In Mexico the first indigenous mobile phone network is under attack

Mexico's only indigenous service provider that provides telephone and internet access to rural communities is at risk of closure due to an ongoing battle with the government. Español

Jacobo Nájera Giovanna Salazar
9 February 2018

Photo taken from public Facebook profile Redes A.C., member organisation of Telecomunicaciones Indígenas Comunitarias, A.C. Global Voices: All Rights Reserved.

Indigenous Community Telecommunications, the first and only indigenous service provider that facilitates affordable mobile phone and internet services to rural areas of Mexico, might be forced to stop operating.

In July 2016, Mexico's Federal Institute of Telecommunications (IFT) granted the first license to operate a telecommunications network for indigenous community use to the non-profit organization Indigenous Community Telecommunications.

This non-profit, community-driven structure has since given economically marginalized indigenous communities greater and more affordable access to mobile communications networks than they have ever had in the past. The local, community governance of the network means that people are able to use it on their own terms, rather than those of a large corporation.

The local, community governance of the mobile network means that people are able to use it on their own terms, rather than those of a large corporation.

The project had originally provided GSM (2G) mobile phone service to some 20 isolated communities in the southern state of Oaxaca under an experimental license. With the IFT's historic decision, Indigenous Community Telecommunications was authorized to provide voice and data services, to operate for a 15 year period, and even to expand to the states of Guerrero, Chiapas, Veracruz and Puebla.

Such agreements typically require the provider to pay a set fee for the use of radio spectrum but, in this case, Indigenous Community Telecommunications filed an appeal requesting exemption from payment, arguing that their operations are not-for profit and have no commercial use.

Erick Huerta, a legal advisor for the Indigenous Communal Cell Phone Network (which is part of Indigenous Community Telecommunications) told El Financiero newspaper that one of the main problems faced by indigenous community-run service providers is that the payment of fees established by law does not differentiate between a community service provider and a commercial one.

According to Rhizomática—the organization in charge of facilitating the construction and maintenance of infrastructure for the Indigenous Community Telecommunications’ network -, one of the main differences between community and commercial telephony is, precisely, the central role that the community plays.

A network for indigenous community use is not designed to earn money, and thus could never afford to pay the high fees commercial networks do.

Commercial telephony depends on the decisions of the operator and is for profit. Community telephony, on the other hand, depends on the decisions of the community members. Instead of profit, its objective is communication among communities, which are often located in remote areas, and maintenance of the network.

A network for indigenous community use is not designed to earn money, and thus could never afford to pay the high fees commercial networks do. The network currently provides mobile phone, SMS and data services to more than 3.000 households in remote areas for 40 pesos per month (2 US dollars per month). In addition, of the 40 pesos charged, 25 go to the community and 15 to the association (The Indigenous Community Telecommunications), which uses this money for maintenance of the network.

However, on November 15, 2017, as reported by El Financiero, the Second District Court for Administrative Matters in Economic Competition, Broadcasting and Telecommunications denied the request for exemption.

Rodrigo Huerta Reyna, coordinator of the legal department of Indigenous Community Telecommunications, explained to the independent news website Sin Embargo: “We have a concession title for indigenous community use of certain frequency bands of the radio spectrum. The title was granted in September 2016, and for the 2016 and 2017 period they are charging us 900.000 pesos, plus what continues to accumulate over the years. […] We provide service to communities that are not viable economically and that obviously cannot pay this amount of money. In addition, we are not profit-oriented as commercial operators are”.

Currently, the resolution adopted by the Second District Court for Administrative Matters, Specialized in Economic Competition, Broadcasting and Telecommunications, is being legally challenged by Indigenous Community Telecommunications.

Commenting on the resolution, Huerta Reyna told Sin Embargo: “We think that we have the legal arguments to win the writ of amparo and be exempted from the payment. This is the only telecommunications service that these communities have, historically they have been left out, they do not have services and networks do not reach them. We believe the law should contemplate a clear exemption for this type of operator”.

Commercial operators have long been arguing that these communities do not represent profitable business for them. As a result, since 2013, these communities have learned to operate the technology themselves, as well as to oversee the economic and legal administration of such services.

The current battle over radio frequency fees touches on the question of how important it is for the country's telecommunications regulator to establish a management model in accordance with the reality of Mexican indigenous communities.


This article was previously published by Global Voices. Read the original here.

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