Keeping it simple: Toward key factors for a successful & sustainable network

We had a discussion in a closed group and this message came up. I am posting it here so we can develop it further here.

I met a hot dog vendor in East London the other day - and he said something funny but true: There is nothing that is too heavy to carry - if you can make it look easy or cool carrying it. This has really stuck with me.

I think we’ve all seen a lot of money wasted on big projects, with no results. This thread is so we can try to come up with the simplest important rules or aspects of network building. I think if it is simple, then it is easier to keep track of, and explain, and understand - and if everybody can understand it, you have a better chance of success, so here goes my suggestion from my experience.

Sustainability is a simple equation:

  1. Skills (verified, tested, skilled people and training materials)
  2. Finances (funding of staff and equipment and connection)
  3. Admin (accountability, transparency, competence)
  4. Use (utility, understanding, social and gender, etc.)

There are of course other very imporant things like Equipment, and Market, and Uplink, and even regulatory. But those all come with the Skills in my opinion.

I will elaborate more on each:

  1. Skills need to be volunteered-, hired in- and developed, but not in a way that will lead to “brain drain” where people with skills leave the project or community before there are other people who can take their place. The right people will bring with them expertise about everything else, including the equipment, configurations and good pricing. Communinity consultation is also a skill, and will come with people that are good communicators - technical people don’t always value this highly enough, so you will usually need several advisors and helpers with different skillsets.
  2. Finances means finding the right price for everything from the main link, to the equipment, to the vouchers or access that is sold, to the people. Charge the business and government a lot because they demand a lot and haver easy access to money, and charge the people less because they need less and have less money. But find the right price, because then everything will work. It is like price of parking in city: if it is too cheap, then there will never be parking because all spots will be taken. Too expensive and nobody can use. Right price then lots of people come and go all the time which is good. (For example, even if you have to pay a good network engineer more than for your whole network’s equipment, if they give you a good plan that works, then it might be worth it, because it might be able so save you literal years of work. Offer to pay them later, when it works. But even the smartest person’s advice can be gotten for free if there is someone else to implement it, so skills is clearly more important than finances.)
  3. Admin means having systems and people who are able to follow all the documentation and accounting processes you need to manage the finances and to be able to know what is where, how much it cost, and to discover is someone is stealing and also to prevent people who understand the admin, from controlling other people just because they have the knowledge and other people don’t.
  4. Use is what people do with the connection. This usually takes care of itself, just like people just use roads that exist, because they can see that there is a road, but you can promote what people can do using the connection to improve their situation or how to share what they know to help others. But if you are working in a really rural or unique community, there might not be much on the internet for them yet, so building a network might be premature.

It sounds simple, and it is - where it gets complicated or difficult is if you get people who don’t have the skills - who talk a lot and sound like they know what to do, but they don’t - and end up wasting so much time and money - or they are there just for the money and dont care about the work and the means - often even very passionate - but solving the wrong proplem in the wrong community, problems that have been solved already by others, but they are too stubborn to use the existing solutions, or they don’t understand the. Again, skills and the right people seem like the most important thing - and you can only identify this if you understand the components - so maybe the skills part could also use a simple summary of what the key things are to look for.

Based on my experience, the important items under Skills, come down to:
Track Record - What has the person done, and how, what did they learn? How have they improved over time? How do they deal with conflict?
Efficiency - A potential measure: what was the cost per connection, for the network? How does it compare to similar networks that are in a similar environment? If over a year, the project cost $10000 and 10000 people connected, the money cost was $1/connection. But how much time did it cost? Maybe 10 people were involved, who combined spent 20 000 hours, but this person spent only 200… so the total cost per connected person was 2 hours of work per person, but only 80 seconds per connection from this person… but maybe this person
Software - What mangement software do you use, recommend, set up, teach? How easy is it to use?
Equipment - What equipment do they recommend and why? What have they tested? Why do they prefer some over others? How many connections do the equipment handle and how many connections? Can you see the data in real time - and can someone else verify it for you?
Availability - Can you communicate with this person when you need to? Do you understand each other?

Networks are about building a digital road to connect us to online opportunities and knowledge and jobs.

People who try to make money from building the road, are missing the point. You just need enough money to build a good road, and to maintain it. If all roads were toll roads and you had to pay to just walk on them, then nobody would be able to walk to the shop or the school or the party.

There are lots of schools and shops and jobs and fun things on the internet. People just need a digital road so they can walk around and see what is there and start sharing and living digital lives that can benefit their real lives. Skills and money can be found online, and that can be used in your daily life.

Of course you can help people to find the things they can do online… but you have to decide:

  • Do you think you can build and maintain the road?
  • Or do you want to focus on making better things on the internet?
  • Or do you want to focus on helping people find the things that will benefit them, on the internet?

These are 3 very different skillsets, with different financial models. Please don’t confuse the three… many people in the Community Networks movement, just want do do the 3rd one, but then they try to do the 1st and 2nd one at the same time, and then they get confused. Sometimes its better to do the 3rd one and be very open about it, and to develop a good relationship with other people who are already doing the first one. Sometimes the people doing the first one are too busy making ends meet to help you, then you have to do the first one, but then you won’t have time to do the 3rd one and you have to just make sure that people who do the 3rd one know about your network so they can come there to help with that, so you can focus on the 1st one. Once the network is built, you might attract people doing the 2nd one… generally people doing the 2nd one need the internet to do their job, but they are also earning money on the internet, so if you build a good network, and they move to your community, then they will be spending money in your community. What kind of people will you attract? What will they spend their money on? How will it change your community? Addressing these issues has very little to do with the 1st and 3rd options… please learn to distinguish between these 3 things. Most of what I am writing about is about issue number #1. During the course of building it, I have learned a lot about the other two, but I still see more a need or #1 than #2 or #3 - because people are usually smart enough to figure out those for themselves once the “road” is there.