Telecenters: Bringing the comunity together

Hari Srinivas
Policy Analysis Series E-178. October 2022.

Before the advent of today's ubiquitous internet "cafes," there were (and still are, in many places), telecenters.

A telecenter is a go-to place for electronic services - long-distance telephone services, mobile telephony, computers, internet access and wifi hotspots.

Particularly located in low-income communities and areas that cannot afford the above services individually in their homes, telecenters are also places where users can gain ICTs and computer skills. Telecenters in some countries also provide support services to SMEs and the community, and focus on work-related activities and professional activities including services for social groups.

A telecenter is not one technology, but a physical location where different technologies and services, particularly related to ICTs, can be accessed.
Many telecenters also function as a one-stop shop to access public/governmental services such as paying taxes, utility fees etc. usually as a part of the governments' (local or national) "e-governance" drive.

The rapid deployment of mobile phones and related network infrastructure have enabled countries and communities to leapfrog developmental challenges - but a niche for telecenters still remain, especially in low-income communities in developing areas.

    Telecentres in Africa The United Nations International Communications Union (ITU) has established a network of more than 100 Multipurpose Community Telecenters(MCTs), to provide communities with access to ICTs. The project aims to enable the African communities to obtain the social and economic benefits that accrue from participation in the information society.

    These MCTs are managed by women which enables them to actively participate in the development and decision-making process. MCTs provide basic training in the use of computers and supplies other services such as public telephone, fax, Internet connectivity and basic information.

    For the ITU, MCTs are one of the most innovative and practical ways to bring the benefits of the information society - they create employment and provide basic information services, they establish community focal points for e-education, e-health and e-governance initiatives through web-based multimedia contents. They also stimulate the development and growth of local businesses, as well as ICT skills among the local population.

  • Definition: A telecenter can be defined as a public place where people can access computers, the Internet, and other digital technologies that enable them to gather information, create, learn, and communicate with others while they develop essential digital skills.

    A telecenter focuses on a community's economic, educational, and social development reducing isolation, bridging the digital divide, promoting health issues, creating economic opportunities, and reaching out to youth.

  • Other names: Telecentres exist in almost every country, although they sometimes go by a different names including Common/citizen service centre (CSC) Community multimedia center (CMC), Community technology center (CTC), Electronic village hall, Infocenter, Multipurpose community telecentre (MCT), Public internet access center (PIAP), Telecottage, Village knowledge center,

  • Services provided: Most telecenters focus their services on the use of ICTs for telephone services (landline and mobile phones), computer services, including access to the internet and other electronic services. But most go beyond to also include training in ICTs, education and enterprise/SME and agriculture extension services etc.

    Many telecenters fuction as a "social enterprise and provide services such as training services, secretarial services (photocopying, faxing etc.), maintenance services (computer maintenance and repair), sale of computer accessories (CDs, USB devices and other peripherals), renting working space (meeting rooms for workshops, teleworking spaces etc.), library services and counseling services.

  • Stakeholders: A number of institutions and organizations are involved in the operation of a telecenter, depending on the services and functions provided.
    • Public agencies such as the local government, Department of Health and Department of Education are involved, as are Agriculture Extension services of the national/local government.

    • Private sector entities such as tourism agences, small busineeses, ISP/Telecom providers etc. may be involved.

    • Civil society entitites such as NGOs, community groups, womens groups, youth groups, and other entities may provide services and/or use the facilities of a telecenter.
Creating A Telecenter 4 Tips for Creating A Telecenter That's Inclusive and Sustainable

Creating a telecenter that is inclusive, sustainable, and meets the needs of your community can be challenging. A telecenter is a place where people from the same or similar communities can access information and services online. A telecenter also provides an offline space for users to meet and collaborate. Inclusive design is about creating products, services, and environments that are accessible to people with different abilities-not just sight or hearing difficulties, but also cognitive impairment, physical impairment, social isolation or other conditions that might make someone feel left out of something.

Who is your audience?

When creating a telecenter, it's important to know your audience and their needs. If you're working with a specific community, you should know their unique needs and how they are different from those of the general public. For example, if you're working with seniors, you might want to find out if any of them have vision difficulties. If they do, you'll need to make sure that your website is accessible to them and is easy to navigate. If you're working with youth, you might want to find out if any of them have hearing difficulties and if they have difficulty finding time to come to the telecenter. If you're working with people who are socially isolated, you might want to find out if they have a computer or internet access at home and if they feel comfortable with technology.

Start with user research

Before you even start building your telecenter, you should conduct some user research to understand your users' needs and what they would like from a telecenter. You can use user interviews, surveys, and/or focus groups (or a combination of these) to get an idea of what your users need and want from your telecenter. You can also keep an eye out for any existing user research reports or studies, such as those conducted by your local government. You can use these insights to inform your project and help you create a telecenter that is truly meeting the needs of your community members.

Make it accessible

We've already touched on how important it is to make your telecenter accessible for everyone, but how do you go about doing that? Here are a few tips: - If you're working with seniors, make sure that any content you publish on your website is font-friendly and large enough to be readable for those with diminishing eyesight. - If you're working with people who are socially isolated, make sure you have TTY functionality on your website and that you have a TTY phone. - Have a variety of seating options in your physical space so that everyone can sit comfortably. - If you're working with people with mobility impairments, make sure you have a layout with easy access and plenty of space for wheelchairs.

Be inclusive with your space

One of the most important things you can do when designing your telecenter is to make sure that everyone feels included and welcomed in the space. - Include artwork or pictures that reflect the cultures of your community members in the physical space. - Use inclusive language and language that welcomes everyone in your website and other communications. - Host events and activities in your physical space that bring people together and make them feel like they are part of the community. - Bring your community into your online presence.

Be sustainable with your partnerships

When creating a telecenter, it's important to think about who is helping you and why. - Does your local government help fund your project? If so, make sure you are working with them to create a business plan that meets all of their requirements and that allows them to contribute to your project. - Does your internet service provider (ISP) have low-cost internet options for low-income families? If so, reach out to them and see if they can help you get the internet you need for your telecenter. - Does a local computer repair shop donate used computers for your project? If so, make sure you have a plan for collecting and refurbishing them so that they don't end up in a landfill. - Does your organization partner with other organizations? If so, you might want to consider setting up a partnership agreement so that everyone knows where they stand and each party's responsibilities.

  • Case Study: The multi-purpose Village Information Centres(VICs) in India partner actively with the local government run programmes to provide information and retrieval services to rural communities in addition to building their capacities in vocational skills.

    The delivery of local content digital, audio, video - and deploying a large number of innovative ICT delivery tools get facilitated through VICs. The purpose of the VICs is to use locally appropriate technology and services for enabling:

    1. Greater and more affordable access to government, business and social services for village residents.
    2. A proven and sustainable business model for ICTs in rural areas.
    3. Socio-economic development and poverty reduction in villages, particularly for the women and disadvantaged groups.
    4. Market development opportunities for small, medium and large Indian businesses

  • Conclusion: Telecenters can still be important in today's age, especially in lower-income countries where many people still lack access to reliable internet and digital technologies. Telecenters can provide a vital link to information and services that can improve people's lives, such as education, healthcare, and economic opportunities - ans a critical tool for community development, helping to build digital literacy and skills, promote entrepreneurship, and support local businesses.

    However, in some higher-income countries countries, the concept of telecenters have eveolved to focus on providing digital skills training and support services to those who are still lacking it, or to target groups with special needs, such as elderly or disabled.

    Overall, telecenters can still be an important resource for bridging the digital divide and promoting digital inclusion in many communities. The importance of telecenters may vary depending on the region, the availability of internet and digital technologies, and the specific needs of the community.

  • Further reading:

NOTE: "Telecenter" and "telecentres" are both globally accepted spellings of the word. For the sake of consistency, "telecenter" is used in this document, except in context-specific locations where it is the official name (for example, "Telecentre Foundation").

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