Sarantaporo is among a collection of small villages in Greece west of Mount Olympus in a rural, mountainous, and sparsely populated area. It has a population of 570 and is 193 kilometers from Thessaloníki. Until recently, much of the surrounding region was not connected to the Internet. Sarantaporo’s difficult terrain, remoteness, and small population made it unattractive to telecommunication companies who had little economic incentive to extend their infrastructure to the region.
In the absence of commercial Internet service providers (ISPs), Sarantaporo.gr got started in 2010 as a local ISP, when a few residents with no technical background reached out to the international open-source connectivity community for tips on how to cheaply connect their village to the “net”. With help from a Greek foundation, a group of young villagers secured a grant for hardware. They successfully installed a mesh-network of wireless routers that provided local connectivity to Sarantaporo for the first time.
As word spread that Sarantaporo had created a local community network, other villages wanted access. The original mesh network expanded to fourteen neighboring villages with the help of local people and outside volunteers with technical skills and a desire to help out. By 2013, Sarantaporo.gr officially established itself as a non-profit organization with the goal of providing free and open Internet access to the 15 villages in the region. Once they formally established themselves as a non-profit they were able to expand and improve the network. Thanks to grants from organizations such as CONFINE (a European FP7 project), The People’s Trust, and the Greek Free Open-Source Software Society Sarantaporo.gr grew the network. They also were able to secure free bandwidth from a local university – TEI University.
Sarantaporo.gr provides an invaluable resource to a rural community that faces a sharply declining population of young people. Due to Greece’s economic troubles, villages in the area have seen an exodus of young people to urban areas or foreign countries in search of work. With greater Internet connectivity, residents are able to stay in contact with their families abroad. Furthermore, Sarantaporo.gr volunteers hope that Internet access encourages increased social mobility. Such successes have already panned out: because of online educational resources, a young woman from the region was the first from her village to score well enough on a national university exam to enroll in medical school. In another case, farmers have reported that Internet access has allowed them to find more clients for their crops. The local agricultural sector attracts many migrant laborers from Albania and Bulgaria. Foreign workers benefit from Internet access as they can stay in contact with their loved ones back home, and overcome social isolation, which can be caused by long work hours and language barriers. Elderly residents also have benefitted from online access to the Greek Ministry of Health’s digitized drug prescription system, allowing villagers to obtain medicine locally without having to travel long distances to visit a doctor.
Due to deep community involvement and coordination, Sarantaporo.gr has had many successes, but they also have faced several challenges. While its founders were local villagers, the volunteer network administrators who provide technical assistance live in distant urban areas in Greece (some as far as 450 kilometers away in Athens), causing some delays in maintenance and repair. As a partial remedy to this issue, experts have provided technical training to interested villagers, making the network even more sustainable.
Another difficulty was securing financial support from the community when many of the initial grant funds ran out. Challenges coordinating between several villages made it difficult to equitably obtain contributions from all those who benefited from the network. Ultimately in 2015, Sarantaporo.gr adopted a model where hosts of the nodes paid an annual subscription fee in exchange for connectivity and technical training. The owners of the nodes were then individually responsible for soliciting additional payment from neighboring villagers who connected to their node. While this new payment model generally has worked, some villages have had trouble with residents refusing to contribute and even claiming that the network did not need their funding to continue. Overall, however, this model of delegating financial tasks to node operators has strengthened local community bonds and deepened villagers’ conception of Internet connectivity as a “commons”.
All in all, the Sarantaporo.gr community network has brought social cohesion and improved economic opportunity to an area that faced increased social isolation during Greece’s economic crisis. Sarantaporo.gr has thrived because it introduces the mindset that Internet-users are not just clients to an ISP, but are active participants in creating and sustaining a local community network.