15th Nov 2022

Introducing Social Internet Service Providers

The concept of a Social ISP (Internet Service Provider) has been developed by Karugrid, Poutanet and Earth 3.0 Foundation for accelerating the digitalization of public services especially in Africa both in urban and rural areas, and delivering services equally all the way to most remote areas and under-served communities. The concept was introduced at the Smart Cities track of the IEEE 8th World Forum on Internet of Things (WF-IoT) 2022.

In low- and middle-income countries, projects on e-government, and digitalization of education and healthcare face enormous challenges and often even fail. An underlying baseline reason for this is that most people lack connectivity and, therefore, cannot access the new services. Such projects may lead to even increased inequality if a minority with connectivity can enjoy the new service while the majority cannot. The closing of schools during the pandemic acted as an eyeopener: remote education did not work in the unconnected and under-served regions. Digitalization needs to be democratized and accelerated. That is what social ISPs are designed for.

Today, smartphones and mobile networks are the dominant combination for accessing the Internet - and there is no significant change in sight. However, the mobile operators are struggling when it comes to connecting the unconnected in under-served regions. They are caught in a vicious circle of 40% annual data traffic growth and flat revenues. Building capacity for keeping the existing customer base is far better business than connecting the unconnected.

A Social ISP builds on top of local communities' ability to set up infrastructure and services for themselves. Digitalizing schools, healthcare and other public services is a public undertaking – and needs to have the backing of the authorities. From the technology viewpoint, a Social ISP is a networking service provider using easy-to-install community-operated base stations and user equipment to create the mobile networking system. In Europe, similar activity is called as private mobile network provider.

The social ISP should build coverage where users need it and enable communities to build coverage themselves where they need it. If the target is to connect rural schools, then let the social ISP bring small mobile networks to those schools.

However, usually the most expensive part of the project is the Internet connection. In order to reduce the load on that expensive link, it makes a lot of sense to run some digital services locally. At the remote school, a web server hosting the learning content would be a good and affordable example. The extra benefit of this is that the material is available even if the Internet connection is not working. In Africa this happens from time to time, and is mainly due to the power outages shutting down the communication links in the backhaul network.

At the same time, in a remote location, it is also beneficial to set up a self-sufficient smart off-grid solar power system with sufficient energy capacity (batteries) serving the telecom equipment as well as the most urgent needs of the community. These needs typically include lighting and charging of mobile devices. However, such solutions enable running of small businesses, restaurants, cold storages etc. with affordable effort and investment.

Through such a comprehensive system solution, Karugrid and Poutanet form a coalition acting as a new kind of Telecom Renewable Energy Services Company (TRESCO) that enables the Social ISP model to all locations from city outskirts to rural countryside.

In the remote school example the relationship between the Social ISP and the community it serves is symbiotic. This has several benefits. Community engagement and involvement reduces operative costs, increases the experience of local ownership of the solution, and improves the perceived quality of service. Discussions about plot/site rental are obsolete and problems get fixed by the community-run approach. Naturally, this requires that the deployed system is simple enough, easy-to-use, and safe to be handled by people without special skills. The Social ISP is run by the members of the community, who are served by and thus motivated to take care of the system.

Community hosting and building for demand make the Social ISP business case look very different from that of a new mobile operator. Both CAPEX and OPEX are initially significantly lower. If the initial customers are in education, healthcare and other public services, there is no need for a complex business support system or a costly retail channel that needs to be supported with massive marketing efforts. Under these assumptions the price tag for a data service can be set quite low while maintaining a profitability that supports growth and attracts investors.

Using small cell radio base station and devices that do not require high masts or a lot of supporting equipment allows building the network in an agile manner for fulfilling demand instead of meeting preset coverage targets. This means that deployed systems can be taken into productive use immediately.

However, a regulatory challenge in most African countries is that the Social ISP would not get access to the needed radio frequencies, the spectrum. It would lose the "beauty contests" against incumbent operators as it per definition does not have a firm rollout plan with population coverage milestones and it would not score points on the service offering. All the makeup needed for the beauty contest with this regard is missing. Therefore, for regulators, the request is to enable reasonably priced local frequency licenses for such regionally operating communities that wish to set up the Social ISP operations in their surroundings. For the Social ISP restrictions on the service offering (e.g. no telephony) or a use it or lose it scheme are completely acceptable.

We argue that Social ISPs do not require rocket science. This is just about allowing a slightly modified business model that builds on proven technologies. Small changes make a big difference.

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