By Mozilla | Nov. 1, 2019 | Fellowships & Awards
In Tanzania, nearly half of the country’s population — some 20 million people — lacks internet access. The problem is particularly acute in rural areas, where close to 90 percent of residents are unconnected and often have to travel many kilometers over many days to reach an access point.
Jabhera Matogoro hopes to bring those millions of unconnected Tanzanians online, and in an unexpected way.
Connecting 20 million people may conjure up images of a massive infrastructure project: thousands of kilometers of fiber optic cables, a small army of network engineers. But Matogoro instead plans to tap into an existing, underutilized resource.
“In 2014, I started researching the possibility of using television white space technology for wireless communication,” Matogoro explains. He studied the issue while earning his PhD at University of Dodoma, and then built an operational community network in Kondoa District using the technique. “The project provided 2,000 people and four education institutions with high-speed internet connections,” Matogoro says.
Now, as a Mozilla Fellow focusing on Open Internet Engineering, Matogoro will embed with the Internet Society (ISOC) and expand that work across Tanzania. “We’re seeing how we can replicate and scale up this initiative,” he explains. In addition to leveraging television white space, Matogoro will also explore the potential of unlicensed spectrum bands.
In the coming months, Matogoro will install local infrastructure with the goal of connecting five community networks to a nearby internet exchange point. This would bring about 500 households and 15 secondary school online. For Matogoro, the household access element is essential: “At home, all household members have a chance to go online, no matter whether they have jobs, go to school, are male or female, children, adults, or elderly,” he says.
His work isn’t exclusively technical, however — education is an indispensable component, too. Matogoro is planning capacity-building workshops to train local network engineers “and achieve technical sustainability,” he says. There will also be seminars for the newly-connected residents, and for the stakeholders hosting the local infrastructure.
Matogoro has seen first-hand how impactful these workshops and seminars can be. When building that pilot network in Kondoa, he was at first apprehensive about participation — but soon found there was no shortage of residents eager to learn, or even to climb a 30-meter tower to maintain hardware.
These community networks will provide access, Matogoro says, but in a way that’s just the start. “A huge number of Tanzanians are left behind,” he explains. “If they’re not connected, they’re not participating in the digital economy. They are missing a lot of opportunities.”
And the country can’t depend on big ISPs to unlock that opportunity. “If we wait for the big mobile network providers or commercial ISPs, it might take us another 40 years to bring the unconnected online,” Matogoro explains. There’s little profit motive — and so community networks must be the way forward, he says.
Matogoro knows he can’t connect 20 million people on his own: “We need policy, we need money and equipment, we need people who are committed,” he says. But he’s already had success rallying like-minded thinkers to his cause: The University of Dodoma, the Internet Society Tanzania Chapter, the South Africa Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, and the Universal Communications Service Access Fund have all signed on as partners. Meanwhile, “the government is increasingly interested in the issue of connectivity,” Matogoro says.
“I know it’s hugely ambitious, but it has to be done,” he continues. “If we can bring 2,000 people online in Kondoa, why not 20 million people in Tanzania?”