Q&A with the Winners: Soledad Mills

In this Q&A, Soledad Mills talks about her team’s solution — “Internet Access in Ecuador’s Amazon” — which won 1st Place, Community Enablement Concept in the 2021 Connecting the Unconnected Challenge.

  1. Please summarize your winning solution
image courtesy of Soledad Mills

We use off-the-shelf equipment and standard IEEE 802.11 unlicensed band signals to create a connection between Yawi, a Shuar Indigenous community of the southern Ecuadorian Amazon, and a nearby, underused cell tower. This can be done at a much lower cost than satellite Internet connectivity which is costly and doesn´t provide a stable Internet solution for Indigenous communities. The solution uses two radios, one on the cell tower and the other on the main target location in the Indigenous community to create a pencil-beam WiFi connection.

Having an Internet connection does not ensure the use of its potential. That is why one of the most important components of our approach is training and capacity development, not only in digital literacy and how to use the Internet and computers, but also in connecting the community to the CEFO Platform which allows for creation and sharing of community-generated content on important topics such as health, education, economic opportunities, civic participation and Indigenous rights.

  1. What is the most unique/innovative aspect about your approach?

    We put Indigenous People of the Ecuadorian southern Amazon at the center of the development of this solution. This includes co-creating the economic and social management of the local internet network that will serve the community. The community is in charge of implementing filters and selecting the kind of information they want to receive and share through this network. Also, our approach aims to develop Indigenous People’s capacities so they can solve any technical issues and understand the opportunities that point-to-point connections can offer to their territories. 

    1.  What did you enjoy most about the CTU Competition and Summit Program?

    This was a wonderful opportunity to connect with other social innovators and solutions that were extremely helpful to perfection and incorporate new components to our solution.

    image courtesy of Soledad Mills
    1. Have you taken any steps to implement your concept since the 2021 CTU Summit?

      In August 2022, we established a direct connection between Yawi and the nearby cell tower, using standard off-the-shelf WiFi-based components. We also conducted a workshop with approximately 20 community members to discuss the management and sustainability of the project and the connection. We have secured a contract with the tower owner, the National Telecommunications Corporation of Ecuador, to act as the Internet Service Provider (ISP) and to permit tower access and Internet traffic. This connection will be distributed, using standard WiFi techniques and equipment, to the school, the computer center and one public hotspot for general community use. 

      The second component of our project will train local Indigenous people to administer and expand the connection and to assist users. We will also equip a community  computer center with four computers, a projector, and a printer to ensure children and youth have access to online educational programs that were inaccessible during the COVID 19 pandemic.

      1. Have you estimated how many people would be impacted if your solution was implemented

      Our solution is currently helping 250 Shuar Indigenous People from the Yawi community. This includes 100 women and 70 children. However, if we manage to install another 5 point-to-point connection we could help a total of 3,000 Shuar Indigenous people that live in the Alto Nangaritza region, in the southern Ecuadorian Amazon.

      1. Anything else you would like to share?

        We are looking for partners that want to collaborate with this initiative that has a direct effect in bridging the digital divide in the Amazon. This is a crucial task for the following years since the Internet is allowing Indigenous people to remain in the territories they´ve protected for thousands of years to withstand the battle against global warming. There is a market flaw that doesn’t see the economic profitability of telecommunications infrastructure in these territories, a decision that is preventing Indigenous people from accessing crucial health and educational resources, as well as monitoring tools that can amplify their traditional knowledge of their territories. We believe that with the help of the IEEE network we can find the adequate people to re-shape the telecommunications ecosystem in these territories in benefit not only of Indigenous peoples, but of the whole world that depends on the preservation of the Amazon ecosystem.