HOPEX: Community owned and operated cellular networks in rural mexico

Disclaimer: un-cleaned-up copypaste from a shared piratepad for livenotes of this talk. Originals here: http://piratepad.net/hopex

Community owned and operated cellular networks in rural mexico, with rhizomatica

Maka Muñoz and Peter Bloom

Maka begins with context: ´when I say mexico, what images come to your mind?´

The crowd: drugs, corruption, tacos, chocolate. Zapatistas!

For many people, Mexico is synonymous with tourism, narcos, indigenous cultures. How many people have been to Mexico?

About half the crowd raises their hands.

And Oaxaca?

A few scattered hands.

Oaxaca is in the south of Mexico. It’s crossed by 3 mountain chains that made colonization very difficult. So multiple indigenous communities continue to exist there. Many communities have local government, and their own territory.

Decisions in many communities are made by assembly. When a decision like building a road or school needs to be made, townspeople do it together, and do community work. This is called tequio. People also celebrate their culture frequently, and have large yearly parties for the whole community.

Maka shows a sign: “private property doesn’t exist in this community, it’s prohibited to buy or sell here.”

(audience applause)

In 2006, a teachers strike was brutally repressed, and this led to a general insurrection and strike. The people took the town of Oaxaca for 6 months.

Brad Will, along with many teachers and indigenous folks, were killed.

The mass media didn’t cover this, so indigenous women took over 12 radio stations and a TV station. People began to think of the airwaves as a community resource. Community radios have flowered since then, with the highest concentration of community radios in Mexico now.

People see communication as a human right, and desire to control their own infrastructure.

Next is Peter Bloom, coordinator of Rhizomatica

One of the key lessons from recent events is that we need our own infrastructure.

In the US, people are for the most part connected. In Mexico, many who want to connect to the internet, or to cell phone networks, are not. They are deemed too poor, too rural, to be worth building inrastructure to the big telcos. So, they have to do it.
Second, we can’t change our larger situation if the infrastructure remains controlled by giant companies.

So Peter and Maka have learned a lot by working in indigenous communities, places with no private property, it makes you think differently about tech and infrastructure.

Rhizomatica is four people, Peter, Maka, another person who does open telephony software and a lawyer. It’s important to have a lawyer.

The project is funded by selling T-Shirts, and communities help by feeding, housing Rhizomatica folks, and maintaining infrastructure. The point is: you can do a lot with no money.

Right now, they maintain 3 networks. There are 1000 users who use these systems every day, to communicate inside their village and to the broader world.

They install and maintain relatively low cost mobile systems with free and open source software and hardware.

Peter pulls out a box that fits in a backpack: it’s a cell phone network, just connect an antennae. If you want to connect to the global network, put an ethernet cable in it.

So it doesn’t have to be about huge multinational corporations with proprietary hardware and software.

It costs about 10k to set up the entire network. For a big company, putting up a diesel generator, a fence to keep people from stealing, and so on, it costs a lot more.

They use solar if they’re off grid, and so on. They work on a community that had no money for tower, so they mounted it on bamboo.

These networks are owned and managed by the community. So the 10k costs come from the community. They don’t give things away, the project isn’t about donating free cell phone networks, it’s about people building and maintaining their own. Generally 10k is within the community’s grasp. They also learn how it works.

They sign people up for service, they cancel service, they have community assemblies about how much cell service should cost.

So they set up local networks. The radius depends on a lot of different things. Mountains, foliage, humidity are all factors. But they set up local networks to cover communities. All the local networks participate in an umbrella organization. Communities elect members to be part of the org.

There’s local ownership and local control of each network, as well as a federation of all the networks. It’s participatory and all that, but also creates a political base to defend the work they do. The state is always willing to come shut your network down, unless you have a way to defend it.

There is money that changes hands, the idea is to break even, allow the village to recoup investment, pay monthly costs like electricity and internet. They give a small amount to Rhizomatica. 30 persos per user, 20 stays in the community, 10 goes to them, which is enough for them to eat, travel around to communities.

Mexican TelCos are dominated by Carlos Slim, (one of) wealthiest people in the world. Monopoly on media system.

This came into existence due to neoliberal reforms in Mexico in the 1990s. In the case of TelMex, they basically gave it to Carlos Slim. The Mexican regulator hasn’t forced private companies to serve poor indigenous and rural communities.

Many communities show them letters, begging them to connect them to cell service or internet.

Peter personally hates cell phones, BTW.

So, how do we make these networks in a way that’s good? By working with communities.

People do want to have access to phones. They don’t go and convince communities to do something, the community has to come ask them. People do want to be connected. At the same time they work in indigenous communities where there is a ‘traditional’ way of life, still. Tequio, assemblies, and other community practices.

They don’t try to change things, like ‘everyone can attend the assembly by SMS’ or any stupid shit like that [audience laughs].

People decided they wanted the length of calls to be limited. Didn’t want to dissipate community life by letting people just talk to one another endlessly on free phone calls.

3 main hacks:
– technological
-policy
-social

Tech hack: to learn more about the technical details, come to the workshop tomorrow at 1pm. You can learn about the software they’ve written to help people manage cell phone networks. They work with wireless ISPs, they stay away from Satellite ISPs. Get a dedicated line, do outbound stuff via VOIP.

Biggest hack has been on policy front. The government was pressured into giving them a license! They have a concession to operate in 5 states in southern Mexico. The total population is 21 million people, in these 5 states. They try to stick to areas that have no coverage.

They think it’s better to ask for forgiveness than ask for permission. If you try to ask the FCC or the Mexican regulator to do something, they just wait it out, for years. So Rhizomatica went to IFETEL with a signed petition by 30 communities, exercising their right under UN treaties, with a legal claim they thought was quite strong, and a line in the Mexican telcommunication law that says somethin about unused frequency. Large companies get their frequency permission, then don’t operate in many areas.

The law recently changed, not sure what it will mean.

But they found a clause that allows use of unused frequencies.

Also, they had already built the network.

[laughter]

So, they put the regulatory body in a very tough position: come into this indigenous community, where they decided by consensus to build a network, and spent their own money to build it, and come shut it down. That wouldn’t play well on the news.

So the government saw that it wasn’t a good idea to shut them down. They came with olive branch and stick at the same time. They got the concession!

They can’t interfere with other operators, but can do what they want. They have to be a noncommercial network.

Regulators are honest about that.

One regulator said “if I do anything that hurts the big companies, my wife won’t sleep with me, she works at one of them.” That’s hard to compete with.

You can do amazing things with wifi. .14% of spectrum is open (unlicensed). It’s a joke. Everything that hackers want to do has to be crammed in there. They are trying to advance the idea that spectrum is a territorial right.

[LOST CONNECTION 🙁 Talk ends with discussion of the importance of the social, over the technical, for successful DIY Mobile networks.]