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Rural communication: Is there still a need for telecentres now that there are mobile phones?

Hi all, this study was conducted by APC, comparing the role of mobile phones and telecentres in fostering rural development.

It is noted that mobile phone towers dominate the landscape of many countries where decent internet access still remains a dream. The Economist argues that mobile is all that matters now and many donors have succumbed to this vision, retreating en-masse from rural information and communication technology development. The author of the new report commissioned by APC concludes that "This has left the development of ICTs in the hands of large, highly-centralized telecoms."

APCNews however looks at the rationale behind getting internet into rural areas via wireless and not leaving it all to mobile, and reports back on real-life community efforts that have been taking internet access to parts of Latin America ignored by large companies.
MONTEVIDEO (Ian Howard for APCNews) argued that following the initial rush of information and communication technologies for development (ICT4D) projects in rural Africa, many did not yield the anticipated outcomes, and interest has been dying down. People then began talking about "sustainable ICT" projects that would become self-sufficient after their initial set-up period. But with mobile phones gaining in popularity, popular rhetoric has begun to question the need of ICTs beyond the mobile phone. While mobiles have had a great impact in rural areas, a new study by Ian Howard, commissioned by APC, argues that the need for telecentres and affordable internet connections exists, as such centres cater to rural and niche markets the way larger companies cannot.

What is your take on this? Please share your views with us.


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I'd like to add one more point, the future of the Internet is video. We demonstrated that in our video blogging project in our rural telecenters in Brazil. A research paper is in the works to be published this year. Rural folks adjust very well to the video tools, increasing participation considerably once telecenter volunteers learn how to use video cameras and create video blogs. See:

Video streaming requires high-bandwidth both up and downlink. Cell phones are limited in their ability to create videos and post them, when compared to a full PC in a telecenter with broadband Internet connection. Besides, cell phones with broadband capability are going to be expensive for a while.

Wisdom tells us that a picture is worth a million words. While people like talking on their cell phones, once they learn they can communicate in video, they prefer the power of the image. Telecenters can bring about affordable video blogging to rural communities today.

What I admire on cell phones is the technology and business model. All it takes for the business to grow is more cell towers that connect a group of users to the next and so on. The business model allows for all kinds of payment models, including "caller-pay-connection-fee" and "pre-paid per minute calls". This model allows the network to grow fast, but there are two caveats: 1) calls are expensive and users limit how much they use their phone. That is true even in advanced countries. In Brazil, where the receiver does not pay for the call time, most people use their pre-paid cell phones to receive calls. The second one is that bandwidth improvements requires every cell tower to be upgrade and the cell phones themselves also need to be upgraded... and that takes time and money. I am finding it hard to upgrade my phone to a G1 and add $25/month for broadband access on my already expensive bill. For that same amount one could feed broadband to a telecenter with 20 computers and feed a community of 3000 people (in the US). While my cell phone doesn't pay rent, nor requires a staff to run it, I am pretty sure once you get all the costs of the telecenter and divide by the number of people who use it, it is cheaper for the user than to keep a cell phone that provides the same capabilities as the telecenter.

Now, let's go back to the idea of a Voip phone operator on a telecenter. This model scales nicely, even nicer than the cell phone business, as the telecenter based phone operator is completely independent for the local callers to call among themselves and the price structure can be adjusted to the local reality. It could even be free and subsidized by the external calls... And video service can also be added. Think of a telecenter creating a local Internet, i.e., YouTube is no longer a centralized service, but actually a distributed operation as well. The telecenter can host the local videos for local users accessing from their home PCs or video enabled voip-wifi phones... It can even cash (store in local memory) the Internet videos most wanted by the community, Again, the cost can be adjusted to the local reality as only local bandwidth is being utilized and the community, through its telecenter. owns the network infrastructure.

Later comes the telecenter network organization that brings together the individual telecenter cells and provide inter-cell services. As the telecenters get together and start connecting with each other through their own links, the network organization can reduce the cost for communication among telecenters. One can envision the consolidation of telecenter networks into larger entities, increasing scale and bandwidth purchase power.

In essence, that is how I see telecenters becoming viral.....

Telecenters today, in general, are very limited in their capabilities, and telecenter network organizations are ill prepared to serve their constituency. In open source software terms, telecenters have not even reached version 1.0 yet... and their potential is still unmatched by any other business model when it comes to extending the Information Society in its full capacity to the 78% of the people in the planet who lacks it.
The distinction between a mobile phone and a computer will blur in the short term. "Netbooks" and "smartphones" will morph into very cheap, even free devices, with a very cheap monthly charges for fast broadband, accessible to people living in rural communities. They will promote development for self and for communityl. They will also promote nasty things like consumerism. People will use these devices alone and in groups. Yes, the transition to this point take a couple-three years, and telecentres have a role for those living in the margins. But after that point...?
I believe it will take a lot more than 2 or 3 years for the above to happen in a global scale for a price most can afford. I see this more like a dream or propaganda from the mobile industry. But I agree if that ever happens, then the role of telecenters get changed considerably. However, if it takes 30-40 years for it to happen, then telecenters have a long life still to meet their main purpose. We just can't spend another 10 years trying to justify how good telecenters can be instead of building the solutions that will make it happen today.

What we are looking for is universal access to the Internet as the first step towards the establishment of a truly global information society. The benefits of it we already now. A clear example of it is the election of Barack Obama as president of the US. It would not have happened without the Internet. I can argue to exhaustion that telecenters are the most efficient way to achieve universal internet access globally, today. Are there ways in which telecenters can collaborate with the mobile industry. Of course. The question is: what is the mobile industry offering to the telecenter movement in terms of solutions, support, partnerships, collaboration, etc...? Offering the argument that telecenters will be obsolete in 2-3 years when broadband cell phones become pervasive is not a way to build collaboration.
I just read an interview by Lee S Dryburgh with Sascha Meinhart that sheds some light into the future of mobile communications. Here is an excerpt of it:

Sascha - " Yes, absolutely - I would love to see a day come where we are no longer having to worry about whether we have capacity or whether we have a mobility, not just to connect from anywhere, but to connect in the most efficient and effective manner. Cell phones as an example, there is no reason, if you and I are in the same building, that we should have to be routed through a central tower. The only reason why that architecture has been put in place is because in the United States, I get charged on the way up that tower and you get charged on the way down from that tower. The network owner gets to charge twice for that call, even though for you and I, we would have better, faster and cheaper communications if our devices were connected directly to one another.

I would like to cut out middlemen whenever possible. I'd like to cut out hierarchies that are unnecessary for effective communications, whenever possible. I would like to cut out tolling, adding expense for no other reason than you control the network, whenever possible. Those battles between a distributed, peer-to-peer infrastructure, an opportunistic infrastructure and a command-and-control tolled infrastructure are really where the near future - the next half decade - the battles are all going to be fought."

full interview at:

The point here is that the future is not reserved to cell phone communications as we know it today... and networks of local phone companies (wired and wireless) are possible realities, one that telecenters can play a major role in. There is a lot of competing technologies that will change the communication landscaping in the coming years.
It is not a case of either or ...
I think the debate regarding the role of mobile phones vs Internet Access is a healthy one but we forget that we all have a technology journey - we are introduced to technology, it changes the way we do work or live, we become more curious, we proceed to the next level. Different people go on the journey in different ways. Technology might touch your life through a mobile phone, you then start surfing the Net on that mobile or perhaps you download a ringtone (which is using the Internet although you might now know it) later the screen becomes too small and you search for offerings that address that need i.e. telecentre, Internet Cafe etc. The point I am trying to make is that all these technologies have a place in the technology journey. They fulfil a need.
Which brings me to my second point:
Technology will become redundant if it is there for technology's sake. If it does not fulfil a basic need of the user it will not survive. So it is pointless to give very advanced technology to extremely rural communities. Unless it addresses a basic need in the community it is not sustainable. Mobile phones that provide market information to local fisherman (via a computer database in the middle) will survive regardless - because the fishermen and the market derive mutual benefit from this service. So let's focus on the outcome of technology and let the best technology "slip" into the task seamlessly - be it a mobile phone, telecentre or both.
Dear Marlene

I fully AGREE with your point of view. What I would however like to add is that our imagination lets us use the new technologies in a way where they can countribute in developing new ways of working. The point in this debate is not "mobiles or/vs telecentres" but mobiles FOR telecentres" which means that we should togather think about transforming the telecentre models from their present shape to a new advanced stage where telecentres can utilize/explot the potential of mobile devices to extend their reach. That calls for jointly working to evolve the telecentres for third millenieum services (e.g. Telecentres facilitating mobile banking by tying up wih banks, telecentres as the grievance redressal centres for public services with status of request being updated by telecentres onto a mobile server for availability through sms pull service, telecentre models which are connected to teleceom application service providers for offering additional services etc.). The recent example of Estonia passing a law to allow voting through mobile devices for 2011 elections is an example of innovative thinking for transforming the way people exercise their voting rights ( I am sure this will increase the voter turnout as one will be able to vote from anywhere in the world).

I agree that the technology is not yet mature to address the security and privace concerns, but I am sure that the sequence of evolution (development - stimulation- regulation) applies to the mobile services evolution as well. With the advancement of virtualtion technologies, the issues of screen size will be irrelevant.
Would like to request the members of the group to focus on concrete steps to explore the potential synergies between mobile technologies and telecentres rather than prolonging the discussion on mobiles vs. telecentres. This will surely help us pioneer new Telecentre models for our coming generations.

Vikas Kanungo
Dear Vikas
Agreed. Have a look at the following site which explores exactly that: "the role of mobile phones in social change - - a wealth of information on mobile phones and how they have been used in various countries, applications etc. Hope you find this useful.
Dear Marlene

Thanks for the information. I am very well aware of the great work done by . Incidentally, I am running a global observatory and knowledge portal on mobile government initiatives at the URL which is listed as one of the resources on the subject by . I have been forwarding the useful reports created by mobileactive to the community of 10,000 members who have subscribed to Government@24/7 newsletter brought out by us along with our partners.

Good point. But what is an advanced technology for some might not be for others. For a while telecenters have been looked as places where people learn tools of the trade, such as Word Processing so that one can get a job. We experimented with video blogging in rural communities of about 1,000 people and the result was just unexpected. The telecenter volunteers generate more video content than articles or dicussions for the NGO's collaborative portal. And the community engaged in the telecenter in ways not seen before. Using a projector, the volunteers exhibit their videos in the school, church, ballrooms, and they get messages from all over the world complimenting them on their work. It increased their sense of self worthiness and provided them, all youth, a pathway to leadership status in the community, which now sees the value of the telecenter and support its growth. Some might see video blogging as an advanced technology when compared to cell phones. We learned that video enables illiterate communities to engage easier and faster.

I agree with you Marlene. its about the people, not the technology. And it's the people who decide what they do with the technology. I advocate for technology adoption, not insertion. Let telecenters be the places where communities learn about new ways of doing things, and let them decide what is best for them.
Hi Sandra, I bridge blog this discussion in . I'm sure the latin community will found it interesting.
Hi Macarene, i hope your community finds this interesting too- caused a lot of healthy debt on the English site.


Rural communication: Is there still a need for telecentres now that there are mobile phones?
My answer is a YES.
First of all, I suppose mobile phones in rural communities is owned by I would say a classified type of people, meaning that not all afford to own a mobile phone. That means communication will be easy for that particular people. Then what about the rest who cannot afford to own a phone? This is where a telecentre becomes of value to people with little income but can afford the charge for example to make a phone call. And the telecetre can offer a service like keeping message for these people, say if their people call and its not easy to get them at that particular time.

Secondly, telecetres are not only about communication using telephones, their are other activities and services which are offered. Take an example of training, many people own phones but they do not know how to use them. And many other services like computer literacy, typesetting and photocopying, etc, etc.

I therefore conclude suggesting that telecentres should be initiated, if possible in all rural communities to cater for those people who cannot afford to own individual mobile phones and are not able to access other service which are provided in the telecentres.




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