Feature

Telecenters, Information Technology and Rural Development: The Australian Experience

by Perry Share
Editor's Note: As the online age emerges, governments and communities grapple with the promises, problems and unanswered questions of information technology in rural development. Dr. Perry Share relates the Australian experience with community-based telecenters.

Australia is a land of contradiction. It has a public image as a rural-based economy and culture. Typical popular images are of kangaroos in a bushland setting or macho bush workers staring grimly into the sunset. However, most Australians live in urban or semi-urban environments in a 200km-wide strip along the east coast of the continent with settlement also on the southwest coast, around Perth in Western Australia. The remainder of the Australian land mass (about 90%) can be defined as rural or remote. These areas contain about a fifth of the total population, which ranges in density from 0 to 5 people per square kilometer. About two thirds of the rural/remote population live in or near country towns, with the remainder very sparsely settled on farms, very small settlements, Aboriginal outstations or on transport routes. In remote areas about 60% of the population is of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander descent.

Rural Development in Australia

Compared to the United States or the European Union (EU), Australia has very little in the way of a specific rural development policy. This stems to large extent from the historical relationship between the federal government and the states. The latter have constitutional responsibility for land tenure and management, agriculture and forestry, and provision of services such as roads, health services and schools. Federal government responsibility for agriculture (and consequently rural development) devolves from its status as an export industry of national importance. The states do provide considerable support to rural communities, especially in the way that policies of standardization and cross-subsidy have ensured that services in rural areas are comparable to those in the cities.

The Federal Government's Role in Rural Development

Federal government policies toward regional development have oscillated between top down and bottom up approaches. The bottom-up philosophy is very much reflected in more recent attempts to foster rural community development. Current federal efforts embrace this philosophy - for instance, in the Rural Communities Access Program (RCAP). RCAP is a suite of programs that seeks to provide rural and remote dwellers with access to information and services, through face-to-face and phone-based advisory services, telecenters and small rural community development grants.

Telecommunications and Rural Development

One area where the federal government has had a key role to play in rural community development has been through the provision of telecommunications infrastructure and services, particularly as until recently it has held a monopoly over the provision of telephone services. Commencing with the completion of the Overland Telegraph in 1872, there has been sustained and consistent investment by the federal government in telecommunication infrastructure and service provision.

Providing telecommunications services to rural and remote Australia has always been a technical and financial challenge. Huge distances between settlements and the sparseness of scattered rural populations have created a difficult business environment for governments and service providers alike, with high capital infrastructure costs and apparently limited revenue opportunities. As a result there has been an overt policy of cross-subsidization, through a legislated Universal Service Obligation. This has meant that rural and remote communities have been ensured of at least basic telephone services.

The final phase of the development of the POTS (Plain Old Telephone Service) saw the installation of the final links in the telecommunications chain through the $530 million Rural and Remote Areas Program. (Note: All monetary figures are in Australian dollars AUS$1 = US$0.75.) These included provision of services to remote farms, homesteads and Aboriginal communities through the solar-powered Digital Radio Concentrator System. With the deregulation of the communications sector and the increase in competition, it is unclear whether telecommunications companies will voluntarily continue to make the investments required to bring the new generation of telecommunications services to all rural and remote communities.

Australians are known for their enthusiastic and rapid embrace of new technologies, such as color TV, VCRs and mobile phones, but farmers have been noted for their relatively low adoption of computer technology, particularly in comparison to their urban business counterparts. At the same time, international developments, for example in the global trading of wool, mean that Australian farmers are in effect forced to adopt new communications technologies. A number of rural interest groups - including farmer organizations and rural research bodies - have sought to respond to this situation.

Recently the federal government, conscious of concerns in rural communities at being left off the Information Superhighway, has announced a number of special initiatives to encourage the development of advanced communications infrastructure in rural areas. Political deals designed to secure the partial sell-off of the publicly owned telco also influenced these decisions. New spending has included two million dollars for projects to enhance public access to online services through public libraries and similar institutions (the Online Public Access Initiative) and $250 million for the much larger Regional Telecommunications Infrastructure Fund, designed to help stimulate and aggregate demand for online and other advanced telecommunications services in rural and remote areas. Though these schemes are dwarfed by the billions of dollars being invested in the roll-out of advanced fiber and cable networks in urban and regional centers, they may help rural and remote communities to respond to the opportunities promised by advanced communications systems.

In May 1997, the federal government's Information Policy Advisory Council (IPAC) released the report rural®ional.au/for all. This report set out a rationale for the development of online services in rural and remote Australia and featured an audit of the technological and organizational solutions and initiatives already underway. It embraced a future where everyone is location independent in terms of access to affordable services, closeness to each other and to the worlds of learning, commerce, healthy living and entertainment. In this future, it was hoped, there would emerge regional and rural development based on new job and new business opportunities.

Given the rapidity of change in both the technological arena and policy environment, it is very difficult to confidently predict the nature of telecommunications development in rural and remote areas. Much faith is being held in new wireless and satellite technologies and a range of other technological fixes. It is confidently asserted by the federal government that continued deregulation and competition will open up the market, as smart companies see the profits that can be realized in targeting rural and remote consumer niches. At the same time it is recognized that occasional government intervention might be needed to stimulate and aggregate demand and to administer and enforce universal service mechanisms.

A key challenge identified in the IPAC report is to stimulate interest amongst rural people in the benefits that might accrue to them through involvement and investment in advanced communications technologies. A justified skepticism exists amongst rural dwellers, many of whom have seen a continuing downgrading of social and capital infrastructure in their communities, in technologies that may in fact lead to a diminution of available services. Country people remain to be convinced that online technologies have anything to offer, particularly in light of the high access costs that many of them must incur.

Telecenters

Partly as a response to such concerns, in 1992 the federal government initiated the telecenter program, part of the RCAP suite of programs mentioned earlier. Developed by some enthusiastic individuals within Telstra (the publicly-owned telecommunications company) and the Department of Primary Industries and Energy (DPIE), the Australian telecenter program drew much inspiration from developments in Scandinavia in the 1980s.

A telecenter is a publicly accessible space (the premises used to house telecenters have ranged from purpose built units to abandoned convents) fitted out with a range of computing and communications equipment. This might include computers, satellite dishes, faxes, scanners, printers, Internet connections, videoconferencing equipment, photocopiers and other office fittings.

Telecenters are funded to the extent of equipment purchases and some salary component to pay a (usually part-time) coordinator. Typical funding is in the order of $25,000 per annum for two or, in exceptional cases, three years. Additional funds are derived from sale of services to the general public or to government and private bodies. There is also a significant input from local communities, either as cash support, or as in-kind support in the form of provision of buildings, voluntary labor, utilities or other services.

DPIE has supported 43 telecenters, of which 41 are still in operation. The Western Australian telecenter network was established in 1993 and now consists of 68 linked telecenters, with funding provided by local communities and a range of government bodies (including 14 DPIE supported centers). None of the other states has yet funded their own telecenters, though Queensland has committed considerable funds to the development of telematics-based learning facilities, some of which are co-located with DPIE supported telecenters. Telecenters were designed to help rural communities adopt new communications and computing technologies, to expand local employment and business opportunities and to explore new ways of delivering services, such as education and training.

The activities that take place in telecenters are varied. The most common are computer and other training - especially under the sponsorship of labor market programs for unemployed people; desktop publishing; and support of distance education. Other activities are highly diverse, from book publishing to accountancy and secretarial services to provision of Internet services and WWW page design. Telecenters also act, in some cases, as community centers, providing spaces for meetings, local tourist and community information and a focus for other community activities such as barter schemes. Telecenters also assist local people in developing applications for other government funding programs. Very few telecenters have provided substantial telework opportunities. The range of activities carried out - and not carried out - in Australian rural telecenters are similar to those reported for similar enterprises in Scandinavia, Ireland and the United Kingdom.

The telecenter program joins two aims: rural community development and (small) business stimulation. The extent to which these are compatible or complementary has been a constant source of tension within the development of community-based telecenters, not just in Australia.

Telecenters and Economic Development

There has been considerable debate over the extent to which telecommunications may be linked to rural economic development and/or decline. It is certainly the case that enhanced communications links (whether road, rail or electronic) have the capacity both to bring business and services into rural communities, or to leach them out to other, larger centers.

On the positive side, use and understanding of modern technology can help rural businesses and rural labor stay competitive. Business and land management, market contact and financial information and professional networking are but a few of the advantages that rural dwellers can obtain through computing and telecommunications networks.

Telecenters have sought to realize this positive potential in a number of ways:

Telecenters and Rural Community Development

The Australian telecenter program (particularly that section of it supported by DPIE) has a commitment to community-based management structures and processes. DPIE provides funds for establishment and subsidizes running costs; however, community-based management committees have responsibility for day-to-day administration and planning of telecenters. These committees identify local needs, raise funds, identify goals and chart future directions.

Telecenters also expect to make a significant contribution to rural community development. Experience of the telecenter program suggests that they can perform a useful function in their community. In particular, telecenters provide a focus for community activity and mobilization. The telecenter committees may become catalysts for other development projects. Conversely, telecenters seem to work best in communities where there is a commonality of purpose -- where members are able to work together cooperatively and, crucially, where suitable management skills can be mobilized. They may help publish local newsletters and brochures or provide electronic bulletin boards to support the community. They may also provide a center where people without other means of access to computers can develop new skills. It is clear that a number of Australian telecenters, especially those in very small or remote communities, such as Tumby Bay in South Australia, have been fulfilling such functions.

In the rural context it often makes little sense to differentiate between business and community activities. Many businesses undertake work at reduced cost or for free for local community organizations. For instance, accountants will carry out auditing for local service clubs, or banks will supply free checking services. Similarly, telecenters often find it difficult to differentiate between business and community functions. This can be a cause for friction in local communities, where legitimate businesses fear undercutting by publicly-funded competitors and also between telecenters and funding bodies who wish to see the organizations move toward financial self-sufficiency.

Are Telecenters a Success?

It is difficult to assess the extent to which telecenters have succeeded. External evaluators have tended to judge them in terms of the telecenters' own stated aims. Furthermore, it was difficult to establish specific performance indicators for telecenters prior to their establishment, given the novelty of the enterprise. Thus the purposes and directions of the telecenters have evolved, particularly in response to rapidly changing technology.

If continued existence can be taken as a measure of success, then Australian telecenters have been remarkably successful. Only two DPIE supported telecenters have failed as have two of the Western Australian government funded centers. In three of these four cases failure has largely been due to the activities of a rival public sector training provider or overlap with private business.

Telecenters also appear to have been successful in involving rural women who have made up over two-thirds of DPIE-supported telecenter coordinators, though men dominate management committees by similar proportion. Women have also been enthusiastic users of telecenter services, accessing education, training and work opportunities previously unavailable or difficult to access in rural and remote areas. For instance, telecenters have apparently supported a strong growth in the number of women accessing Technical and Further Education distance education courses; previously such courses were dominated by men.

A key measure of success (particularly for funding bodies) is whether telecenters can achieve self-sufficiency. In Britain and Ireland research has indicated that no more than 15% of telecenters were returning a profit on operations. The trend in Australia has been for telecenters to replace one form of government support with another. Ongoing DPIE funding has ceased for most telecenters. They are now dependent on other sources of income, for example as providers of training courses for labor market programs or the sale of Internet services to public bodies. There is also a measure of private income through a broad range of services (as discussed above), but without some form of continued public funding, most telecenters would not survive.

Future Directions

In Europe telecenters have either been closed or kept alive largely through public funding. The question then arises: are telecenters a valuable service that should be supported (perhaps like public libraries) or are they an irrelevant and expensive drain on the public purse, a utopian notion that has failed? This is, not surprisingly, a difficult question to answer. The key lies in the nature of the service being provided by telecenters, and whether such a service is economically, socially or ethically desirable. The future directions of the telecenter idea also rest on how policy makers respond to the challenges of rural economic and social development.

In Australia the future of telecenters is not clear. At the federal level a decision is yet to be made (as of June 1997) whether to continue funding such initiatives. The Western Australian government has decided to sustain and indeed expand its telecenter operations, basically by turning telecenters into a channel for the delivery of a range of government services.

Networking

When telecenters were first established in 1992-93, they were perceived very much as stand-alone operations, but networking is now seen as the key orientation of telecenters. However, they have yet to develop their potential in this direction. The telecenter coordinating body, the Australian Rural Telecenter Association, has yet to develop as an effective coordination or marketing organization, and the Western Australian telecenters are still highly dependent on a centralized, state- provided Support Unit.

There is hope in Western Australia that telecenter 'clusters' will encourage interchange among telecenters in the same geographic area. Such cooperation should facilitate access to technical support and assistance; common training sessions; and the opportunity to plan and bid for collaborative ventures and projects. Ultimately telecenters or networks of telecenters could form the basis for rural-based telecommunications cooperatives. Telecenters at Wangaratta in Victoria and Cloncurry in Queensland are already moving in this direction.

Technological Change: Privatization

Australian telecenters emerged at a specific point in the development of electronic communications and information technology. They provided services such as laser printing, photocopying, dispatch and receipt of faxes and Internet access, at a time when the vast majority of rural households had no private access to such services. However rapid technological change and reduced costs of some electronic equipment has meant that at least some of these services are now within reach of the private consumer. This obviously raises question about the viability of many telecenter operations. On the other hand, rural Internet access is still very limited.

Provision of Government Services

In Western Australia the telecenter network could deliver information and services on behalf of different government agencies. The DPIE is pushing for a similar function for federally supported telecenters, and this was a recommendation of the recent evaluation of the broader RCAP program. Duplication and unevenness of service delivery has always been a problem in rural and remote communities. Telecenters could provide a first stop shop or single window through which public (and private) services could be provided. There is already evidence that the private sector is providing similar types of information brokerage services in rural areas.

Real and Virtual Communities

Global communications must be understood as something that happens locally as well as globally. There are fundamental questions about the relationship between real rural communities and the virtual electronic communities that may be emerging on the Internet -- facilitated in some ways by the development of telecenters. People are increasingly engaging in activities with people of like interest who are not located in physical proximity to them. Electronic networks have the capacity to both connect people on the basis of shared interest, but also to isolate them from their immediate spatial community. If rural dwellers can find social stimulation and sources of information in cyberspace, they may cease to interact with their neighbors in rural settings. The role of the rural community in economic production may then be diminished by electronic networks. The crucial issue may become the extent to which a local face can be put on Internet services at the local level.

The challenge, then, is to provide the benefits of electronic communication in such a way as to support and enhance, rather than destroy, rural localities and communities. Telecenters provide specific community focus and structured involvement of local community groups and individuals. They can evolve into local information providers, brokers and creators. As such, they are well placed to facilitate the use of modern communications technologies to help Australian rural communities grow and survive into the next century.


Perry Share, Ph.D., is a lecturer in sociology and communications at Charles Sturt University, Locked Bag 678, WAGGA WAGGA 2678 Australia. Dr. Share can be reached by phone: +61 69 332 612; fax: +61 69 332 792; or e-mail: pshare@csu.edu.au