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section heading icon     Australia

This page considers Australian and New Zealand telecentres or telecottages - community versions of cybercafes. It questions hype about telecentres as a mechanism for the revitalisation of rural communities, particularly in remote Australia.


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.

Australia's first telecottage (oriented towards distance education) opened at Walcha in 1992 after a range of government and academic studies about rural disadvantage and the supposed scope for 'community teleservices' to drive regional employment growth. The 1991 Telecottages: the potential for rural Australia report by David Horner & Ian Reeve for example claimed that such facilities

have the potential to overcome many of the traditional handicaps suffered by rural and remote communities. They enable rural communities to participate fully in the new information society which is emerging around the globe.

That was echoed in the 1993 conference 'Telecottages, Teleworking, Telelearning: Road to Rural Revival' - which was followed by establishment of over 100 Australian telecentres - and in overseas initiatives discussed in works such as 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.

Many of the Australian centres expired within five years of establishment, both through lack of community interest and because they were not financially self-sustaining, contrary to visions expressed in works such as Karen Geiselhart's 2004 The lectronic Canary: Sustainability Solutions for Australian Teleservice Centres (PDF) which claimed

teleservice centres can act as a metaphorical canary
that indicates the overall health of the community. If the canary dies then Governments can be assured the community is in trouble and in danger of further isolation and potential collapse. Without access to basic services, a small community can be left with a standard of living more like that of a third world country.

Australian governments have found that claim unpersuasive, reflected in the demise of individual canaries and advocacy group Community TeleServices Australia, Inc.

The major achievement over the past decade was the Western Australian state Telecentre Network, with around 100 centres that often feature personal computers, two-way 128kb videoconferencing, photocopiers, scanners, facsimile machines, printers and VCRs. The network has been driven by distance learning and by substantial government funding: in practice it is an arm of the state Department of Local Government & Regional Development.

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.

Expectations about distance learning have also not been met, as evident in the 2001 Perspectives on Distance Education: Telecentres: Case studies and key issues (book) edited by Colin Latchem & David Walker, the 2001 The Internet & Regional Australia: How rural communities can address the impact of the Internet (PDF) by Rosie Simpson and 'Sustainability of Community Online Access Centres' by Peter Farr & Franco Papandrea in Governance of Communication Networks (New York: Physica-Verlag 2006) and by June Lennie's 'An Evaluation Capacity-Building Process for Sustainable Community IT Initiatives: Empowering and Disempowering Impacts' in 11(4) Evaluation (2005), and 'Building community capacities in evaluating rural IT projects' by June Lennie, Greg Hearn, Lyn Simpson and Megan Kimber in 1(1) International Journal of Education & Development using Information and Communication Technology (2005).

Detailed statistics are hard to obtain but there appears to have been little substantial transfer of work from major metropolitan businesses to unskilled individual contractors, contrary to the vision of rural mums making a living tending a personal computer rather than the farm animals.

One reason why expectations have not been met is that from a managerial perspective it is easier to outsource code development, bill processing or other keyboarding to a 'digital sweatshop' in Mumbai or Guangzhou.

     community, commerce and culture

For some enthusiasts the significance of telecottaging has been community - bringing people together, introducing them to ICT and revitalising rural life.

The movement embodies a range of values. Telework New Zealand ambitiously asserts that telework

  • is a critical component of a truly sustainable economy. In a US Government trial in Puget Sound, telework was shown to reduce net energy consumption by 10%. No other initiative comes close to this.
  • eliminates many contemporary problems at source. Traffic is only one example. Infrastructure and service delivery costs, urban drift, and collapsing urban and city environments are also good examples.
  • increases productivity.
  • increases the possible contribution of every citizen to the local and national economy. It decreases the costs associated with government. It enhances the ability of citizens to achieve their own objectives. Some telework strategies work directly to alleviate the symptoms and causes of the 'digital divide'.
  • saves money. Service delivery is more economic, infrastructure costs are reduced, and productivity is increased.
  • can also improve flexibility. Physical structures and traditional organisations are cumbersome and hard to change. Those based on location-independent concepts are far more flexible and adaptable in our rapidly changing world. With more flexible response, more productive enterprises, and the ability of all individuals to contribute, the region or nation becomes more competitive and attracts more employment and development.

In practice telecottaging in Australia has attracted high-profile but not very substantial funding, with an initial burst of support during the first half of the 1990s followed by more money under a range of federal and state/territory government programs at the end of the decade.

Much of the second round of funding was drawn from the 'Telstra bonus' (eg under the Networking the Nation initiative), dismissed by critics as "buying off the bush" regarding the privatisation of the dominant telecommunications provider - profiled here.

Reports from academic institutions and government research bodies about the potential of telecottaging and rural telework have been more positive than the small number of evaluations of outcomes from past spending. One might ask whether the moment for Australian telecottages has passed.


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