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First telecommunications licenses for social indigenous use in Mexico

The organization TIC A.C. is the first social indigenous license holder to operate a telecommunications network in Mexico, providing communities with unlimited call and messaging services at a saving of up to 98%. The first-ever assignment of a mobile phone spectrum to community and indigenous license holders has involved numerous challenges.

Daniela Parra Hinojosa*/Mexico/September 2016

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On Friday, 1 July 2016, in the plenary session of the Federal Telecommunications Institute (FTI), the decision was taken to award the first licenses for social indigenous use, one for the use and benefit of radio frequency bands, and the other for Telecomunicaciones Indígenas Comunitarias, A.C. (Indigenous Community Telecommunications or TIC A.C.). This historic resolution, the first of its kind in Mexico and in the world, allows for the installation of a community mobile phone network in the states of Oaxaca, Chiapas, Veracruz, Guerrero and Puebla.

The Telefonía Celular Comunitaria® (Community Mobile Phone) project became a reality in 2014 in the Oaxacan community of Talea de Castro thanks to the efforts of the local community and the organizations Rhizomatica and REDES A.C., who developed a non-profit technological, operational, economic and legal scheme that allows rural communities to acquire, manage and operate their local mobile phone network at affordable costs.

Under this structure, people in the communities have access to unlimited calls and messaging services and long-distance calls within Mexico and the world at a cost up to 98% lower than that of services offered by other companies. In addition, the latter frequently refused to set up such services in the aforementioned communities as they were not deemed to be operationally profitable. This model also enables the development of applications that meet the needs of each locality, allowing the resources generated to remain within the communities so that local people can determine how they are used. The technology implemented by Rhizomatica uses the Osmocom/OpenBSC system, a software application that is free and open source for its use and development.

In May 2014, the FTI awarded a two-year experimental license which allowed for the expansion of the project to 16 rural and indigenous communities in the state of Oaxaca, which had acquired and self-managed their own mobile phone network. These communities, which had hitherto been neglected and lacked a mobile phone service, began to operate a self-managed system that has benefited them in the areas of health, education, security, migration, interpersonal relationships, identity, culture and the strengthening of the social fabric. But above all, it has reinforced their autonomy and organizational processes, as it respects their customs, regulatory and charge systems, and shared assets.

This led the 16 communities involved, along with others, to organize themselves under the legal figure of TIC A.C. in order to request licenses for indigenous social use on 30 November 2015; the licenses were granted around eight months after the initial application.

In the proposed model, TIC A.C. is responsible, among other things, for advising the community and coordinating compliance with the license obligations, all of which must be periodically evaluated. For their part, the communities, which are the owners and operators of the local network, are responsible for its proper functioning, as well as the acquisition and administration of the contributions necessary for its maintenance and operation. Finally, the suppliers of both Internet and VoIP must provide a good quality service and promptly deal with any problems that may rise.

The granting of these licenses is the result of a legal strategy that, after overcoming various problems and conflicts, has led to the legal recognition of community operators. To reach this stage, the first priority was to identify the availability of frequencies as well as the communities able to operate the system. This was followed by a request for the experimental use of the frequency in order to demonstrate the feasibility of the system and evaluate the technical, operational, economic and legal aspects. Finally, the necessary adjustments were requested to obtain the licenses based on the right of indigenous peoples to have their own media, as established in Article 16 of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the safeguards included in the license regime for social use that forms part of the new Federal Law for Telecommunications and Broadcasting.

This first-ever direct assignment of the mobile phone spectrum to community and indigenous license holders poses various technological, management, organizational and training challenges. Many of these have been evaluated during this project. However, operations in four additional states will require time, effort and the organization of communities, partner organizations, the authorities and State institutions that must continue to support the development of these and other initiatives. The FTI must also play an important role in ensuring adequate, relevant and reasonable operating conditions that favor indigenous peoples, as established in Article 2 of the Constitution.

This is the result of an historic struggle by indigenous peoples and rural communities in Mexico in order to exercise their rights to communication. As Erick Huerta observed, with this achievement, indigenous peoples have shown that it is they who can best meet their needs according to principles that reverse the logic of dependency for one of autonomy in terms of their resources, in this case, the radio-electronic spectrum.

* Coordinator of the Network Distribution Area for Diversity, Equity and Sustainability (REDES A.C.) and professor at the Escuela Nacional de Estudios Superiores-Universidad Autonoma de México, ENES-UNAM (Campus Morelia).

Related links:

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Injustice against indigenous peoples