As part of some on-going projects in various parts of the world I’ve been thinking about the overall model of Telecentres which, along with commercially run Cybercafes (also known as Internet Cafes ), continue to be the primary means by which computing and the Internet are being made available at the community level.
What is becoming clear is that the first generation of Telecentres which provided a basis for first introducing the Internet (and computing) to many parts of the world and particularly into rural areas has now for many become more or less obsolete and for some time a new set of approaches has been emerging in many parts of the Telecentre world.
The first generation of Telecentres were specifically focused on two priorities:
- familiarizing populations to the Internet in contexts where the Internet was a new and unfamiliar facility.
- providing access to computing and the Internet for populations who otherwise would have no or only very limited access because of cost, lack of knowledge, lack of infrastructure or other reasons.
But now, some 20 years + into the personal computing era, the task of “familiarizing” populations concerning computing and the Internet has been largely accomplished¸ in Less Developed Countries particulalry through computing programs in schools, through the media, through widespread computerization in places of work, and in part through the success of the Telecentre programs themselves. Similarly access to computers and the Internet is very much more widespread (and less costly) now than earlier because of low cost computers and Internet access.
The overall mission identified for Telecentres has not been completely accomplished—there are countries, regions, categories of the population still unfamiliar with computers and the Internet or still without usable access at a low enough cost. However, it does mean that it is now time to articulate a new mission and thus a new mission for (Next Generation) Telecentres.
The second generation of Telecentres (NGTs) are being built on the foundations of the first but they recognize that at least some of the tasks undertaken by first generation Telecentres have, to a considerable degree been accomplished, and also that the technological ecology of which Telecentres are a part has evolved considerably.
NGTs differ from the earlier generation by being less concerned with providing simple access and being more concerned with providing specific kinds of services and supports to specific populations. Thus for example, the new generation of Telecentres are being implemented to provide small business supports in low income areas, farming supports in agricultural areas, access to e-government and e-health services, community based multi-media training and production oportunities and so on.
As well, NGTs are now more focused on the longer term sustainability of the centres and thus are linking activities into a much wider range of business models (including hybrid models with for-profit and not-for-profit-activities and funding. with a strong recognition of the value of broad community support as a basis for longer term “social sustainability”. In many cases the funding/business model is directly linked to the specific activity area or community of users thus providing a stronger likelihood of longer term financial and social sustainability.
Finally, NGTs recognize the advances that have been made in computing and in Internet connectivity and for the most part build their design, activities, and functionalities on an anticipated platform of Broadband connectivity. What this means is that activities within NGTs are based on the current or anticipated availability of Broadband connectivity.
With funding for the initial round of Telecentres largely being completed and a significant reduction in interest in funding this approach, Next Generation Telecentres are emerging as a necessary advance and as a way of continuing support for the broad integration of otherwise excluded segments of the population into the advancing and developing information society/digital economy. Moving beyond simple access to providing means for effectively using this access in support of economic and social development (digital inclusion) is increasingly providing the basis for telecentre development in national contexts where issues of simple access and digital familiarization have been largely resolved.
Countries such as Hungary with its Telecottages program for small business support and development or local developments such as the Sitakund multi-media centre in Bangladesh (part of the UNESCO Community Multi-media Centre Program) or the physically disabled support centres that are being planned for Malaysia are all examples of this emerging trend.
Thus NGTs have the following characteristics among others;
- built on a platform of affordable access to Internet and computing facilities (First Generation);
- structured and designed so as to provide support to certain specific application areas and targeted towards certain categories of potential users (among others) including where required specialized software (or hardware), specialized training facilities (and specially trained support staff); links to application related external resources and networks and so on;
- designed around a variety of business models but in each case with a specific concern and design for “sustainability”;
- recognize that “social” sustainability can in certain instances be as significant a factor for long term development as “financial” sustainability and with a design for social sustainability built into the model; and
- recognize the possibility of hybrid and entrepreneurial business models including both for-profit and not-for-profit activities (and funding sources).
One consequence of this emerging trend is that the funding approaches for Telecentres is becoming rather more complex with potential funders being found among those providing support for the specific application area and a significant reduction in potential support for more general purpose, access oriented telecentres.