title for Telecentres note
home | about | site use | resources | publications | timeline   spacer graphic   Ketupa



related pages icon


& the GII

related pages icon
& Notes:



$100 Laptop

section heading icon     overview

This page considers telecentres or telecottages - community versions of cybercafes.

It covers -


In discussing various digital divides (overview here, details here) we have noted that in many emerging economies much of the population is offline because people cannot afford personal computers and phone lines or because communications infrastructure simply is not available.

One response has been to bridge such divides by providing access through community centres operated on a not-for-profit basis or through commercial cybercafes. Community centres are sometimes characterised as public internet access centres (PIACs).

Advocates have accordingly suggested that cybercafes will reach their maximum extent in Latin America, Africa and parts of Asia. Some divide initiatives have centred on plans to deliver state-of-the-art facilities to remote regions, with MIT for example gaining attention for plans to airlift telemedicine and e-learning gear in shipping containers to the Amazon.

A 2002 study by Boase, Chen, Wellman & Prijatelj notes that in the West public venues

disproportionately provide a place for disadvantaged groups to access the Internet. Although the different percentages are not large, to some extent public terminals give disadvantaged groups, such as women, the unemployed, newbies, and those from developing countries, a place to be. Not surprisingly, the variable most strongly associated with the use of public terminals is employment status: The unemployed are most likely to use public terminals. This suggests that public terminal users are not disproportionately high-income road warriors or young gamers.

A 2001 report by Katherine Reilly & Ricardo Gómez on Comparing Approaches: Telecentre Evaluation Experiences in Asia & Latin America (PDF) offers guidelines for telecentre evaluation. Hani Shakeel & Michael Best's paper Comparing Urban & Rural Telecentre Costs (PDF) considers the costs of urban versus rural telecentres in Costa Rica, suggesting that rural centres may not be significantly more expensive. It is complemented by Patrik Hunt's True Stories - Telecentres in Latin America & the Caribbean (PDF).

A perspective is provided by the US BusyInternet initiative in West Africa, building centres that offer a local e-business incubator and public access to around 100 online PCs per location.

Telecentre development in Romania was more modest, with the government drawing on EC funding to roll out telecentres at 462 locations. Each centre offers local, national and international voice calls, internet access internet and fax services. The initiative has been criticised as an admission that rural Romania lags behind EU peers in teledensity - "still a part of the Third World" and, more importantly, will remain so for some time.

A spirited 2005 review by Chris Russill of the UN Connected for Development: Information Kiosks & Sustainability questioned the syllogism

  • ICTs contribute social benefit and help eradicate poverty;
  • Information kiosks are ICTs;
  • Information kiosks contribute social benefit and help eradicate poverty.

Russill went on to comment that

Even if we accept the assumption that some ICTs contribute to the eradication of poverty, there is no guarantee that all forms do so and different models of information kiosks may impact the distribution and degree of their various benefits. Even if it turns out that commercial models are superior to public funding in terms of extending the life of information kiosks, it does not address the relationship of operating and management structure to matters of kiosk usage and content. Of course, these questions never arise if one blithely assumes access to information as the primary function of ICTs and the main determinant in their usefulness for combating poverty.

Charles Kenny's Overselling the Web?: Development And the Internet (Boulder: Rienner 2006) warned against hype -

A focus on self-reported success stories still at the very early stages of development might well allow projects that turn out to be unsustainable to be put forward as models for replication. Take the 2001 Stockholm Challenge awardwinning Gyandoot project in the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, where more than 40 percent of the population live below the poverty line. Gyandoot was designed to bring forty-four e-government services to the people through thirty-nine telecenters connected via an intranet, including information on agricultural prices, a public complaint line regarding government services, and application facilities for various certificates. The kiosks were set up at an average cost of approximately $1,500 each, and that expenditure has brought some positive returns. The Stockholm Challenge judges praised it as

a unique government-to-citizen Intranet project ... with numerous benefits to the region, including a people-based self-reliant sustainable strategy. 'Gyandoot' is recognized as a breakthrough in e-government.

Nonetheless, a 2002 in-depth analysis found significant problems with implementation. A survey of the telecenters found 36 percent closed during the (working hours) survey visit. Of open centers, 35 percent had no electricity at the time of the visit, and 50 percent had no regular intranet connectivity. Average revenues per center per month averaged only $3 - clearly far too low to suggest sustainability. Perhaps most damning, the survey team found an average of just over one user per center to interview, after searching for users both in the centers and in nearby community meeting areas. Survey results suggest an average of perhaps nineteen users per month per center (largely from upper income brackets) for the e-government services offered by the program. It is too early to say that this experiment involving e-government for the poorest was a total failure, but 2001 was far too early to brand it an unqualified success.

Australian and New Zealand telecottages - often referred to as teleservice centres - are generally in rural locations, often run on a voluntary basis (sometimes with government support), may offer subsidised ICT training and are often associated with other community facilities.

Telecottages first appeared in rural Scandinavia - notably Sweden and Denmark - the late 1980s and thus predate the first cybercafes.

Arguably much telecottaging within advanced economies has not involved substantial skilling of participants - access to fax machines, personal computers, photocopiers and modems is insufficient - and few are self-sustaining. The viability of telecottages as the centrepiece of call centres in Australia is also problematical, with major organisations choosing to export their call centre operations to India, China or other low cost jurisdictions.


A useful introduction to early developments in the West is provided by Christopher Campbell's 1995 study Community Technology Centers: Exploring a Tool for Rural Community Development. For an Australian perspective see the upbeat paper (PDF) by Judy Young, Gail Ridley & Jeff Ridley on A Preliminary Evaluation of Online Access Centres: Promoting Micro E-Business Activity in Small, Isolated Communities regarding 18 Tasmanian centres.

Overseas perspectives are provided in the 2002 report on Telecenters for Socio-economic and Rural Development in Latin America and the Caribbean, produced by the International Telecommunications Union, UN Food & Agricultural Organization and the InterAmerican Development Bank and in Connected for Development: Information Kiosks and Sustainability (New York: UN Information & Communication Technologies Task Force 2003) edited by Akhtar Badshah, Sarbuland Khan & Maria Garrido.

Cautions are provided by the 1999 APC Gender Analysis of Telecentre Evaluation Methodology paper, lamenting

Telecentres are not working properly because the people who started them had no programme for long-term sustainability. Very few are properly utilised by communities. There is a general lack of commitment and diligence and this leads to people feeling demoralized and not open to learning new skills. In South Africa we need a culture of commitment. We cannot talk about gender perspective until telecentres are viable for the whole community and this will not be the case until there is a context for appropriate management structures. Issues of accountability are a problem. People lack leadership qualities and management qualities

and the 2001 UNESCO Telecentre Cookbook for Africa: Recipes for Self-sustainability by Mike Jensen & Anriette Esterhuysen (PDF), along with the 2005 UNDP Community-based Networks and Innovative Technologies report by Sean O Siochru & Brian Girard. International comparisons are provided in works such as the 1998 IDRC Little engines that did: Case Histories From The Global Telecentre Movement report by Richard Fuchs.

Public policy questions are highlighted in Stephen Woolgar's 1
998 survey Cyber Cafes and Telecottages: Increasing Public Access to computers and the Internet, the more searching Community Informatics: Enabling Communities with Information & Communications Technologies (Hershey: Idea Group 2000) by Michael Gurstein and Technology & Social Inclusion: Rethinking the Digital Divide (Cambridge: MIT Press 2003) by Mark Warschauer.


icon for link to next page   next part (Australia)

this site
the web


version of December 2006
© Bruce Arnold
caslon.com.au | caslon analytics