This paper examines the changes and challenges which face people in rural areas with the data networking and associated telecommunications. In particular, it examines the role which telecentres and related community based initiatives have played in helping communities in Australian rural and remote areas achieve employment, education and development objectives.
A Time of Change for Rural Communities
Emerging technological developments in the late 1990s will change the way in which people throughout the world will learn, live and do business. The scale of these potential changes challenges anything in recent history. At the heart of these changes is the ready availability of inexpensive computer technology which allows the effective and accurate world wide exchange of data by readily available electronic communications links to individual homes and workplaces. For business, these changes have multiplied the effective reach of any concept or idea, which together with the capability for instantaneous communications to any connected location in the world, has redefined the sphere of operations of businesses. For individuals the changes offer flexible and responsive opportunities for education, training and self-development, as well as new ways of working using new technologies.
Rural people live and work within this rapidly changing business and social environment. They face a range of personal and collective decisions on their futures and need good information sources to make sensible decisions on these matters. Computer linked networked information systems have the potential to meet many of these information requirements for both personal and business purposes and to offer ways of living and working which minimise the difficulties associated with distance and isolation in rural and remote areas.
For people in rural and remote areas to take advantage of the benefits of modern computing and information technologies, the telecommunications network into their area needs to be of a suitable technical standard to support the proposed services.
Why Community Action?
Faced with a rapidly changing world, people in rural and remote areas of Australia may find that the plans and priorities of commercial service providers and governments may not align with those of their communities. The service provider may not see the potential for a satisfactory return on their investment in a particular project which might be seen as vital by the affected community.
Rationale for DPIE Involvement in
Telecommunications and Community Action
The Department of Primary Industries and Energy (DPIE) carries the prime responsibility for Federal involvement in rural and mineral industries matters in accordance with the provisions of the Australian Constitution. The formation of the Rural and Provincial Affairs Unit (RPAU) in the mid 1980s marked DPIE's entry into community development matters. The rationale for this involvement was the proposition that sustainable rural communities are needed if sustainable rural industries are to be achieved.
This involvement assists people in rural communities address a range of economic and social questions relating to the quality of life and prosperity of rural communities. These issues range from general issues such as unemployment and regional development, to specific issues such as youth suicide and domestic violence. The programs deliver a range of economic outcomes such as access to education and training, and networked information systems, counselling services for farmers and support for people establishing new businesses. They also deliver social outcomes such as access to support services, increased amenity and more effective community consultation and self-help processes.
Telecommunications play a central role in achieving most if not all of these outcomes and is thus an important area of policy and program involvement.
The DPIE Telecentre Program
The major DPIE involvement in community based telecommunications initiatives has been through the Telecentres Program. Telecentres (or telecottages as they are sometimes known) are community managed facilities which provide public access to modern computing and information technology for a range of purposes including:
Development of the Telecentre Concept
Telecentres have their origin in Scandinavia in the 1980s where the concept was developed to utilise modern telecommunications to assist communities overcome isolation from government and commercial services. The idea has been adopted in many parts of the world and a number of variants on the idea exist. Some focus on the use of technology for employment creation through teleworking, while others have a distance education focus. In the USA, telecentres primarily focus on the provision of public access to the Information Superhighway. The Australian model is one which provides a multifaceted community facility which attempts to provide services in all of these areas.
In the late 1980s, DPIE engaged the University of New England to prepare a consultancy report examining whether the telecentre concept was applicable in the Australian rural situation. The report found in favour of the concept and stimulated a lot of interest both in government and in rural areas.
In the early 1990s, a number of experimental facilities similar to the telecentre idea had been funded through a range of programs. These included community distance education centres in WA and NSW, computer based public information access through the Neighbourhood House facilities in rural Victoria and the funding of experimental telecentres through the DPIE Rural Access Program at Walcha NSW and Cygnet Tas. At this time, Telecom through the work of Tom Cass and Paul Chung, was also promoting telecottages and telecommuting in rural areas and provided financial assistance to some of these groups.
These early experiments showed that a specific program tailored to the needs of the telecenter concept was desirable. The Telecentre Program was established in DPIE and funding for a four year trial was provided in the 1992 Federal Budget. Initially $2.8m was provided. This was subsequently increased to $4m in 1993.
The first rural community groups received funding to establish telecentres in 1993. By 1995, all funds had been allocated. Up to the closure of applications on 30 June 1994, applications were received from about 100 rural communities, of which 43 received funding support. As some of these groups operate at multiple sites, about 80 individual telecentres have been funded under the current DPIE Program.
The Program focused on broadly based community groups who would take the responsibility to manage the telecentre on behalf of their community. Each telecentre would be a public access facility, tailored to meet the individual needs and aspirations of each participating community. While government agencies, education institutions, single interest groups and individuals were not eligible for funding, their participate as community members was welcomed.
The difficulties of raising funds in rural communities was recognised the funding arrangements which were structured around the program providing the bulk of the initial capital funds and covering most of the operating expenses during the first two years of the telecentre life. These operating expenses included a part time coordinator and reasonable promotional activities.
Funding was conditional both on the local community showing that they believed that the facility would be of benefit to their community and on the preparation of a realistic business plan which showed reasonable prospects of self-sufficiency after two years.
In addition, a modest contribution of funds was also required to be raised locally. It should be noted however that almost all groups have reported that it is very difficult to obtain sponsorships from large companies and donations from local businesses. Typically, funds raised came from interested individuals, service clubs and in some cases from local government.
To date, the Telecentre Program has given a higher priority to smaller communities which do not have a range of existing government or community facilities. While telecentre grants have been provided to a range of different sized communities, the program focus has been on those which are not already well serviced but appear to have the community resources to support a telecentre in the long run. These generally appear to fall in the population range of 800 to 3000 people. A number of larger communities which already have a range of facilities such as Skillshare, TAFE and government offices in the town. A number of applications were unsuccessful because they did not exhibit broad community involvement in the planning of the proposal or potential support for the facility.
Impact of Telecentres in Rural Communities
At a time when the role of computing and electronic data networking is increasing in both commercial and government spheres, DPIE hoped that the telecentres would provide easy access to this new technology and the services which it delivers. It was hoped that the demonstration of these applications within the community would take some of the fear and mystery away from the changes which the new technology is bringing with it. Anyone then wanting to learn more about these changes has the computers and basic computer training readily available to them at reasonable cost in the community telecentre.
The potential of telecentres to fill a need within smaller communities as places to access a range of information and to communicate with the outside world through media like the Internet, has attracted a lot of attention. This view of telecentres sees the it as a locus for community members working together for the amenity and prosperity of such smaller communities, and possibly influencing its very survival.
Many telecentres have provided a local facility for a range of clerical and marketing services, typically word processing, spreadsheeting and information seeking applications. These are undertaken both by entrepreneurs selling clerical services to others and by people using the facility for their own business requirements or individual interest. Some telecentres have engaged in telemarketing of local products and the creation of promotion home pages on the World Wide Web.
Telecommuting or teleworking has been promoted as means of increasing the employment options of rural people. To date, telework has not been a major activity in telecentres. There are several reasons for this low uptake. Australian businesses are not familiar with the concept of teleworking and do not feel that teleworking has a place in their business plans. Also, potential teleworkers find it very difficult to make contact with potential employers and to establish their credentials to the employer's satisfaction. Teleworking may increase in importance in the future if satisfactory processes for the brokering of available work and the accreditation of teleworkers are developed.
In some States, telecentres also are performing a role as a delivery point for government services in smaller communities which do not have government offices. This particularly has been developed in Western Australia where the pattern of smaller rural towns lends itself to this application.
Western Australia is the only State which to date has provided resources, both personnel and finance, to support telecentres as a mainstream component of service delivery in rural areas. Telecentres are used as access points for State sponsored education video delivery by satellite and perform and administrative functions such as TAFE enrolments. These are conducted under a contract arrangement where the telecentre receives payment from State authorities for services provided.
With more of the functions of government at all levels going "on-line", telecentres offer a network of convenient community access points for the general public in rural areas.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that rural people believe that telecentres fulfil a useful function in their community. However, impact varies from site to site. At their best, telecentres have shown that they can successfully provide an active focus within a community for a range of activities of an educational, business incubation, information provision and service delivery nature, bringing together people who are working together to increase the amenity and prosperity of their community. It also demonstrates the practical application of modern information technology to country people in accessible and empathic surroundings.
Telecentres and Rural Communities
The simple telecentre model described in the preceding paragraphs appears to well suited to rural communities in the 800 to 3000 population range.
Those smaller than 800 people have a low potential income base and often find the volunteer management task very difficult to sustain. In these situations, some telecentres have operated smaller part-time sites, under the control of a local volunteer but with technical and managerial responsibility provided from the telecentre in a nearby centre.
Towns larger than 3000 population, often have a number of organisations offering similar services. In recent times, some of these have offered telecentre-like services as part of a larger agenda. Such organisations include Skillshare, Business Enterprise Centres and distance education providers. In the larger towns and provincial cities, community corporations often administer a number of grants from a range of State and Federal programs, and see telecentres as another grant logically falling under such a structure. It is interesting to note that people attempting to organiser a telecentre in the larger towns often find it difficult to gain support from existing institutions and community groups.
With the increasing emphasis on regional development in the 1990s, government bodies such as Regional Development Organisations and some Local Governments have sought to provide information technology services which often go beyond the telecentre concept in their scope and complexity. The multi-million dollar Global InfoLinks project of Ipswich City, Queensland, is an excellent example of such a project, combining library, electronic information access and telecentre-like services in one superbly engineered facility.
Telecentres Working Together Cooperatively
The potential of an individual telecentre is multiplied where a group of telecentres acts cooperatively to bring work into their communities, to share skills and to coordinate their representations to potential service providers. The UK telecottages have recently formed an association and appointed an Executive Officer to this end. Feedback to date appears positive.
The 120 or so Australian telecentre groups representing those funded by a variety of Federal and State programs, plus the small group of locally funded centres, are currently in the process of forming a similar organisation in Australia. A meeting to form the Australian Rural Telecentres Association (ARTA) was held at Bunbury WA in October 1995 and it is expected that the incorporation of ARTA will shortly be completed. The formation of ARTA marks a milestone in the maturity of the Australian community telecentre movement and provide a vehicle for cooperative community action in rural communities.
Telecentre Program Future Directions
The 1992 DPIE Telecentre Program was funded for four years ending 30 June 1996. During 1995, a Program Evaluation was commenced in which program's appropriateness, effectiveness and efficiency is being examined.
The level of interest in the concept of telecentres as a means of delivering networked information services into smaller rural communities appears to be very high. Future DPIE involvement with telecentres will be carefully considered in the light of the report of this evaluation. The report is due in early 1996 and should be publicly available later in the year.
The world is currently facing profound economic, social and cultural changes, probably more profound than most of us have seen before in our lifetimes. Communities which fail to recognise these changes and adapt to them will be bypassed by them while those which recognise the changes and engage them will be part of the mainstream and benefit from its growth.
Telecommunications provide the important link between communities and the world. Within Australia, telecentres have shown that they can assist communities work together to achieve their development objectives and aspirations.