Peter Bloom & Rhizomatica: Connections for Remote Communities

by Chris McGivern & SF Team, 5 February 2019

Peter Bloom is a community organiser and serial social entrepreneur. His Shuttleworth-funded project, Rhizomatica, supports communities to build and maintain self-governed telecommunications infrastructure. It has been incredibly successful on a number of levels and continues to make a lot of headway in connecting remote communities and providing them with alternative means of communicating with the world.

His work is a perfect example of what can be achieved by working openly and he has moved the dial forward, not just in helping people connect with the modern word sustainably, but also in loosening the grip of large, incredibly powerful telecoms companies.

Peter’s Fellowship ended in 2017, and we caught up with him to offer his thoughts on his experience, where Rhizomatica is today, and what the future holds.

Background

Peter’s Fellowship story with Rhizomatica begins in 2008/09, while he worked as an organisational consultant and on storytelling and media issues with a group of human rights and environmental organisations in Nigeria.

“At that point, smartphones were becoming ubiquitous,” he recalls. “I started thinking about combining the media work and documentation with cellphones and smartphones and how we could use this technology for social purposes.

“The devices were cool, but there was a lack of access to the network and when you were sending sensitive documentation over the mobile network, it wasn’t safe. Essentially, this is what birthed the idea of Rhizomatica and I started investigating community-owned infrastructure for telecommunications.”

Peter’s search for a solution over the next couple of years eventually led him to Paul Gardner-Stephen and the Serval Project, who who provided software and advice during the creation of Rhizomatica’s first network.”

“We were in touch for a while,” remembers Peter. “He became a Shuttleworth Fellow shortly after - it’s how I became aware of the Foundation.

“But there were deficiencies with the Serval thing. It wasn’t great with conserving battery life, there were logistical issues and not enough density. It wasn’t a viable alternative, although it was very interesting. As a practical matter it wasn’t the way to go.

“At the same time I was moving out of Nigeria for personal and safety reasons. I also pivoted Rhizomatica from this completely decentralised distributed mobile mesh network which wasn’t technologically feasible, towards a community infrastructure model. So I had the same principles, but was looking for a different way of doing it.”

New Starts & New Inspiration

Peter left Nigeria for Mexico, where he worked for organisation looking at solve communication issues in mountain villages. It was at this point where the spur for Rhizomatica really kicked in. Working in a rural community meant Peter was experiencing at first hand the impact of being truly unconnected to the world.

“There are a lot of people being left behind,” he explains. “We’re at this historical juncture about where telecoms is going. There’s a strong push to connect things to the network and this whole 5G thing and smart devices - that’s where the money is.

“But half the world’s population doesn’t have access to a basic service or Internet. They are always left out of the conversation and being left in the dust. Even at telecoms conferences these people aren’t talked about seriously - they’re just a footnote”

With telecoms providers unwilling to pay for connecting isolated communities, Peter’s work became a lot more focussed as a fundamental social justice issue. He established Rhizomatica as an organisation in 2011, and it wasn’t long after that he met and became friendly with former Fellow Steve Song.

“We met, he liked what I was doing, and said I should apply,” says Peter. “He ended up giving me a Shuttleworth Flash Grant, and around the same time I had to go to Cape Town for an academic conference.

“I thought I would drop by the Foundation offices to meet the guys and say thanks,” he continues. “I really didn’t feel worthy, but met with Jason Hudson and he wanted to hear about my project, and suggested to apply. With everyone telling me I should go for it I gave it a shot.”

The Project: Rhizomatica

Peter’s application promised progress towards connecting underserved communities on their terms, a social challenge Foundation Fellows have been trying to overcome for many years. And it had the potential to break through many of the areas blocking our progress in the past.

Peter admits the timing was beneficial, too. Supported with minimal funding and run by volunteers, it was almost blind faith powering Rhizomatica at the time. Cash flow was a significant issue and even buying basic equipment was problematic.

“I was completely broke,” he recalls. “I’d just had a child, too, so from an economic perspective standpoint I’ll always be grateful for the moment it all came together. It really saved my butt. Personally, it was a really exciting moment - just having a salary made a huge difference to me.

“On a professional level, it gave me the ultimate stepping stone to take the project to the next phase. And confidence to do it, in some way. I realised I could take this thing forward and I didn’t have to worry about everything.”

It was an opportunity Peter grabbed with both hands.

The Fellowship

The start of Peter’s Fellowship in 2014 was geared towards developing and testing all the foundational software and hardware tools. There was a lot to figure out, from establishing the type of software a community needs to run their own network through to working out billing and radio resource allocation.

There was a steep learning curve to overcome, too. Neither Peter nor his team came from a telecoms background - everyone was an activist. They had hackers and people with computer science training but essentially they were trying to make a fundamental change to connectivity whilst learning on the job.

“It was a bunch of us weirdos figuring stuff out,” smiles Peter. ‘Yet we actually managed to start this network. But in the end it became evident this group of people - myself included to some extent - were not the right group to run and take it forward.

“We realised we needed two organisations not just one. So we created this completely separate entity - Telecomunicaciones Indígenas Comunitarias - which runs the network and deals with all the legal stuff. Rhizomatica is more of an engine and runs the processes, whether it’s tech development, fundraising or regulatory advocacy.”

It’s the focus on regulations that has led to another big success for Peter and Rhizomatica. Shifting the debate at policy level is one of the major stumbling blocks for progress in open telecoms, but by the end of the Fellowship Peter had won a full license. It was the first license granted to a community cellular network in the world, and it opened the door to work further with other governments beyond Mexico, as well as international bodies like the ITU and CTEL.

“We have a partnership with another organisation called APC who are doing the same thing in Africa,” says Peter. “We’re trying to take advantage of the successes we have both had in international regulatory spaces and bring them to bear on national regulation together.”

“But the big thing is we’ve opened up huge space regulatorily for these kinds of networks to exist in other places. In both Brazil and Columbia we helped get the first couple of networks off the ground and are supporting as needed from afar.”

An Open Advantage

Peter’s Fellowship has also brought the benefits of working openly to the fore. The practical aspect of building software tools and the knowledge of how to build a network openly has moved the dial and enabled us to think differently about telecoms.

“The whole industry is built around serving large carriers, so there’s this whole cost structure and secrecy built in place within that,” explains Peter. “That makes it almost impossible to use those tools to do something different.

“It’s proprietary, closed knowledge and highly secretive. Every conversation you have with these guys is NDA, NDA, NDA…all day long. It’s terrible for us, and for what we are trying to do.

“The open part was fundamental. Just being able to build it all on open software and to package all that stuff together without having to pay licenses. And then being able to share that with people in the open - and free - was super important.”

What’s Next?

Peter’s journey beyond his Fellowship has carried on with considerable success. Rhizomatica continues to open regulatory space worldwide and empower remote communities, offering training and support to build and manage their own networks sustainably. It is on its way to sustainability, and has also won further funding from a variety of different sources.

“One of the things I think is working in the tech space is that some institutions have started doing competitions,” says Peter. “We have won a few and the prizes are usually pretty big, and it’s generally no strings attached. So that’s been good.”

“We also got money from government development agencies and other foundations. But that is usually a much more engaged process, in the way it’s more like jumping through hoops than the feeling of having a partner.

“With the Shuttleworth Foundation, it’s different. One of its most positive attributes is that the team really support you in whatever way you need, not whatever way they want you to be.”

For the future, Peter recognises that despite considerable praise and recognition, there is still a long slog ahead, and there is no mention of resting on laurels. Keeping up with the new technology developments - such as 4G - takes up a big part of his time and thinking.

“We’re asking how we get our service to places that are really, really far out.” says Peter. “And we just got a nice donation from the Mexican government for satellite capacity. They donated 8 megaherz, which is worth $30K a month or something crazy. So that allows us to build wherever we want - we don’t have to rely on anyone else.

“But building and scaling out existing networks is priority number one. There are millions of people that could become users of these network. We’ve only touched a small number and, almost unfortunately, sometimes it can be a little overwhelming.”

Final Thoughts

Peter Bloom’s Fellowship is a perfect example of why we pursue our open philanthropic funding model. His focus on openness has enabled Rhizomatica to replicate its success for different areas and communities, with each one able to adapt the technology to meet their individual needs. And he has expanded and moved forward the work we have funded with previous telecoms Fellows in a significant way. However, Peter is typically modest about his part in that story.

“I don’t know about my position in that tapestry or history,” he says. “I’m just a practical kind of guy, so the thing I added wasn’t so much crazy out-of-the box thinking. I just wanted to make this technology useful for people.”

Also, as with all Fellows, Peter played a role in the organic way we have made incremental changes to the Fellowship model itself.

“There is one thing that struck me in a very good way,” he recalls. “When I started, it was just sitting in a room with a bunch of Americans and Europeans - like white guys fixing the world. Everyone individually was great, but it felt a weird space to be in.

“It just seemed like it would be healthy for the Foundation to become more diverse. And they made a real commitment to make that happen. I saw it happen almost before my eyes and it was pretty cool. There were more women in the room, more people of colour, people from different countries - it just made it more like what the actual world looked like.

“Another thing changed dramatically,” he continues. “The Foundation started bringing in more people that were expressly radical in their thinking about open. So they had really awesome projects but also understood how to fit them into a larger movement and challenge the status quo in a way that could make the world a better place. There was a real commitment to that and I was kind of in awe of how quickly they pivoted.

“Kudos to the Foundation for that. The new model might have changed ten years ago - but within those ten years it’s changed dramatically - it’s pretty amazing.”

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