Telecenters are public places where people can gain access to information technologies and other communication resources. They originated in the mid-1980s in Scandinavian countries as an effort to help people in rural areas become part of the information economy, particularly by making modern office equipment available to them on a shared basis. Although the idea spread through many of the industrialized countries during the next decade, it was the emergence of the computer and digital networks in the 1990s that launched a variety of these public access centers – with a variety of names, such as community technology centers, village information centers, and community learning centers. UNESCO, the World Bank, the International Telecommunications Union, and overseas development agencies such as those of Canada, Switzerland, the UK, and the US gave the telecenter movement significant propulsion as they perceived a link between information and communication technologies (ICTs) and development.
While radio, film, and video make up an earlier generation of ICTs, it is the unique benefits of computers and networks that drive the interest of national and international agencies toward telecenters as a tool for development. The most important of those characteristics are access by individuals to many information databases “on demand”; opportunity to participate in e-government, e-commerce, e-health, and e-education; and the prospects for individuals, at relatively low cost, to connect with one person or millions of people beyond their communities for personal communication or for mass communication. However, because many people could not own their own computers or could not afford network connections, concern arose among many of society’s leaders about a digital divide. Data on ownership and use of the new information technologies demonstrated a gap between countries and between populations within countries.
Telecommunications specialists look to experience with telephone services for terminology to apply to the Internet situation. They use the term “universal service” to describe the one-telephone-to-one-household ownership pattern. The more viable strategy for developing countries is “universal access” – meaning that a telephone should be within a reasonable distance for everyone. Thus, an interim strategy for dealing with the digital divide is universal access – to have computers and network coverage shared in public places and accessible to all.
Although telecenter is frequently used as a generic label for different kinds of public-access communication centers, three principal types – with variations within each – have emerged. These are:
- Multipurpose community telecenters. These telecenters tend to be in the public sector, operated by governmental bodies or nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). Generally, they serve a low-income clientele and have a community development mission. Typically, these telecenters offer a broad range of communication services related to the needs of the community, some of which are free or subsidized by external bodies such as governments or NGOs. Examples include the Community Learning Centers in Ghana and Hungary’s telecottages. Along with computer and Internet access, services might include desktop publishing, community newspapers, sales or rental of audio and video recordings, and library, training, photocopying, faxing, and telephone services.
- Cybercafés. The commercially oriented cybercafés that are found in places ranging from Aruba to Vietnam have been an equally energetic movement. They are usually in the private sector and focus more narrowly on providing customers with the use of computers and connections to theInternet and the world wide web. Often the principal attractions at cybercafés are computer games and email. In some places – for example Senegal and Nigeria – computers and Internet connections are being added to privatesector phone shops. Cybercafé clients tend to be more urban, more educated, and economically better off than the clients of community telecenters.
- Information access points (IAPs). IAPs borrow from the cybercafé and telecenter approaches. As they focus on Internet and network services, they emphasize the opportunity for the community to seek information. The most dramatic example is Canada’s Community Access Program (CAP), which established almost 10,000 access points in rural and urban areas across the country between 1994 and 2001. Computers and network connections were placed in community centers, libraries, schools, and other public places in order to make Canada “the most interconnected country in the world”. Canada’s success energized other national IAP initiatives such as Mexico’s network of Centros Comunitarios Digitales. IAPs play a substantial role in the ITU-led initiative to Connect the World, an effort to connect about one billion people in 800,000 villages – 30 percent of all villages worldwide – that are without any kind of ICT connection except possibly radio broadcasting.
Cooperation with Other Institutions
Schools and Telecenters
While many telecenters are standalone ventures, some initiatives link them with schools. World Links for Development (WorLD) supported the creation of school-based computer and network facilities that would be open to their communities after the close of the school day and on holidays. Using this model, the project established some 800 Community Learning Centers (CLC) across the developing world. In Bindura, Zimbabwe, the dual-use school and community character of the center was important because the small fees paid by the community for telecenter services helped support the recurrent costs of hardware maintenance, power, supplies, and connectivity of the school’s digital system.
Radio Broadcasting and Community Multimedia Centers
Community radio has begun to emerge as a newly discovered medium in parts of the world that have historically had centralized, government-run radio systems. UNESCO, the major supporter of community radio, considers it as a medium “that gives voice to the voiceless . . . a mouthpiece of the marginalized.” Building on this approach, in 2001 UNESCO launched a program for the development of Community Multimedia Centers (CMCs), with Kothmale Community Radio in Sri Lanka as the prototype. “Radio browsing” is a feature of this system. Radio browsing encourages people to contact the station to ask for information. The staff research on the Internet and then answer the questions in radio broadcasts. A major UNESCO effort has been to create 50 CMCs in each of three African countries – Mali, Mozambique, and Senegal – by the end of 2008.
Largely absent from the telecenter movement across the world have been higher education institutions. Although universities in developing nations have started to incorporate information technologies in their teaching, research, and administrative operations, they have paid relatively little attention to using information technologies to support such activities as those associated with rural development. Initiatives supported by such organizations as Canada’s International Development Research Centre, the International Food Policy Research Institute, Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation, the World Bank, and Cornell University and the University of Washington in the United States have started to test the idea that universities can be important supporters of telecenters by providing research-based localized content, helping communities assess their communication and information needs, and involving students as interns and volunteers in a telecenter’s day-to-day operations. In these situations, universities have incubated community-based telecenters, nurturing them in their earliest development prior to the telecenters becoming independent community institutions. In this model, pioneered in Tamil Nadu, India and in the northern mountainous area of Vietnam, universities continue to assist telecenters after incubation by adapting scientifically authentic content to local conditions for retailing by telecenters, jointly conducting research on such matters as community information needs, and by involving students as volunteers and interns in the day-to-day operations of telecenters. Similar university-supported telecenters have been designed for eastern Africa, especially to support agricultural development and the welfare of small farmers.
Challenges and Problems
Despite the enthusiasm and the support given to the shared access concept by international and national agencies, significant challenges impede more widespread scaling up of development-oriented telecenters. Foremost among these is the lingering question concerning the relative benefit of putting money into information technologies versus the demands for other kinds of development resources, such as roads, water supplies, and health clinics. This stems, in part, from the perceived lack of convincing data about the impact of the Internet – a skepticism captured in a 2006 book by World Bank expert Charles Kenny. He points out that “As of December 2005 . . . there had not been survey-based, academically rigorous study of economic impact on an Internet access program in any developing country.” While there is no evidence of a cause–effect relationship, the question of relative return on investment may help explain the minor attention given to information technologies in Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers, the policy papers drawn up by developing nations as planning documents for encouraging broad-based growth and easing poverty.
Because access to the Internet is one of the principal attractions of telecenters, the quality of service provided by the Internet influences the potential benefits of a telecenter. Broadband connectivity, which reduces downloading speed as well as the delivery of more complex (often graphically enhanced) web pages, is problematic for many telecenters, particularly those in Africa, because of availability and cost. Wireless connectivity has become one of the solutions, especially for providing network services to remote and hard-to-reach locations, although cost–benefit considerations continue to be an issue. Also, the characteristics of Internet content relate to consumer demand for telecenter services: the relevance of content to local needs, the language of databases and websites, and the style of presentation are among the factors that telecenters need to address to become a community-oriented, demand-driven local institution.
Another challenge that telecenters face is their sustainability. Telecenters obtain operating funds from service fees (for example, for sending email or providing computer training), from public subsidies, and from contributions (including volunteer help). Most begin with donor funds and then struggle to survive when donor funds decline or end. An evaluation of UNESCO’s telecenter program indicated that long-term benefits related to health and economic opportunities are being realized. However, the evaluation notes that the telecenters cannot survive solely on charges paid by individuals. This dilemma could mean that efforts to achieve financial sustainability will drive telecenter managers to target services at community members who can pay – to the detriment of those who are poor.
Although attachments to existing entities such as schools and local government bodies are a way toward becoming solvent and institutionalized, telecenters as micro-enterprises may be the most feasible arrangement for widespread diffusion of the telecenter concept. The awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006 to the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh and to its founder Dr Muhammad Yunus demonstrated that private enterprise such as the women’s Grameen phone businesses could be profitable while helping combat poverty. Some independent telecenters have been innovative in developing income-producing services to support their operations. Among the telecottages in Hungary, there are more than 50 different kinds of income-producing services offered to the community. A major source are the contracts that they obtain from government agencies, thus becoming (for a fee) extensions for government services.
A continual challenge for telecenters is making them and their resources available to women. Location in the community, an inhospitable and intimidating telecenter atmosphere, and lack of training conspire against women’s participation in telecenters in many developing countries. Some organizations have taken steps to address the situation. The International Telecommunications Union launched a program to establish a network of at least 100 multipurpose community telecenters in 20 African countries. The telecenters are to be managed by women to enable them to participate actively in the building of information societies and to expand their role in communities through the use of ICTs. In India, as part of a strategy to attract women to participate in telecenter activities in Pondicherry, the Swaminathan Foundation requires that at least one woman be engaged in the management of each center that it supports.
- Badshah, A., Khan, S., & Garrido, M. (eds.) (2004). Connected for development: Information kiosks and sustainability. New York: UNICT Task Force, United Nations. At https://unesdoc.unesco.org/ark:/48223/pf0000143862.
- Creech, H. (2005). Evaluation of UNESCO’s Community Media Centres, final report, International Institute for Sustainable Development. At https://www.share4dev.info/telecentreskb/documents/3840.pdf.
- Hudson, H. (2006). From rural village to global village: Telecommunications for development in the information age. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
- Kenny, C. (2006). Overselling the web? Development and the Internet. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner.
- Schware, R. (ed.) (2005). E-development: From excitement to effectiveness. Washington, DC: World Bank. At https://openknowledge.worldbank.org/handle/10986/7274.
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