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Flavor of the Month of May: If Mobile Phones Killed the Telecentre, What Next?

Inspired by the upcoming IREX Tech Deep Dive event about the Future of Public Access (If Mobile Phones Killed the Telecentre, What is Next for Public Internet Access?), let's start a another episode of our "Flavor of the Month Forum" on this topic. 

Back at the dawn of the digital divide conversation, leading organizations invested in telecentres — public spaces where people could access computers and learn about the Internet. Fast forward to today, where billions have a personal Internet in their pocket and use Facebook daily, there is a real question if we still need public access Internet services in the age of the mobile phone.

Join with us in this forum and share your ideas, thoughts and views as we ponder on the following questions:

  • Do you think mobile phones will render telecentres obsolete?
  • If mobile phones killed the telecentres, what is next for public Internet access?
  • What will tomorrow's public access venue look like? Or will we even need one?
  • What is the state of digital inclusion and what would it take us to get beyond access?

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Those are great questions Seu. When I ponder them, this is what I see:

Smartphones and iPads in theory may kill-off the old style Telecenters - but not before many major hurdles are crossed....in access availability, income affordability, training usability and purpose feasibility. Then we must remember one powerful fact, that those are the reasons why half the world’s population are not yet online.

Then when we consider that among the ranks of that vast offline population are our Unemployed, our Ageing Populations, our Low Income Earners and those without Education opportunities - we can see how the biggest task is yet to come. Now let’s imagine the challenge for that half of the world as they set out to seek Online Job Opportunities, to avail of Tele-health services, to provide global traded-services and to access online education every day such as MOOC. Now let’s think of trying to do any one of those tasks over Mobiles aka. Smartphones? Finally let’s add into that mix the cultural diversity and languages required as the world opens up to the East, to a whole new world. That new world of the East is very unfamiliar territory to the West with all its internet platforms and services - however well packaged; but they are also those to whom the West mostly struggles to communicate and to understand today.

Now let’s consider the fact that many of those are also Under-banked and so do not have credit cards nor bank account to trade online via e-commerce anyway. Consequently, half of the world thus remains grossly Under-served by modern day services in fields of remote education, online full financial services, online community care services and for online job opportunities. By definition then, half the world population have therefore yet to feel the friendly embrace of social and economic inclusion, of access to digital literacy and of social innovation services.

In conclusion, a very strong case is made in my view for Telecentres today to remain a great resource for Community engagement, participation and global networking purposes. Will we need Telecentres tomorrow - absolutely yes too, but not perhaps quite as we know them to-day. They will, I believe, be indistinguishable from Community Hubs; where technology and the Telecentre will become the core of an overall Community service. People will go to their Local Community Hub (with Telecentre) to engage, to learn and discover new paths to new income earning opportunities worldwide and to avail of a host of new but yet unknown services locally.

As for Digital Inclusion it will become just a means to an end, that end will be Social and Economic Inclusion ie. Livelihoods in the Community.

Hi Richard,
Many thanks for posting the first reply for this forum. Really appreciate it.
I totally agree with your idea that 'Telecentres today to remain a great resource for Community engagement, participation and global networking purposes and we will need Telecentres for tomorrow as well'. Based on my country experience, in Sri Lanka, nowadays, majority of population owns a mobile. Its so difficult to find a person, who does not carry a mobile in his hand. But mobiles in their hands can only accomplish the basics such as getting a phone call and a sms. Advanced mobile service delivery is still on the process of developing. Only the urban community is been privileged to enjoy the advanced features of mobile services in Sri Lanka. Situation remain same with most of the developing countries in the world. 

So I think, for now, its highly unlikely that mobile phones will kill the telecentres. Because, if we expect a day that we don't have telecentres, there are lot more to be done: access availability, income affordability, training usability and purpose feasibility (as you have mentioned ). 

It is unlikely that mobile phones will kill telecentres, because people, who are telecentres' clients, mostly belong to the demographics that cannot afford the Internet connection. Yes, the vulnerable population owns cell phones, but using cell phones for calls and text messages is much more affordable than paying for the Internet connection. The Internet connection is much more expensive and it is still luxury for many people in many countries.

Telecentres or any other versions of centres of teaching digital literacy occupy a specific niche that is not filled by businesses, because the clients are not ready to pay. In addition, for some demographics, like seniors or people wearing glasses/lenses, small screens of the cell phones are not acceptable.

I completely agree with you, Yuliya.
And thanks Seu - on reflection, perhaps a far bigger threat will come from tablets / iPads than from smartphones, given their bigger screens and being a lot more user friendly and exciting to new users than computers - especially for the rapidly growing Ageing Population in this era of now skype driven innovation aka. latest being "skype on wheels" robots. Tablets are especially suitable for new users who still represent half the world's population. With more affordable versions of tablets increasingly available too they could, if adopted by Telecentre movement, in fact usher in an exciting new era of a 'Telecentre in every Community', which would surely be as great a feat and it would be a Community service.

Thank you Yulia and Thank you Richard once again.

This is the first time I heard about the innovation : "skype on wheels". So I did little bit of research. If any one interested on the subject: click HERE for the blog. Also posted a video HERE :-)

One comment, I do not agree with you saying may be the biggest threat will come from tablets and iPads. As Yulia has mentioned, 'Internet connections are much more expensive and it is still luxury for many people in many countries". In most of the developing countries IT infrastructure is not so developed. For most of the developing countries, development of IT is a not priority as their economic and political reasons. It is true that tablets and iPads may user-friendly, compared to a smart phone. Also, what if though there will be more affordable versions of tablets available in the markets of developing countries, may be a Tablet/ ipad is not a top priority of people. At the same time, the mobile service delivery may not be developed up to the level as it benefits the citizens who use tablets/ iPads.  

Meantime we get to heard stories as follows: Desperate Chinese boy, 17, sells kidney for £2,000 to buy an iPad and iPhone
Read more: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2126172/Chinese-boy-sells-k... 

Thanks Seu for starting this discussion. Many thanks Richard and Yulia for your contributions.


In my view the advent of mobile phones has not in any way killed the telecentre, in any case it has boosted the telecentre development and growth; perhaps what has been affected by the presence of mobile phones are the commercial cyber cafes, but even these are getting “smart” by going through a lot of restructuring to meet the market trends/needs. We have seen cyber cafes setting up tablet only labs for browsing; others are availing smart phones for customers. It must also be understood that this wave is for a certain age set not everyone in the community.

Last Mile Access
Computers especially desktops did not get into households in the villages, this was mainly due to several factors such as electricity and expertise to train and install applications among others challenges. The telecentre became a one stop shop for all information needs, well this is still so today :-) The mobile phone has provided the extended reach desired by telecentres over the years but has its own limitation. With the right applications, communities can access information without visiting the telecentres, but in many instances the telecentre still plays a critical role in ensuring that its content reach the farmer for instance through the mobile phone. We there have pull and push services provided by telecentres from across the world.

Internet and Communication
Internet has revolutionized the way telecentres operate, the fact that one can access Internet through the phone is even good news to the telecentre community. Critical training required to do meaningful searches and use the device maximally still lies with the telecentres. Again how many people in remote Africa who actually have phones that can access internet and whether they actually use them is debatable.
Communication among telecentres and their clients has had a major boost due to the availability of mobile phones; it continues to generate business for telecentres sustainability.
There were a lot of issues in the past about setting up networks, cables were scattered everywhere and often not working well. Today due to the availability of smart phones, one can simply setup a network with a lot of ease at the telecentre by just tethering devices.


Innovation and Creativity
Telecentres are revolutionizing their operations, they have apps which they use to reach out to their clients for updates such as market information to farmers, extension services to farmers, community health workers with limited or no knowledge at all on computers are using mobile phones to deliver educational content to pregnant mothers among many others.


I think the future telecentre will be more anchored on mobile technology and is poised to reach millions of users in remote and undeserved areas more quick and efficiently. Computing has taken a shift and we all agree that the core of telecentre operations still rely on computers and other technologies. We would imagine a scenario where everyone uses their phone to access education, health, food, finance and even social issues etc thereby thinking that telecentres become obsolete, however telecentres will remain relevant in the sense that capacity building/training will always be a need especially in rural areas, provision of technical support to communities on these technologies remains a need.

Cleo, Thank you very much for the reply. You have captured some critical issues on the topic. 

I also believe on your point that if telecentres could be upgraded with the development of mobile technology, it can create more and more benefits to the society and people. As you have mentioned, telecentres needs to revolutionize their operations. Adopting mobile technology, telecentres can make a real change. Its true that, each and every one in a community can not afford a mart phone or internet in their home. But, if we equip one telecentre with all advanced technology, it can better serve a community, despite many difficulties such as lack of capacity building, training, language barrier, lack of resources, funding, support, etc, ect. In the end it will create the future for telecentre as well.   

Telecentres mostly target vulnerable population or, at least, citizens with less resources. Moreover, telecentres provide a large variety of additional services, including and not limited to giving seminars about Internet safety and workshops on job search, e-government, etc. Sometimes their services are pretty much unique. I have even seen a telecentre in the Library that offered babysiting services while a client was visiting a dentist or another place and could not leave a child anywhere else for a few hours. For a library, it is an opportunity to build good relationships with a child who is a future reader. All these services cannot disappear just because a new technology has just become available.

You are very welcome Sue. Yes, I was mindful of access being a big issue in India, Africa and elsewhere as I mentioned in my original opening commentary that ‘many major hurdles are crossed in access availability, income affordability….’ I had seen growth rates of Internet access availability in India, Africa and elsewhere, ref http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Global_Internet_usage. And apart from Access, I was also conscious of Affordability levels in low income and poverty across India, Africa and around the world, ref this Gallup chart http://www.daftblogger.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/05/Poverty.png

You mention the Library, Yuliya, as an integral part of the community and we’ve seen the first Bookless Library in San Antonio, Texas https://www.tsl.texas.gov/ld/librarydevelopments/wp-content/uploads... – so Telecentres can survive and grow too beyond tablet era too. If their service is unique and valuable they will survive and prosper as half the world are not yet online.

In that context I noted that you mention, Cliopa, that “we have seen cyber cafes setting up tablet only labs for browsing” too. You also mentioned the important fact about “computers especially desktops did not get into households in the villages, this was mainly due to several factors such as electricity” whereas we know there are 1.6 million people living without electricity today. I think innovation and creativity is indeed the way to go as you say. I agree that the future telecentre “will be more anchored on mobile technology and is poised to reach millions of users in remote and undeserved areas more quick and efficiently…. (and) that capacity building/training will always be a need especially in rural areas, provision of technical support to communities on these technologies remains a need.”

Thank you Richard, your inputs here really appreciated. Thank you very much once again.

Hi Yulia, Thank you very much for the reply. Indeed.. I agree with you, telecentres should deliver unique services to the community. But having said that, telecentres should not be disappeared because of the advanced technology, what do you think of the future of telecentres? what would be the future of telecentres? How do they should survive/ improve their services? what would you suggest?  

Dear All,
As we have come to the end of the month already, its time for us to wrap up the forum and I sincerely thank all of you who participated and share their thoughts, experiences with this topic. Thank you very much once again and really appreciated. 

To summarize, here are the highlights:

Smartphones and iPads in theory may kill-off the old style Telecenters

 

 

 

At the same time, there are many barriers/ difficulties to overcome.  Majority of world’s population are not yet online: there are barriers such as access availability, income affordability, training usability and purpose feasibility. Also, half of the world thus remains under-served by modern day services in fields of remote education, online full financial services, online community care services and for online job opportunities. It creates lack of social and economic inclusion, of access to digital literacy and of social innovation services.

 

Telecentre Innovation- Telecentres should upgrade their services by adopting new technology

Telecentres today remain a great resource for Community engagement, participation and global networking purposes. Telecentres may become indistinguishable from Community Hubs; where technology and the Telecentre will become the core of an overall Community service. People will go to their Local Community Hub (with Telecentre) to engage, to learn and discover new paths to new income earning opportunities worldwide and to avail of a host of new but yet unknown services locally.

 

It is unlikely that mobile phones will kill telecentres.  

 

  • Telecentres' clients, mostly belong to the demographics that cannot afford the Internet connection. The Internet connection is much more expensive and it is still luxury for many people in many countries
  • Some of the telecentres in the world serve specific niche that is not filled by businesses Eg: seniors or people wearing glasses/lenses, small screens of the cell phones are not acceptable.

 

tablets / iPads Vs smartphones

  • tablets / iPads are lot more user friendly and exciting to new users than computers
  • Tablets are especially suitable for new users who still represent half the world's population.
  • Availability of more affordable versions of tablets
  • If adopted by Telecentre movement, in fact usher in an exciting new era of a 'Telecentre in every Community', which would surely be an innovative community service.

Advent of mobile phones has not in any way killed the telecentre. Yet it has the capacity to boost the telecentre development and growth.

 

Also, the future telecentre will be more anchored on mobile technology

  • ·         Last Mile Access- The mobile phone has provided the extended reach desired by telecentres over the years but has its own limitation. With the right applications, communities can access information without visiting the telecentres, but in many instances the telecentre still plays a critical role in ensuring that its content reach the farmer for instance through the mobile phone. 
  • Internet and Communication- Communication among telecentres and their clients has had a major boost due to the availability of mobile phones; it continues to generate business for telecentres sustainability. 
  • Innovation and Creativity- Telecentres are revolutionizing their operations, they have apps which they use to reach out to their clients for updates such as market information to farmers, extension services to farmers, community health workers with limited or no knowledge at all on computers are using mobile phones to deliver educational content to pregnant mothers among many others.

 

Telecentres can survive and grow too beyond tablet era if Telecentres offer unique services

  • Telecentres can offer customised services and Telecentres mostly target vulnerable population or, at least, citizens with less resources.
  • If telecentres can offer unique service and its valuable to the community they serve, they will survive and it will prosper the half the world are not yet online.

 


Stay tuned with the Telecentre.org 'Flavor of the month' forums and lets meet with another new topic.
Cheers!

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