimed to address in the first place. To meet these challenges, some activists have begun to organize: the goal is for community networks to collectively acquire more independence and more bargaining power in the various markets in which they operate, and promote their philosophy in the face of the conflicting value systems of commercial telecom operators who might engage in predatory practices. Indeed, if a given grassroots community network strongly believes in the principles of freedom, openness and individual autonomy, how can it ensures that these principles are being endorsed by the network with which it interconnects to pass on Internet traffic? Or, in other words, how can a free (free as in ‘free’ speech) network remain such when it starts reaching beyond the local community that initiated it?

Such questions are being addressed by the Free Network Foundation (FNF)—a nonprofit organization created to support ‘free networks’—defined as any network that equitably grants the following freedoms to all: ‘Freedom to communicate for any purpose, without discrimination, interference, or interception; freedom to grow, improve, communicate across, and connect to the whole network; freedom to study, use, remix, and share any network communication mechanisms, in their most reusable forms.’ In conjunction with this definition and labeling effort, the FNF seeks to create a license for interconnection agreements—whereby the administrators of independent Internet networks make an agreement for the purpose of exchanging traffic—replicating the ‘share-alike’ provision characteristic of many copyleft licenses and free software licenses. Building on previous reflections, such as the “Pico Peering Agreement” or the “Commons for Open Free & Neutral Network” elaborated by, the idea is to transpose this concept to the realm of network ‘peering agreements’ (referring to settlement-free interconnection agreements), through the establishment of a ‘peer-alike’ provision that would favor free networks over non-free networks. By offering free transit only in exchange of reciprocal values, such a provision could act either as an incentive for non-free networks to convert into free networks, or (at least) as a way for community networks to build bargaining power and better defend themselves from predatory behaviors. This way, community networks could eventually provide a new model for interconnection, one that blurs the distinction between the backbone and the last-mile and federates networks in a decentralized manner, extending in every direction and potentially spawning over whole countries and even across borders. A first experiment of this kind was carried on in 2012, when community networks FunkFeuer from Austria, NEDWirelles from Croatia, and Wlan Slovenija established a wireless backbone spanning across geographical borders to create a direct link between them. As the number of WCNs deployed over the world grow, the potential for establishing a global and independent network infrastructure that abides to the founding principles of the Internet will also increase.