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3.3. Towards a public policy for the network commons

Much can be done at the regulatory level not only to lift the technical, legal and policy hurdles that community networks run into, but also to actively support them. Several elements presented in the course of this paper—from regulatory capture to the impressive results achieved by these small nonprofit citizen groups—show that this is both an urgent and sound policy move. Considering the increasingly concentrated outlook of telecom markets across Europe, a policy overhaul focused on community networks can indeed help create effective counter-powers to the dominance of commercial operators in the communications infrastructure. Various policy considerations follow from our fieldwork.

First, there are a range of regulations making WCNs’ work and very existence significantly and often unnecessarily difficult. In Belgium for instance, the registration fee telecom operators must pay to the NRA is relatively high, whereas in France, Spain or Germany, it is free—which may explain why the movement is much more dynamic in these countries. It is, therefore, all the more important that registration processes be harmonized at the EU level, and, in particular, that they remain free for nonprofit networks.

Second, several laws seek to prevent the sharing of Internet connections amongst several users by making people responsible (and potentially liable) for all communications made through their Wi-Fi connection. This is the case in France, for instance, where the 2009 three-strikes copyright law against peer-to-peer file-sharing also introduced a tort for improperly securing one’s Internet connection against unlawful activity on the part of a third party. As a result, many community networks who would like to establish open Wi-Fi networks in public spaces, such as parks and streets, refrain from doing so out of legal insecurity. In our view, even though connection sharing might sometimes make law enforcement more difficult by allowing many unrelated users to share the same IP address, this drawback is more than compensated by the benefits brought about by the deployment of open wireless networks.

Third, it is not just Internet wireless access points that can be shared, but also the intangible infrastructure on which radio signals travel. As we have seen, unlicensed spectrum is a key asset for community networks to set up affordable and flexible last-mile infrastructure, but it is currently very limited. In the US, the Federal Communications Commission has initiated promising policies in that field (Farivar 2014). But for the moment, the EU has shied away from similar moves. In 2012, the EU adopted its first Radio Spectrum Policy Programme (RSPP). During the legislative process, the EU Parliament voted in favor of ambitious amendments aimed at opening more spectrum to unlicensed uses (LQDN 2011). Even if some of these amendments were later scrapped by national governments, the final text still calls for member states and the European Commission to ‘assess’ the ‘need for and feasibility of extending the allocations of unlicensed spectrum’ in the Wi-Fi bands, while also voicing tepid support for mesh networks by stressing their potential to foster access to the global Internet. As EU lawmakers were working on the RSPP, a study commissioned by the EU Commission also called for a new 100 MHz of license-exempt bands as well as for higher power output limits in rural areas to reduce the cost of broadband Internet access deployment. Since then, however, EU work on unlicensed spectrum and on flexible authorization schemes which would be more accessible to community networks has stalled. In a communication released in September 2012, the EU Commission failed to announce any concrete action to expand unlicensed use of the spectrum (European Commission 2012). At the national level too, there is unfortunately no policy change in sight.

Fourth, networks built with taxpayers’ money could also be treated as a commons, and as such should remain free from corporate capture. Regulators should ensure that nonprofit community networks can access publicly-funded and subsidized physical infrastructures without unnecessary financial or administrative hurdles. Accordingly, they should review existing policies and current practices in this field, providing transparent information to map publicly funded networks, and mandate rules to allow community networks to use these on a preferential basis.[3]

Of course, countless other policy initiatives can help support grassroots networks, such as small grants and subsidies to help these groups buy servers and radio equipment, communicate around their initiative, but also support their research on radio transmission, routing methods, software or encryption (Shaffer 2013). Like, the most successful of these groups suggest that even little governmental support—either local or national—can make a big difference in their ability to successfully accomplish the ambitious objectives they set for themselves.

But all of these policies point to an overarching issue, namely the need to democratize telecom policy and establish procedures that can institutionalize ‘subversive rationalization’ in this field. In many countries, such as Spain or Italy, even though city councils may occasionally actively support these organizations to the extent that they provide better Internet access to their citizens, regional governments and national regulators have so far largely neglected them. An Italian group, Ninux, feels that ‘the government simply does not understand who or what we are.’ At the EU level, where much of telecom regulation applicable in Europe is ultimately crafted, community networks are virtually absent of policy debates.

Given the revival of community networks in the past years, it is not enough for regulatory authorities to treat citizens as mere consumers by occasionally inviting consumer organizations at the table. Regulators and policy-makers need to recognize that the Internet architecture is a contested site, and that citizen groups across Europe and beyond are showing that for the provision of Internet access, commons-based forms of governance are not only possible but that they also represent effective and viable alternatives to the most powerful telecom operators. Their participants have both the expertise and legitimacy to take an integral part in technical and legal debates over broadband policy in which traditional, commercial ISPs are over-represented. They can bring informed and dissenting views to these debates, and eventually help alleviate regulatory capture. In the very few instances where regulators reached out in good faith to community networks, it led to significant achievements. On one occasion, Wlan Slovenija was invited to actively contribute to a policy debate on a piece of telecom legislation, which translated in the adoption of a Net neutrality provision in Slovenian law in late 2012.

But democratising telecoms policy is not the sole responsibility of institutional actors. If regulators are not ready to listen, community networks must organize politically and pressure them to do so. In Germany, Freifunk’s members claim that it might be paying off: ‘Recently, we have been doing a lot of policy work on the level of the municipality, the districts and the local regulatory bodies,’ reports one member, ‘and we are having some success’ (Mr. Juergen Neumann, pers.comm., 16 May, 2014). For instance, the group has been allowed to conduct a limited experiment in Berlin in the so-called ‘white space’ (white spaces refer to the frequencies in the UHF band left unused by TV and radio broadcasters). Radio signals in the lower UHF bands can go through walls and other similar obstacles, allowing for long distance radio links—potentially across several dozen kilometres—without the need to have the receiver antenna in sight, as it is the case for traditional Wi-Fi bands. The goal, explains that Freifunk member, is therefore ‘to show that we can build inexpensive mesh nodes operating in white space bands with off-the-shelf equipment and demonstrate that the power of mesh multiplies once we are able to use radio frequencies with greater propagation than Wi-Fi.’

To go back to the typology of political action, these examples show that ‘insider’ strategies, i.e. direct engagement with policy-makers, are worth pursuing. In a sign that community networks might increasingly be moving in this direction, many of them are working to form a more cohesive and powerful group to discuss legislative issues and advocate regulatory reforms, for instance within the DIY ISP initiative mentioned above. Of course, a potential problem for sustaining political engagement is the fact that community networks are often run by volunteers whose lack of time and resources may preclude them to participate as actively as the full-time and well-resourced lobbyists of incumbent actors. But overtime, as the movement grows, it may be able sustain its engagement with public authorities, especially if the latter adapts and establish ad hoc contact channels and remote participation mechanisms.

Twenty years after the privatization of national networks in Europe, there is certainly a long way to go for telecom policy to balance the interests of all various stakeholders—including citizens—so as to live up to the social, economic and democratic stakes of Internet governance, of which it is a crucial part. In this process, community networks will undoubtedly have an important role to play. These burgeoning initiatives should invite policy-makers to break away from the narrow focus of past regulatory logics, overly driven by industrial economics and prone to regulatory capture. Bringing the impetus for reform, however, will undoubtedly require on the part of community networks and their allies in civil society to further organize for collective action and make these issues a visible part of the public debate, where they belong.