October 29, 2020

Future Fibre: Telecomunicaciones Indígenas Comunitarias

The combination of open source technology and legacy technology makes it possible to setup networks that are affordable and offer quality that is good enough for the needs of users who otherwise might have nothing.

Future Fibre: Telecomunicaciones Indígenas Comunitarias

Rhizomatica and Zapatista inspired Internet

As part of our ongoing Future Fibre series we’ve profiled communities in Europe and North America, however we’ve neglected our companeros in Mexico, largely due to my Spanish not being as strong as my English or even French. So today let’s take a look at a fantastic project in Southern Mexico that seeks to help indigenous communities take control of the Internet and by extension their economic and political futures.

Established in 2012 by a group of hackers, activists, and indigenous community leaders in the region, TIC emerged from centuries of grassroots political movements and philosophies that have extolled the importance of autonomy, communality, and collectivity. From its base in of the city of Oaxaca de Juárez, TIC has implemented independent, community-owned cell phone networks in at least 63 indigenous communities of Zapotec, Mixtec, and Mije origins — making it the largest community-owned cell phone network in the world. The effort has provided daily service to more than 3,500 people despite some of the harshest conditions for building communications networks in Mexico — elevation, rain, dense forests, and the absence of other reliable infrastructure like electricity.
Whereas commercial mobile service competitors such as TelCel and Movistar charge for service at rates its users can’t control or negotiate, TIC offers cheap service owned by its community of users. Rather than use “access” to technology to extract as much money as possible from an already economically poor population, TIC has aimed to build upon the values of self-determination that run deep in indigenous Mexican cultures, and to blaze a trail toward the democratization of technology.
The communities that use TIC span the Sierra Juárez, Mixe-Alto, Mixteca, and the Sierra Sur regions surrounding the Oaxaca valley. In 2012 the town of Villa Talea de Castro (Sierra Juárez) became the first to join the collective, which today includes fourteen participating towns. Throughout these regions, TIC has enabled the construction of mobile phone towers and a functional, affordable cell phone system while transforming its users into active creators and owners of their own networks.

Part of the point of community owned telecom networks lies in the power of configuration. It’s not just that profit centric networks focus on charging a margin to generate a return, but they also choose to configure and construct networks that ignore actual usage, which tends to be local.

Most TIC-connected communities currently operate and maintain autonomous networks. Each community owns GSM (cell phone towers), which are then connected to the internet via partnerships with ISPs; tethering traditional phone service to the internet allows members to make longer-distance calls via Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) technology. Individual users pay a maintenance fee for the TIC connection, which then allows them to call one another locally and across regions for a fraction of the normal, commercial price.
TIC has designed technology directly for its user communities. Yet it is important to note that long-distance calls, even within Mexico, are often routed through U.S.-based data servers. Still, TIC users can call relatives in Los Angeles and the United States for pennies on the dollar, a far cheaper rate than the costs for those who live in large Mexican cities.

The use of VoIP is one way to lower costs, but favouring local exchanges and incentivizing local traffic also keeps overall costs low and allows users to embrace communication as a social utility rather than an economic expense.

We previously profiled MuralNet, a US based organization that focuses on empowering indigenous communities, however TIC and their partner organization Rhizomatica re different, if only because the culture in Mexico is different.

Rhizomática, the nonprofit that helped establish TIC, draws its name from the philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, who used the term “rhizome” to reject the common perspective that knowledge is centrally produced and then passed on to the margins. The rhizome presents knowledge as decentralized, as a network that consists of multiple, laterally connected entry and exit points. The word comes from the plant sciences, where it refers to the underground, horizontal stem of a plant from which upward roots and stems form.
Unlike the trunk, the foundation of the plant in a root-tree system, the rhizome is not organized in a centralized, discrete, or fixed pattern. The rhizome, dynamic rather than fixed, grows outward in multiple directions at once, providing a model for organic thinking in a nonlinear, multiplicitous way.
The rhizome’s structure is similar to what scientists have found in the world of mushrooms. Research shows that the rhizome of a plant does not exist in isolation, but is actually connected to other plants and fungi through mycelial networks. Indeed, some scientists argue that the largest living biomass on our planet is not the giant Redwood or Sequoia trees, but the intricate, complex, and massive network of mycorrhiza mycelia. Plant rhizomes and these mycelia are in partnership — they exchange carbohydrates and nutrients with one another, forming a symbiotic relationship that allows plants to remain healthy and develop intricate systems of communication that aid their survival. Paul Stamets, an expert on fungus, has referred to these networks as “Earth’s natural Internet.”

Rhizomatica is a remarkable organization, with TIC being an excellent example of what their work leads to.

Active since 2009, Rhizomatica is on “a quest to make alternative telecommunications infrastructure possible for people around the world dealing with oppressive regimes, the threat of natural disaster, or the reality of living in a place deemed too poor or isolated to cover.”

This kind of political approach is refreshing, and their website and social media feeds reflect not just a focus on telecom but a larger focus on political economy and social development.

From their about page: “We create open-source technology that helps people and communities build their own networks. We advocate, agitate and organize to gain access to spectrum for these networks and those that people might want to build in the future. And we create organizing and sustainability strategies so that these networks can thrive without exploiting users.”

Both Rhizomatica and TIC are relatively small, in terms of staff or personnel, and yet their impact is substantive when it comes to community organizing.

Over the coming weeks, we will be sharing stories from the participating community networks about the local impacts of the work they carried out with the help of this funding. Today’s story comes from Blanca Cruz from Telecomunicaciones Indigenas Comunitarias A.C. (TIC A.C.) and Redes por la Diversidad, Equidad y Sustentabilidad A.C (Redes A.C.) from Mexico. TIC A.C, along with the Unión de Cooperativas Tosepan – a network of cooperatives with more than 35,000 members made up by Nahua and Tutunaku people from the northern Sierra of Puebla – and Redes A.C., have been working together for more than a year in order to create a full communication strategy which includes an autonomous cellular mobile telephony network and self-built and self-managed internet infrastructure, as well as community radio and creation of local contents.

The impact of their work is remarkable and widespread. As I’ve been reading up on them, I’m not only impressed by their work, but the work that they’ve inspired or helped prototype as a result of the past decade of efforts.

In 2012, Rhizomatica assembled a ragtag team of engineers and hackers to work on the project. They decided to experiment with open-source software called OpenBTS—Open Base Transceiver Station—which allows cell phones to communicate with each other if they are within range of a base station. Developed by David Burgess and Harvind Samra, cofounders of the San Francisco Bay Area startup Range Networks, the software also allows networked phones to connect over the Internet using VoIP, or Voice over Internet Protocol. OpenBTS had been successfully deployed at Burning Man and on Niue, a tiny Polynesian island nation.
Bloom’s team began adapting OpenBTS for Talea. The system requires electrical power and an Internet connection to work. Fortunately, Talea had enjoyed reliable electricity for nearly 40 years and had gotten Internet service in the early 2000s.
In the meantime, Huerta pulled off a policy coup: He convinced federal regulators that indigenous communities had a legal right to build their own networks. Although the government had granted telecom companies access to nearly the entire radio-frequency spectrum, small portions remained unoccupied. Bloom and his team decided to insert Talea’s network into these unused bands. They would become digital squatters.

The combination of open source technology and legacy technology makes it possible to setup networks that are affordable and offer quality that is good enough for the needs of users who otherwise might have nothing.

Similarly the focus of these community networks are on local usage and empowerment, rather than extraction of data or profits. This not only keeps prices low, but fosters stronger local connections and economic activity.

Their efforts paid off. The community network proved to be immensely popular, and more than 700 people quickly subscribed. The service was remarkably inexpensive: Local calls and text messages were free, and calls to the United States were only 1.5 cents per minute, approximately one-tenth of what it cost using landlines. For example, a 20-minute call to United States from the town’s phone kiosk might cost a campesino a full day’s wages.
Initially, the network could handle only 11 phone calls at a time, so villagers voted to impose a 5-minute limit to avoid overloads. Even with these controls, many viewed the network as a resounding success. And patterns of everyday life began to change, practically overnight: Campesinos who walked 2 hours to get to their corn fields could now phone family members if they needed provisions. Elderly women collecting firewood in the forest had a way to call for help in case of injury. Youngsters could send messages to one another without being monitored by their parents, teachers, or peers. And the pueblo’s newest company—a privately owned fleet of three-wheeled mototaxis—increased its business dramatically as prospective passengers used their phones to summon drivers.
Soon other villages in the region followed Talea’s lead and built their own cellphone networks—first, in nearby Zapotec-speaking pueblos and later, in adjacent communities where Mixe and Mixtec languages are spoken. By late 2015, the villages had formed a cooperative, Telecomunicaciones Indígenas Comunitarias, to help organize the villages’ autonomous networks. Today TIC serves more than 4,000 people in 70 pueblos.

The political and philosophical elements of Rhizomatica are fascinating, and reflect both their community centric methodology as well as their commitment to critical theory and pedagogy.

Here’s another excerpt from the MIT article cited at the start of today’s issue:

A little-recognized but powerful mode of innovation called “broken-world thinking” can often flourish from within environments of constraint, inaccessibility, and systematic exclusion. Loreto Bravo, a community radio activist based in Oaxaca, describes the TIC effort as “a techno-seed that inhabits a communal ecosystem; an ethical-political bridge between the hacker community of the free-software movement and the communities of indigenous peoples in Oaxaca, in the South-East of Mexico.” Here she points out that the project brings technology activists concerned with checking the power of telecom companies and surveillance systems together with indigenous peoples interested in greater sovereignty over their lives.
Indigenous philosophers from Oaxaca, including Jaime Martinez Luna and Floriberto Díaz Gómez, have coined the term comunalidad to describe the sense that community and interdependence — not the individual, his sense of self, or illusion of freedom — are at the heart of life. In his book “The Wealth of the Commons,” Gustavo Esteva explains that this philosophy is “about displacing the economy from the center of social life, reclaiming a communal way of being, encouraging radical pluralism, and advancing towards real democracy.”
Comunalidad is not an abstract political philosophy but is near and dear to the languages and practices of most of Oaxaca’s rural indigenous communities. One way it is practiced is through the asamblea, gatherings of as many as hundreds of community members who discuss and eventually vote on matters of shared concern. TIC likewise organizes itself through collective assemblies that are attended by each partner community. Comunalidad is in all things social and cultural, Esteva explains, in contrast to the atomizing approach taken by telecom corporations that establish contracts between an individual and corporation, one at a time.

This kind of community engagement and governance is fascinating, and the dynamics behind it are touched upon in this news report about TIC:

Part of the purpose of the Future Fibre series is to demonstrate the diversity that exists within the community Internet and telecommunications movement. Similarly another goal is to find case examples that show how community Internet can be cheaper, more efficient, more accessible, and feed into larger goals and values like economic development and social justice.

Rhizomatica and TIC are a great example not just because they live up to the goals we associate with community Internet, but also because they demonstrate the willingness and eagerness for communities to play a greater role in the governance and management of their telecommunications infrastructure.

One of the biggest myths of telecom and the Internet is that it exists within the domain of experts and that the knowledge is impenetrable and beyond the grasp of regular people. Yet the reality is that this knowledge can and should be given to users, and those users are then in a position to control and manage their own communication networks.

TIC demonstrates this fantastically. We’ll be sure to support their efforts, and follow the ongoing work of Rhizomatica closely.

Finally, here’s a longer form video doc on TIC, that while in Spanish, is relatively accessible if your Spanish language skills are modest to non-existent.