CooLab: sustainable telecommunication infrastructure for communities in Brazil

CooLab is a cooperative dedicated to creating autonomous telecommunications infrastructures. Considering that both analogue and digital technologies share the potential of empowering hard-to-reach communities, our aim is to explore new technologies beyond the dominant discourse of digital access, and our research is focused on the development of multiple models of community networks that can be experienced through ethnic, experimental and social uses. We understand that connecting people should be understood as a need to improve local content production and to provide global/local communication as a fundamental human right.
We’re based in Brazil, and have ongoing community networking projects in different parts of the country. Our goal is to provide training and financial support to communities who want to build and maintain their own telecommunication infrastructures. We started at the beginning of 2017, after winning the “most novel” award from the Mozilla Equal Rating challenge with a USD 30,000 grant. The prize made it possible for us to publish a public open call directed to communities in need of connectivity and we received more than 50 submissions from all regions of the Brazilian territory. Amongst these, 5 were selected to start building community-owned and managed networks. We took equipments and spent time to experiment a methodology that counted with the commitment of the community leaders to engage with the wider community including: government and non-governmental organisations, universities, schools and independent researchers. Our technical visits for the installation process took form in a week-long immersion where the neighbourhood was invited to participate in the learning experience who then assumed the responsibility of building an autonomous self-maintained communication infrastructure. Considering that Brazil has less than half of its 200 million population connected, this initiative brings the possibility of complementary solutions for grassrootsorganisations to circulate and have access to information.
Our goal is to establish a sustainable project based on the idea that self-managed telecommunications infrastructures could be made possible by an initial investment to a community who would agree to repay the equipment and training costs back to Coolab within a period of one year. However, we have found that our target communities can afford very little overheads and that it would take much longer before we could have back the financial return from the first experiences. We still believe that communities would be able to pay the investment back, particularly if we adopt a contractual model and support local solidary and creative economy initiatives. Moving forward from our previous experiences, we are seeking a grant to cover another 5 communities, where the model of repayment would be improved and be open to further funding from partners who would support the creation of networks as straight grants, non-recoverable, such as the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation. We are convinced that match-funding will make this project viable and sustainable, and expect to kickstart soon the second edition of this project.