Steps to start a Community Network (CN) or an Internet Service Provider (ISP) or a Wireless Internet Service Provider (WISP) or a Shared Network Backbone (Commons Network)
"The internet is like a dam. Building a network is like building pipes to the dam. First you have to see where the dam is. Then you have to find the pipes and learn how to connect them. Then you have to connect them. Then you have to connect taps where people can use them - and in all this you have to figure out how you will pay for the pipes - are you going to sell the pipes, or the water (the data)?"
The network is also like a road - it is a digital road that connects your community to opportunities to communicate and earn money in the digital economy, from right where you live, you can do work and earn money in other countries, without leaving home.
This is some steps you can take to build this road. If you charge too much for people to use the road, they will not be able to get to the opportunities - and if you charge too little, you will not be able to build a good road that can carry lots of people. These steps will help you figure out how much to charge and how to get help, and more importantly, how to start.
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If your location isn't supported, what is the closest location that is - even if it is 200km away?
Do not be discouraged by high prices - if they are high, it means a lot of people are paying that, and you can find them and convince them to pay you instead - or you can share the costs. Also - all prices can be negotiated! Ask how much is 1000Mbps. Then divide that price by 1000 and use that as your starting point for negotiation.
Speed, or how fast the network is, means how much data can flow through the network in a time period - for example, how many web pages, books or pictures you can download in one hour. Most companies measure it in seconds - how many pieces of information can come through the network in one second. The pieces of information is just like little bits "dots" that make a picture, but some bits mean what colour, or the sounds and so on - and it takes about 1 million bits to show you a video or to read a web page - and if you can download that in 1 second, then that is quite quick, so 1 million bits per second is a good minimum speed - this is also called 1 Mbps or "1 mega bit per second". Nowadays our technology is so good that you can even get 1000 Mbps - so it means that 1000 people can download 1 Mbps at the same time from that connection - but the connection is only used when someone is clicking "load" on their device and usually if you look at 10 people using their phone, only or or 3 of them are clicking load at the same time, so 1000 Mbps can support at least 3000 people at the same time - but people don't look at the web pages or videos all day long, maybe only for 1 or 2 hours of the day, and not everybody at the same time of the day. There are some times in the day that most people use the connection - this is called the peak times. In the city it is usually for business connections, when everybody gets to work and check their email at 9am, or for home connections, when everybody goes home and starts to use their connection to study or watch videos or share photos and stories between 6pm and 9pm. In the rural area people don't have lots of time to use the network, so there you can sometimes even share 1000Mbps with 10 000 people or more, but if there are too many people using it at the peak time, then people will have a slow connection then - and that is what you must avoid - by making sure you have a faster connection.
But don't make the mistake of thinking that every connection will be exactly the same. Sometimes your first "customer" can be the most difficult one - don't let that discourage you.
In South Africa, Wazimap can give you quick and easy access to fairly accurate - albeit sometimes slightly out-of-date census data - showing the mobile phone-, internet- and computer penetration data.
Rural and urban connectivity models different substantially. This text is mostly focused on rural, but will be expanded soon. (In a rural area one network can cover a huge area, and interconnect with other networks in other areas - and eventually be split up into smaller networks as the market develops - whereas in an urban setting, it might be best to start with a shared network with installers or small networks each covering separate neighborhoods.)
Also, whatever you think it will cost you, double it. There are license fees, legal fees, and all kinds of taxes that will shut you down if you don't have the revenue to pay for it.
If you can write a proposal that can outline your plan, you can share it with as many people as possible, so that everyone can align themselves with a shared plan. Some people might be hesitant to do this, because they might be afraid that other people will "steal" their plan - this is exactly what you want! If your plan makes it clear how big the network needs to be, and how many people are involved, and how much sharing resources can benefit everyone, then there will be plenty of space for many people to contribute, even while also doing their own thing in the areas where they live.
A proposal can also be customized for investors or funders. Money does not make things easier, it just makes more things happen, so this is why its very important to have plans that have been tested and shown to work well in similar places. We will share plans here that we have used and tested over many years.
You can start small - with just one shared mobile hotspot, or you can start big, with a tower and a lot of hotspots, or you can start very big with a few separate networks in your area run by other people, and a plan to build a shared backbone to support everyone.
The proposal needs to take into account how many other networks could potentially contribute to building a backbone. If there are 5 or more nearby villages with other people, you should build a backbone using high capacity equipment and increase your budget per tower for the whole network to $15000 per tower. Divided by 5 it is cheaper, per network, and each network will get better capacity.
Work out separate proposals for the backbone and for the networks.
We are compiling some templates you can use. Start approaching organizations, government, anyone for funding - and ask them for help in drafting the proposal to them. Also search on the web "how to write a proposal for funding". Industrial development, rural development, and entities like ISOC and APC have small grants, and so do many others. Also go through the options of starting small, vs starting big, vs starting very big.
Join a workshop and lets do it together.
(To find more information on the licenses and resources, consult Zenzeleni Networks' page.)
People need connectivity - if you build really good connectivity, the money and help you need will come looking for you. Don't buy just any hardware, buy hardware that you've seen work in the way that you will need it to work - connecting 100s or 1000s of people, and giving them a good connection. Don't believe what people say, test it for yourself, and ask as many people as you can yourself, and also remember that things change, but people don't always notice the change, so you have to keep testing, and asking, and talking.
Back to the dam analogy, some more important questions to keep thinking about: How are you going to help people understand the costs? When you have paid for all the pipes, and have collected enough money to pay for maintenance and upgrades, are you going to lower the prices? How are you going to deal with mistakes or over spending? How are you going to build trust in your community or market?
Here are some great forums where to search for- or share- information or ask questions:
For steps on registering a company and getting a license in South Africa, steps were written down by Zenzeleni here.