[Telecentres] Basic definitions

Florence Etta fetta at idrc.or.ke
Thu Sep 30 15:20:20 BST 2004

Hi all,
Just to add to this small? contribution to the discussion. I am not exactly 
sure what we are supposed to be doing right this moment on the list I have 
been busy but I wanted to post some useful?  information especially the 
instruments  we used to collect information on our Telecentre research in 5 
African countries (on Tuesday but that slipped past me).
But the whole document/Book "ICT4D: Lessons form Community Telecentres in 
Africa" can be seen on the IDRCsite: www.idrc.ca/acacia.

What is a Telecentre?
A telecentre is an integrated information and communication facility that 
houses a combination of both new and not-so new ICTs (e.g., television, 
video, facsimile, telephone, computers with Internet connectivity, and 
sometimes books). This type of facility in which a number of different 
information and communication technologies are housed and used in an 
integrated manner is seen as the modern telecentre and is called a 
multipurpose telecentre. There is, however, a certain variety in the form, 
facilities, and functions available at telecentres, from the simple 
telecentre with only one or two telephones and no link to the worldwide 
web, to a centre with numerous telephones, facsimile machines, printers, 
and computers connected to the Internet. Ownership and management patterns 
in addition to primary motives also confer other layers of differentiation 
on telecentres and on the taxonomy.

The nomenclature of telecentres is consequently (diverse) coloured by these 
and other differences e.g. geography. In some places they are called 
tele-cottages, tele-boutiques, and tele-kiosks in others, cyber cafes. 
Simple telecentres are popular in Senegal whereas, multipurpose (community) 
telecentres are a recent creation of development agencies and although 
their financial sustainability is an ongoing concern their validity and 
utility have become firmly rooted.

Definition and Development of Telecentres

The Telecentre movement is not at all old having been born only in 1985 
(less than twenty years ago) in Velmdalen a small farming village in 
Sweden. The concept is recognised and called by a large number of very 
different names: Telecentre, telecottage, telekiosk, teleboutique, phone 
shop, infocentre, telehaus, telestugen, digital clubhouse, cabinas 
puiblicas, multi-purpose access centre, community technology centre, 
multi-purpose community telecentre (MCT), community access centre, 
multi-purpose community centre (MPCC), community media centre (CMC) or 
community learning centre (CLC), community multi-media centre, electronic 
village hall, tele-village or cyber café. There is little doubt that the 
names by which the telecentre is known will change (grow or shrink who can 
tell?) as the movement matures and globalizes. To date the idea has been 
generally adopted in the United States, Canada and Australia, whereas in 
Africa and Asia the notion is still only taking root.

As indicated in chapter 1, the form and functions of these various 
facilities subsumed under the umbrella notion of telecentre vary. This is 
understandable and in some way to be expected because the telecentre is a 
phenomenon still in discovery and in the various places where it is 
recreated, the context colours its final form. It is an adaptable 
instrument of development, whose adaptation and mutation is far from 
complete and perhaps never will be.  As a result, attempts to classify the 
currently existing types are still pretty unsophisticated.

Gomez et al (1999b) identify five types of telecentres:
·       Basic telecentre, usually located in rural marginalised areas where 
there is limited access to basic services in general where training of 
potential users is a popular service in addition to internet access.

·       Telecentre franchise, a series of independently owned and managed 
interconnected telecentres usually supervised by a local organisation which 
that technical and on occasion, financial support.

·       Civil telecentre, usually the most common, where a public 
organisation such as a university opens up its facilities like computers 
for use by the public and the telecentre services tend to be an addition to 
the other day to day activities of the organisation.

·       Cybercafé, commercial in nature and found in affluent 
neighbourhoods or hotels and in major towns and cities; and

·       The multi purpose community centre, one of the newer models 
recently introduced in a number of countries offering more specialised 
services such as tele-medicine.

The difficulty with the classification by Gomez et al is that the 
distinguishing criteria are mixed and the logic hard to comprehend- in one 
instance it is based on location (cybercafe), in the next, on the nature of 
ownership (civil telecentre) and in another, on the type of services 
offered (Basic telecentre). The classification attempt by Collee and Roman 
(1999) shows the complexity and identify the dimensions that any taxonomy 
would do well to consider.

On this basis it is possible to distinguish the following types;

¨       Public/private,
¨       Publicly or privately funded,
¨       Commercial (fee-based)/free
¨       Urban/rural
¨       Narrow-focus/ multi-purpose
¨       Independent/networked, grouped
¨       Community / establishment-based
¨       Stand alone/attached
¨       Profit/service
¨       Thematic/universal
  It is easy to see that there is still work to be done in order to arrive 
at a satisfactory classification of telecentres.  Like the naming and 
grouping of telecentres, the nature of the development and evolution of 
these facilities is still being created.

Evolution of Telecentres
While there appears to be a general consensus about the basic function of 
telecentres, there is a debate around  the nature of optimal ownership, 
management and operations. Fuchs, (1997) suggests the function of 
telecentres to be the provision of “public access to communication and 
information for economic, social and cultural development..” and Zongo, 
(1999) concurring states that the telecentre “  provides telecommunication 
and information services for a range of developmental aims”.
It is suggested that the ownership, management and operations evolve in 
time and three stages have been described. Fuchs (1997) has identified the 
investment, contract and user fee stages.
·       The investment stage is seen as characterising the early state 
where a non-profit making organisation forms a partnership with a local 
community, attempting to capacity build the community by encouraging them 
to participate in the information society. At this stage the organisation 
finances the information technology initiatives, provides equipment and 
training for local partners, key persons and staff, as a way of 
demonstrating the practical utility of information.

·       In the contract stage the telecentre has gained autonomy from the 
“parent” organisations and starts to make contractual agreements with other 
agencies such as government departments or other organisations e.g. 
hospitals or schools building up a clientele to which it provides services 
as well as technical support in the setting up of their facilities.

·       By the time the telecentre gets to the user fee stage donor 
dependency is a thing of the past since by this time the communities are 
well aware of the products and benefits of the telecentre and are therefore 
willing to pay for services.

The implication of an evolutionary view is that it is only a matter of time 
and maturity before telecentres become independent and self-sustaining or 
in more popular language sustainable. However there is some difficulty with 
this position. The evolutionary thesis, gives slight attention to the 
motivational basis and the wide variety of telecentres appearing to pertain 
more to one type of telecentre; the public development-oriented telecentre. 
To be fair, these were the types that Fuchs investigated. The preoccupation 
with sustainability and economic independence of this particular type of 
telecentre has continued to dominate discussions partly on account of the 
current predominance of market logic and the business model. That few 
examples of telecentres at the user fee stage have been described in the 
literature is perhaps proof that not enough time has elapsed or that other 
models need to be constructed to explain and account for the full spectrum 
of experiences. On the other hand the reality of many more failed 
telecentres underscores the importance of economic viability. How to 
achieve this remains a big question.

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