Communication for development Knowledge

Posted April 1999

Special: The first mile of connectivity

Telecommunications for sustainable development

by Johan Ernberg
International Telecommunication Union (ITU)
Geneva, Switzerland


Foreword
1. Introduction

  • Why the first mile?
  • Telecommunication services and stakeholders
    2. Lessons learned
  • Communication for sustainable development
  • Eyes see; ears hear
  • Participatory rural communications appraisal
  • Radio and video
  • State media for democratic development
    3. Technologies
  • Telecommunications for sustainable development
  • Rural telecommunications in Africa
  • Integrated rural development through telecommunications
    4. Applications
  • Internet and rural development
  • Participatory approaches to rural connectivity
  • Empowering communities
  • Rural telecentres
  • Training community animators
  • Video conferencing
  • Connecting with the unconnected
    5. Policies
  • Global information infrastructure
  • Rural networking cooperatives
  • Public and private interests
    Editors, contributors
  • While access to a telephone is taken for granted in the industrialized world, a telephone is still a luxury, if at all available to ordinary people, in most developing countries. In 1993, high-income economies with 15 percent of the world's population had 71 percent of the world's telephone lines. The disparity between rich and poor countries in terms of "teledensity" (number of main telephone lines per 100 inhabitants) has hardly changed in the last decade. Some people even argue that the gap is growing, at least in terms of quality and access to advanced services (ITU/BDT, 1994b).

    In most developing countries the vast majority of the populations still live in rural areas [1]. Yet, teledensity in rural areas in these countries is about 10 times less than in urban areas. Typically, more than 75 percent of rural localities have no access at all to even basic telephone service. The investment required to reach an average teledensity of just 1 percent in rural areas in developing countries represents a market of hundreds of billions of United States dollars.

    One world or several?

    The distinction between "developing" and "developed" nations is somewhat misleading and tends to perpetuate the image of the world as composed of one group of rich "donor" countries and another, larger group of poor and passive "recipient" countries. In fact, some "developing" countries, particularly in Asia-Pacific and in Latin America, are catching up quickly with the so-called "developed" countries. These emerging economies are leapfrogging technology. Some of them are, for example, building telecommunication networks that are capable of handling more advanced services than some of the existing networks in rural and remote areas of "developed" countries. At the other end of the scale, many of the poorest countries, particularly in Africa, are essentially rural and "remote" from a geo-political-economic perspective. At the same time, in the industrialized countries, problems of social, economic and geographical exclusion and isolation are growing, at least partly due to the increasingly global competitive environment. And how about the countries in the former Soviet Union: are they "developing" or "developed"?

    To divide the world into "developing" and "developed" nations hides the fact that in most poor countries there are also groups of affluent and wealthy people, who form part of global web of people with similar living standards and united by common economic interest and often similar educational background. For such people, geographical distance is not a serious obstacle to communicating and meeting with each other. In contrast, geographically and socially isolated and impoverished groups, which exist also in industrialized nations, usually neither communicate with nor meet with anyone outside of their immediate neighbourhood. The problems of providing education and health care and creating employment opportunities for such isolated groups are therefore universal, even if their magnitude varies greatly among different countries.

    Indeed, the relevance of the very concept of "nation," often artificially created by arbitrarily drawing border lines on a map, may be questioned in today's changing global environment. Most governments do not have an economic power matching that of large transnational companies and are unable to control the global flow of capital, which often affects the development of nations more than political decisions.

    The problems faced by the "developed" nations are therefore not that different from those faced by the "developing" countries, and both worlds would benefit from cooperation (and competition) on more equal terms. In particular, many of the telematics[2] research and development programmes for balanced, regional development within industrialized countries may be relevant for rural and impoverished urban areas in low-income countries. Providing they have an adequate telecommunication infrastructure, poor countries could benefit, at marginal cost, from telematics products and resources developed by such programmes, particularly for distance education and health care.

    Is telecommunications a luxury people can live without?

    Does a hungry, homeless or sick person ask for a telephone? Obviously not. He or she asks for food, shelter and medicine. Meeting such basic needs naturally becomes the first priority, and few governments of poor countries, which are facing more or less permanent crisis situations, feel that telecommunication development in rural areas is something they can afford to worry about. However, timely provision of food, medicine and health care, particularly for rescue and relief operations in disaster situations, depends heavily on the availability of telecommunications.

    Pictures of starving, sick and dying people in poor countries, brought into the living rooms of people in wealthy countries, are powerful means of persuading them to contribute to humanitarian assistance. However, TV and other mass media could not fulfil their important mission of shaping public opinion and mobilizing resources for assistance without telecommunications. Moreover, the human sufferings caused by natural disasters could in many cases be avoided or at least reduced by means of telecommunication applications for remote sensing, telemetry, meteorology and early warning systems.

    Humanitarian assistance, albeit necessary, is a short-term remedy and does not improve the living conditions of the poor in a longer perspective. Today, the need for sustainable, ecologically sound development and a more equitable distribution of the world's resources is widely recognized and made more obvious to people in the wealthy countries by the accelerating migrations from poor to rich countries.

    The vital importance of telecommunications for economic, social and cultural development is clearly established. Telecommunications plays a crucial role in today's information society. Telecommunications and information technology (IT) presently account for more than 5 percent of the GDP globally, and much more in industrialized countries. This dynamic sector generates new business opportunities and jobs, not least in rural and remote areas. In 1992, the world-wide telecommunication markets alone (equipment and services) was US$535 billion. The revenues of telecom services in the 22 OECD countries in 1991 totalled US$326 billion, as compared to US$229 billion in 1980 (ITU/BDT, 1994b). While many large telecommunication operators and hardware manufacturers have in the last few years reduced drastically their work force, there are now in the USA, for example, more jobs in the information sector (computer software, data processing and information retrieval) than in the production of motor vehicles and parts[3]. Are the "information super highways" perhaps becoming a more important part of the infrastructure than ordinary highways?

    It is widely recognized that merely reducing the trade barriers between developing and industrialized countries would transfer far more resources from the rich to the poor countries than all the money spent on "official development assistance"[4]. Some progress towards the elimination of trade barriers was achieved by the recent GATT agreement, and the newly created World Trade Organization will certainly continue to pursue this objective. Truly global trade, however, is inconceivable without adequate telecommunications in the "remote" and rural world, especially since the proliferation of computing and networking has changed the rules of business in industrialized countries.

    One may argue that people have been living without telecommunications for thousands of years and therefore question the utility of IT and advanced telecommunication services for often illiterate, village dwellers in developing countries, particularly since, in most cases, they cannot afford to pay the real cost of such services.

    In the past, many innovations have met resistance from the elite (who are the first to benefit from new technologies) to make it available, at affordable prices, to ordinary people, who "were not ready for it and didn't need it". The manufacturers naturally wish to extend their markets but are usually not willing, or unable to absorb initial losses over extended periods. Therefore, the diffusion of new technologies to deprived population strata has often involved subsidies from government or philanthropic foundations. Rural telecommunications in industrialized countries has been developed by extensive subsidies, either cross-subsidies or special low interest loans: for example, the loan provided by the Rural Electrification Programme in the USA[5]. However, it is widely recognized that this has contributed tremendously to the social and economic development of rural and remote areas and, in many cases, to the development of new profitable markets for the telecommunication equipment and service providers.

    Clearly, developing countries and regions, which are unable to keep up with the formidable development of IT and telecommunications, have not made much progress[6]. Indeed, their living conditions have in many cases deteriorated, at least partly due to difficulties to compete in the increasingly global economy without access to IT and telematics.

    The rapid development of IT and telecommunications in industrialized countries threatens to leave the developing countries even further behind, while, ironically, the information-intensive service sector is a sector where developing countries could compete successfully with advanced countries. This is evidenced, for example, by the increasing number of information processing jobs, outsourced by transnational companies to developing countries[7], but only to localities where adequate telecommunications are available!

    Of course, investment in telecommunications development must be weighted against needs of investment in other parts of the infrastructure, such as roads, railways, water supply and electrification. When doing this, it should be born in mind that information is not only a non-polluting, renewable, but continuously growing resource. Today, information is increasing exponentially at a tremendous speed; instant contacts between millions of people through computer networks trigger chain reactions, not unlike nuclear reactions. Access to this global resource is becoming the driving energy of development, and is as important as access to roads and to electrical power. IT and global telecommunication and computer networks will have the same, if not greater, impact on society, as the invention of electricity. In the rich world it will soon become as cheap and easy to plug into the global information resource when one needs to know something or wishes to share knowledge with someone, as it is to connect to and use electrical power to shave or vacuum.

    Moreover, telecommunications may be considered as the "infrastructure of the infrastructure", as it provides tools for the development and efficient use of other parts of the infrastructure.

    Needs for telecommunication in large cities in developing countries

    In urban areas there are usually long waiting lists[8] of people who want a telephone, mainly for business, social and security reasons. There is also a large potential market for advanced telematics services needed by businesses, research institutes and public services.

    Large national and transnational companies, including banks, with facilities in developing countries are of course well aware of the strategic value of telematics and can afford to build or lease their own networks. By contrast, small enterprises and public institutions, even in large cities in many developing countries, are only vaguely aware of the possibilities offered by advanced telematics services and often consider themselves fortunate if they have access to a telephone.

    The efficiency of often inadequate public services, such as education, health care, security, transport and processing of information, records and general statistics, could be greatly enhanced by improved access to telematics services. In particular, the efficiency of banking services and financial markets, which are so crucial for development, depend heavily on telematics. Access to advanced telematics services would give small and medium enterprises (SME[9]) the tools they need to compete in the global economy.

    The presence of a relatively large, geographically concentrated market usually makes provision of telecommunication services in large cities a profitable enterprise, including those in developing countries. Provided that appropriate policies and regulations are adopted, one could expect the necessary investments to come forward. To promote widespread use of telematics, governments may need to subsidize tariffs (at least initially for services of public concern) and considerable efforts will be required to train and support end users. If the cost and skill barriers are overcome, provision of telecommunications will in most cases contribute to social, cultural and economic development, at least for the upper strata of urban populations.

    However, large cities in developing countries are generally surrounded by shanty-towns, deprived of even the most basic infrastructure, such as water, sewage and electricity. Though not geographically isolated, these impoverished urban areas are socially isolated. They have many characteristics in common with the rural and remote areas discussed below and their needs for telecommunications are consequently similar.

    There are nevertheless some differences between deprived urban areas and rural and remote areas. Areas surrounding large cities can often more easily be connected to the national telecommunication network at relatively low cost. The large number and density of potential users could also contribute to making provision of telecommunications more cost-effective in urban areas than in more scarcely populated rural areas.

    Deprived urban areas usually suffer from high crime rate, drug abuse, overcrowding and environmental-related diseases caused by pollution of air and urban waterways. Like their rural counterparts, they also face problems of poverty, unemployment, poor housing conditions, and malnutrition.

    The high crime rate in urban slums causes particular problems for the provision of telecommunications. Cables and telephone booths are often vandalized. In the shanty-towns of Caracas for example, repairmen are afraid of being attacked and are therefore reluctant to enter these areas. Concentrating telecommunication facilities and support in so called "community telecentres" offers a solution to these problems.

    Like in the rural and remote areas discussed below, creation of job opportunities, support to micro-enterprises, provision of education, training and health care for the population in deprived urban areas are among the top developmental priorities. Community telecentres could provide office support, information on job vacancies, training courses, health-services and other social services offered by the community. Telecommunications would provide tools for building of networks among people with similar problems who could support each other and cooperate in identifying job opportunities and in generating ideas for solutions to their problems.

    One example of the effective use of telecommunications would be the creation of electronic conferences where drug abusers and other socially isolated groups could share experiences and generate ideas for innovative approaches to combat their problems. The experience of the Association of Anonymous Alcoholics (AAA), for example, clearly demonstrates that networks of people who suffer or have suffered from similar problems are contributing very effectively to solving their problems.

    For example, in Santa Barbara, USA, the city offers free access to the public electronic network to all city residents and provides some 20 public terminals located in libraries, senior citizens' centres, recreation centres, neighbourhood support centres and other public buildings (which also may be called "community telecentres"). In addition to all the usual community information offered by such community networks, there are also conferences on many subjects of interest to the community, including on crimewatch and one on the problems of homeless. Many homeless people actually access the conference and a number of actions proposed by them to improve their situation have been successfully implemented (Schmitz, 1994).

    If connected to the global network (through the Internet, for example), sharing and cooperation of this kind could be extended to cities all over the world and a wealth of experience and information would be available for social researchers who try to find solutions to such problems. Use of such networks could enhance considerably the effectiveness of Global Programmes set up to combat AIDS and drug abuse, for example.

    Just like in rural areas, community telecentres in deprived urban areas could also become social and cultural centres. By offering entertainment (e.g., broadcast video programmes) and the possibility to play video-games and to create their own multimedia shows, people in such areas may be attracted to the centres and then gradually get involved in democratic processes, vocational training programmes and other community development programmes.

    Needs for telecommunications in rural and remote areas

    In rural areas in poor countries people, in all likelihood, do not generally feel the need for telecommunications, except for social reasons and for emergencies (e.g., to keep in touch with friends and relatives who have migrated to urban areas or other countries and to call the police and the doctor).

    Economic activities (e.g., farming, livestock, fishery, handicrafts, and forestry) in such areas are largely carried out using traditional methods and settling deals through personal contacts with little or no perceived need for telecommunications.

    However, in the past decades traditional subsistence farming has in many cases been replaced by cash crops (often with the "benevolent" assistance from international organizations). Industrial methods for extraction of natural resources have been introduced in some rural areas, but these are increasingly automated and do not create any significant number of new jobs. This has increased some villagers' and entrepreneurs' need for telecommunications, but makes it increasingly difficult for the rural population at large to survive on what they produce. As only very few of them have remunerated jobs, they have no money for purchasing even the basic necessities, let alone manufactured consumer goods. This bartering economy creates a vicious cycle of no market, no investment, no jobs, no money, no market, and so on.

    The difficulty to survive on subsistence farming and the lack of other job opportunities, coupled with natural and man-made disasters, such as droughts and tribal warfare, are some of the major reasons for the ever increasing migration to urban sites (which creates a host of other problems, as mentioned above). Obviously, there are other reasons for people in rural areas to migrate to large cities, such as lack of social security, health care, education and entertainment. Recognizing the role of telecommunications to improve this situation, many governments have established targets for developing rural telecommunications. Such targets have in the past been set in terms of "teledensity" (main telephone lines per 100 population), or access to telephones, typically a teledensity of 0.5 to 1 percent, or access to a telephone within one hour's walking distance[10]. But is this sufficient?

    Is a telephone sufficient?

    Providing access to a telephone, located in a telephone booth or in a shop in a village, could improve heath care and security in the community, and even save lives, by providing access to police and doctors in emergency situations. Moreover, a telephone in the village enables villagers to maintain contact with friends and relatives who have migrated to the cities and to foreign countries and could marginally improve the business of local shopkeepers and merchants. It would also, to some extent, enhance the effectiveness of national government agencies, UN-agencies, bilateral and non-governmental organizations, involved in community development projects. Thus, the provision of telephones alone can have significant impact on community development.

    However, access to advanced telematics services would generate a tremendous added value. The fact that people in rural and remote areas are not generally aware of the services available today and cannot afford to pay for them at current commercial rates does not mean that they don't need them.

    Economic activities in rural and remote areas

    Individual entrepreneurs, cooperatives and small local enterprises need market information, such as current prices and expected demand for their products and services (e.g., agricultural products, fish and seafood, handicrafts, natural resources, tourism and transport). They also need to reach the markets and their potential customers with marketing information and to communicate with their customers and others in order to settle deals, organize transport, etc. Furthermore, access to government services, such as registration and records of property ownership and transactions, and to timely information about taxes and subsidies, etc., is required for competitive business to develop in rural areas.

    Entrepreneurs and employees of such small enterprises and cooperatives in isolated rural areas would also benefit from access to the advise and experience of other professionals in their field of activity when needed. Moreover, distance learning through telecommunications could be used to provide vocational training, which is essential for improving management and introduction of new business ideas, working methods, and tools required for new enterprises to get started and develop (Kimel, 1994; Lundin, 1993; Naidu, 1993; Ernberg, 1992; Kroh, 1992; Lupi, 1992). Community-owned and controlled networks, using computer-mediated conferences and bulletin boards, have proven to be a powerful way of generating and sustaining local business or social initiatives (Civille, 1994; Cisler, 1994; Crelin, 1993; Uncather, 1991).

    Public services and education in rural and remote areas

    Public services, such as education, health care and social security, are virtually non-existent in rural areas in many developing countries, and many countries are cutting back on government spending for such services.

    In the industrialized world, new technologies and resources for distance education and technology-supported learning (including multimedia courseware, dictionaries and library resources on CD-ROMs and CDIs), as well as for distance health care (remote consultative networks), are being developed at an increasingly rapid rate (see Box 1). The vision is to develop global or regional resource banks that allow everyone, anywhere, to consult specialists, find the information and learn what he or she needs, when it is needed[11].

    Telecommunications is an indispensable tool for all the above services and activities. "Plain Old Telephone Service" (POTS) would help, as indicated above, but access to advanced services, such as fax, electronic mail, electronic document interchange (EDI) and access to bulletin boards, computer-mediated conferences, databases and ultimately two-way video and multimedia resources would make a tremendous difference.

    Radio and television broadcasting, including community-owned and controlled local radio stations, also offer the possibility to bring education and training programmes to isolated areas[12] (albeit less effectively than "just-in-time" interactive education and training that may be provided by means of advanced telematics services). Broad-casting also offers a means to promote cultural development and entertainment for people in isolated rural areas. Therefore, the planning of broadcasting infra-structure should also be part of integrated rural development.

    Box 1
    Global information and telematics resources for telelearning, tele-health care, tele-working, and more coming up...

    Many R&D programmes for using telematics for open flexible distance learning and tele-health care are supported by governments and the private sector in industrialized countries, and this is one of the priorities of the European Commission's R&D programme for telematics (European Commission, 1994; ETCF, 1994; Hermat, 1992) Other initiatives, aiming at bringing distance learning resources to the developing world and at involving them in IT development, are, for example, the many UNESCO distance learning projects, the World Bank's recent efforts to support projects in this field, particularly in Russia (Ivannikov, 1994; Knight, 1994), the INTELSAT SHARE programme and the "Global University" (GU/USA). In the late 1970's, ITU developed its "International Sharing System for Training" (ISS), which includes an increasing number of technology supported learning packages developed by participating telecom organizations through a collaborative network, involving both developing and developed countries. In 1988, ITU also sponsored a distance learning programme for project management delivered to a number of telecom organizations in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean, in cooperation with Telecom/ Telematique International (Ernberg, 1992). One of the main objectives of the Programme No. 2 of the "Buenos Aires Action Plan" is now to promote global cooperation in development and delivery of distance learning (ITU/BDT 1994a).

    International cooperation for sustainable development

    Effective international cooperation for sustainable development, ranging from community development and combating the spread of epidemics and drug abuse to disaster relief and global environment watch programmes (Tunisia, 1984; WMO, 1994), depends on the availability of adequate telecommunication infrastructure in the developing countries.

    Regional cooperation and large scale programmes for sustainable development concerning, for example, new methods of production of energy from waste, development of bio-chemical fertilizers or the promotion of new patterns of consumption, need tools such as e-mail and computer-meditated conferences to share experiences, to involve community politicians and other "major groups"[13] in the decision-making process, and as fora for continuous dialogues on issues of common interest .

    Also, the thousands of ongoing and new initiatives by non-govern-mental organizations and individuals involved in community development would benefit tremendously from the possibilities offered by such tools to better coordinate their efforts and to create more synergy.

    Availability of advanced telematics services in rural areas would enable governments to maintain up-to-date information about climate, health hazards, and other issues related to environment and sustainable development in databases that could be accessed by concerned authorities, organizations and global "watch programmes". This would, for example, greatly facilitate the complex task of the UN system to coordinate all its agencies' efforts, and follow up the implementation of Agenda 21.

    Development agencies can only be physically present for a limited time at the site of community development projects. It is becoming increasingly clear that easy access to expertise and "knowledge networks" is essential for development to be sustainable after projects come to their inevitable end. Consequently, the paradigm for international cooperation is gradually changing from dependence on the traditional time- and space-limited "technical assistance" projects to rely more on sustainable collaborative networks.

    Why rural areas have a greater need than urban areas for advanced telematics services

    To introduce computers and advanced telecommunication services in rural communities, where people live the way their ancestors have for generations and are lacking even basic education, may appear inappropriate and too sophisticated. However, if rural areas should be able to compete in attractiveness for business, social and cultural activities with the large cities, rural communities must be provided with at least the same services at the same costs as those provided to the urban population. Arguably, rural communities need even better services to compensate for their geographical isolation and other "penalties" of being far from the cities and markets (e.g., high transport costs).

    Who benefits

    Those already vested with political and economical power (e.g., large national and transnational companies, wealthy entrepreneurs and landowners, village chiefs, and the like) will probably be the first to benefit from access to advanced IT and telecommunications. There is always a risk that this will further increase the gap between the "haves" and the "have-nots". Many economists argue that increased competitiveness and profitability of local enterprises will create new and better paid jobs and ultimately benefit the whole nation and improve the living standard of the population as a whole. This, however, will depend on the existence of adequate policies, regulations and legal frameworks that ensure a fair redistribution of wealth and "universal access" to telecommunications. "Universal access" to information and networks would give ordinary people more power because through such networks they can participate in informal, user-driven action groups and decision-making structures, which cannot be controlled by anyone. In the long term, this may radically change the role of politicians and enhance democracy.

    Obstacles

    The main obstacle to providing telecommunications at a large scale in rural and remote areas is not lack of technology nor even lack of money. If there is a profitable market in sight, the huge investment required to build the networks will probably come forward, even though some economists claim that capital is running short globally. True, the cost of providing telecommunications in rural areas is higher than in urban areas, but new technologies promise to make rural telecommunications more cost-effective in the near future (see Box 2). However, a market that can bear the cost does not yet exist, and many countries need to change their policies to create a more attractive investment climate. Access to the "information super highways" is therefore presently an obstacle[14] which must and could be overcome by new technologies, providing there is a market for advanced telematics services.

    As indicated above, people in rural areas in poor countries and are quite unaware of the advanced telecommunication services available today and of the benefits of using these services, as are many people in rural areas in industrialized countries (WMO, 1994). Other formidable obstacles are the lack of skills to use such services and the absence of user support. Therefore, the business of providing basic, let alone advanced telecommunication services, to a few isolated customers in rural areas is likely to be relatively unattractive for still some time.

    Presently, it seems that the only realistic (and most economic) way of providing advanced telecommunications and telematics services and the required user support in isolated rural areas is by concentrating such services to a focal point in the community.

    Even if the service of such a focal point will be limited initially to POTS and telefax, there will be a real need for more advanced services, as indicated above. It is also important to have a vision for meeting those needs that appeals to government decision-makers across the various occupational sectors as well as to telecommunication equipment and service providers. The latter are likely to contribute only if this vision holds out the promise of developing new and long-term profitable markets. The concept of "community telecentres" provides such a vision (Kimel, 1994; Crelin, 1993; Denbigh, 1993; Engvall, 1993; Holloway, 1993; Lauronen, 1993; Macday, 1993; Qvortrup, 1994).

    Box 2
    New technologies for rural and remote communications will increase capacity and reduce the cost

    New technologies (for example, digital, fixed and mobile cellular radio) will facilitate and speed up access to global networks. Some studies indicate that rural telecommunications could be profitable, especially if the traffic is aggregated and the revenue from incoming calls is also considered (CIDA 1992). The arrival of mobile "low earth orbit" (LEO) satellite systems with world-wide coverage, such as IRIDIUM, will perhaps drastically reduce communication costs in remote areas by the end of the century. Globalstar, for example, predicts that they will offer telecommunications at a cost of only 30 cents/minute with a terminal cost of US$750. For the next generation of satellite communication systems even more staggering cuts in costs are predicted. For example, the newly formed Teledesic predicts that the cost of a basic channel will be 4 cents per minute and the terminal cost for a 64 kbps connection only US$1 000[15]. But still, people need to develop the skills and capacity to make lucrative use of such services in order to be able to pay the bill.

    Besides traditional cable and microwave networks, presently available technologies suitable for rural telecommunications include: satellite communication systems (VSAT, mobile satellite communication systems, domestic satellites, etc.), mobile and fixed cellular radio communication systems, terrestrial[16], and sub-marine fibre optic systems[17]. Small mobile satellite earth stations, such as those supplied by INMARSAT, can provide immediate access to telematics services in remote areas. "Remote switching units" (RSU) and "digital subscriber multiplexing systems" (DSMS) increase local exchange area coverage and solar power supplies make telecommunications possible even in localities without electricity. Technologies for improving the use of the frequency spectrum (e.g., digital compression techniques) and access protocols (e.g., TDMA, CDMA) will contribute to increasing channel availability in radio communication systems and to reducing the cost per channel. Problems of theft of pay-phones and copper cable, which are common in rural and isolated areas, may be avoided with fibre optic cables and wireless, smart-card pay-phones.

    Community telecentres - a viable, medium-term solution?

    A "community telecentre", or "telecottage", is essentially a communal facility serving a rural region of about 5 000 to 10 000 inhabitants, located[18] in a village situated in the centre of the region. The telecentre provides the access to the telecommunication and IT facilities the local community needs. This means that, at one end of scale, it may initially offer POTS only[19], while at the other extreme, it could be equipped with two-way video conferencing facilities and multimedia hardware and software. As soon as anything more advanced than a telephone is needed, the telecentre must also offer the necessary training and user support. In some cases, the telecentre could be the only access point to basic services in a village, whereas in other cases, it could complement a local telecommunication network.

    Just imagine what such a telecentre could do for sustainable development of rural areas and for bringing people in remote areas in touch with the rest of the world. It could be used for data processing, for accessing databases (e.g., on market and price information) and for communication with suppliers and customers (e.g., for marketing and negotiations of deals) by small local enterprises and individual entrepreneurs. If properly equipped, it could also be used for "tele-training" (distance learning) and for "tele-health care" (distance diagnoses and medical advice), so that the local inhabitants could learn new skills and get medical advice when needed. Telecentres are also likely to become centres for cultural and social activities, particularly if they are equipped to receive TV and sound broadcasting.

    Availability of advanced telematics services in rural areas would not only contribute to reducing the urbanization process, but may even reverse the trend by making it possible for enterprises to locate some of their business in otherwise isolated areas. The community telecentre could very well function as a remote office for "tele-working," shared by several city-based companies. This would contribute to attracting skilled people (back) to the rural areas and to reducing transport of people. Such educated and trained individuals are needed to sustain the process of development and change, once the international and government support required to initiate community development is withdrawn.

    The community telecentre could, in geographically widespread and sparsely populated areas, be used as a local hub to which public (and private) telephones located at strategic points covering the area are connected. It could also be complemented with paging systems so that villagers can be notified of incoming calls.

    The concept has already been successfully tried out in rural and isolated areas in many developed countries, e.g., in Scandinavia, the UK, including northern Scotland, Ireland, Australia, Canada, Japan and USA[20]. The "telecottage" movement is steadily gaining momentum and national associations[21] of such community telecentres are being formed. Such associations constitute a network for mutual support, through which new telecentres, established in the developing world[22], could connect with people with similar problems and experience of various aspects of community development.

    Telecommunications are only tools for development - not an end in itself!

    As indicated above, there are needs for telecommunications in rural and remote areas but there is not yet a "market". Clearly, access to advanced telecommunications has little meaning unless people have a use for such tools. This means that the introduction of telecommunications in rural areas must be done as part of a concerted effort by all concerned government sectors to develop a rural community or region, for example, by:

    Telecommunication development in rural areas will only have a significant impact if it is part of a larger effort of community or rural regional development. Conversely, community development projects are much more likely to be successful if supported by adequate telecommunications.

    Cooperation with international organizations, NGOs and telecommunication equipment and service providers

    Development of a community is primarily the responsibility of its inhabitants and of the government concerned. However, a minimum of resources and some (initially) external "change agent" is usually required to develop the necessary capacity for community development to "take off". As indicated above, the international community, including the private sector, has good reasons to assist in this process.

    Thus, community telecentres must be introduced as part of a concerted effort of community development, in close cooperation and partnership with the community inhabitants, the concerned governments, concerned international and non-governmental organizations, as well as with private sector stakeholders. If community telecentres are to be used as distance learning centres for local people to learn skills relevant to rural community activities, cooperation and contributions must also be sought from the numerous organizations and institutions involved in the development of relevant "open flexible distance learning" (OFDL) resources.

    Need for training of end-users of telematics services

    Information-based services generally do not need a huge investments and information workers do not need years of higher education and/or vocational training to perform their jobs.

    It must be kept in mind that users of advanced telematics will nevertheless need to be trained to operate and use fax machines, computers and other terminal equipment (see Box 3) and that some people also will need to be trained to maintain this equipment. Here is one area where the ITU could help along with other organizations, such as UNESCO, the Internet Society, the International Development Research Centre (IDRC), the Commonwealth of Learning and CTSC International.

    Conclusions

    We are still a long, long way from the wonderful vision of peaceful coexistence between the people of the earth in the "global village". In fact, the global village resembles more an immense "global mega-city," where the world's affluent centres of political, economic and cultural activities are gradually being connected through "information super highways" passing over its backward suburbs and polluted slums. People in impoverished pockets, socially or geographically isolated from these centres, can, at the very best, access the "Infobahn" through bumpy dirt roads full of potholes. Frequently they have no access at all.

    It is hard to imagine that the dream of a global village will ever come true unless the gaps in telecommunications development are reduced. In summary, telecommunications and IT are based on ecologically sound technology and are today of critical importance for sustainable development of nations as well as for regional and international cooperation. In this era of "globalization", one may hope that the industrialized nations are increasingly aware that the problems of the developing world concern them as much, and in a rather analogous way, as the development of the backward regions of their own countries.

    Box 3 - Can a simple villager learn to use IT and telematics?

    Many people doubt that typical villagers (e.g., illiterate farmers or fishermen) in developing countries will be able to learn to use sophisticated IT and telematics tools. However, experience indicates that even uneducated persons can learn how to use modern tools if they can only see the benefit of such tool and have the motivation. The rapid spread of electronic pocket calculators in the developing world is a good example. Anyone who has been to a village market in such countries has seen the local inhabitants using such a tool to calculate the prices and bargain, particularly in case of language difficulties.

    Small children, who do not yet read or write but are motivated by exciting computer games, learn very quickly how to handle the equipment. How many parents have asked their children to show them how to operate the latest video recorder? New user-friendly, multimedia educational programmes will also make it possible for completely illiterate people to learn by just pointing at objects which may convey the information using audio-visual means only. Multimedia also offers a powerful tool for learning to read and write as well as to speak foreign languages. The development of more user-friendly interfaces is now very fast, so the skill barrier is quickly being reduced. As people learn the basics, further training and support will also be available on-line.

    Plan for the "global village" now - don't just talk about it!

    To reduce the rapidly increasing gap between the information "haves" and "have-nots", a massive effort must be made to develop the poor countries' capacity to use these new tools so that they can benefit from and contribute to the global information resources currently being developed at a mind-boggling pace which are available through global, user-driven networks such as the Internet and the World Wide Web.

    Providing the large rural population in developing countries with access to advanced telecommunication services and develop their capacity to use telematics tools is an enormous challenge. It will require huge investments and a concerted effort of concerned governments, international development and financing agencies, as well as the private sector. Innovative solutions must be found, particularly to the two major problems of access and prohibitively high tariffs.

    People in rural areas in developing countries represent large potential markets as well as potential resources, and the task of developing them offers tremendous opportunities for everybody. It cannot be over-emphasized that to reduce the rapidly growing gap between those who have access to telematics and those who have not, action must be taken immediately. This means planning now for advanced telecommunication services in developing countries, particularly in their rural areas, where the vast majority of the population still lives. Community telecentres could be an essential component of such plans. However, this is a relatively new concept which needs to be tried out in countries at different stages of development.

    Community telecentres are presently being introduced on a large scale in a few developing countries, but the feasibility of this concept in countries at different levels of development still needs to be demonstrated. Appropriate technologies, tariff policies, regulatory and financing options, as well as organization set-up, need to be tested and the impact of telecentres on community development needs to be evaluated to give national planners and suppliers of IT and telecommunication products and services a more solid basis for strategic decisions concerning rural telecommunication development .

    One of the objectives of the ITU Buenos Aires Action Plan[23], Programmes No. 9 (Integrated Rural Development) is to try out and demonstrate the viability of community telecentres (ITU/BDT 1994a). The Buenos Aires Action Plan, which includes other complementary programmes, such as programme No. 1 (Policies, Strategies and Financing), No. 2 (Management and Development of Human Resources) and No. 12 (Development of Telematics and Computer Networks), provides a framework for coordinated international cooperation in telecommunication development. Concerned organizations, including telecommunication equipment and service providers, may wish to examine how they can best use the special resources provided by the ITU and how they can contribute to the achievements of the goals expressed in the action plan. The ITU has an important catalytic and coordinating role in the implementation of this plan, but the programmes for development of rural telecommunications and telematics should also be seen as components of more comprehensive development programmes executed by other organizations.

    Notes

    1. According to the World Bank, 71 percent of the total population in the developing world lives in rural areas.

    2. The combination of information technology (IT) and telecommunications is referred to as "telematics" in this paper.

    3. See Business Week - Special issue on the information revolution, July 1992.

    4. "Official development assistance" (ODA) given as grants and soft loans currently amounts to some US$60-70 billion annually. About 10 percent of this amount is channelled through the UN-system.

    5. Other examples of subsidization of tariffs and of ways and means of reducing communication costs are given in The right to communicate (ITU/UNESCO).

    6. The meaning of "progress" and "development" is debatable. Some people in industrialized countries are longing back to the days without electricity, computers and telephones when people worked with their hands close to nature and communicated fact-to-face rather than with machines. However, whether one likes it or not, today you have to be rich to be able to afford to live without electrical power and all the sophisticated IT and telematics tools needed to make a living and maintain the standard presently enjoyed by most people in industrialized countries.

    7. Many software houses, for example, are using programmers in developing countries. Another example of outsourcing of information processing is the booking and billing services of Swissair, located in India and serving the whole airline.

    8. Nearly 30 million people were on telephone waiting lists in lower-middle and low-income countries in 1992, and the average waiting time was about two years (ITU/BDT, 1994).

    9. SME is here taken to include also very small "micro-enterprises".

    10. Many developing countries have solemnly adopted ambitious goals; for example, to provide at least a telephone line to each major rural location. Some have made spectacular progress in this undertaking. However, generally speaking, targets in terms of rural teledenstiy or access to telephones have usually not been achieved.

    11. Education and training that can be accessed through telecommunication or multimedia software from the work place, from home or from a distance learning centre, when needed, is sometimes referred to as "just-in-time" education and training.

    12. Open Universities have been and are being established in several developing regions (Iam Chaiya-Ngam, 1992).

    13. Other "major groups" covered by the Agenda 21, adopted by the UN Conference on Environment and Development, Rio de Janeiro, 1992, are: women, youth, indigenous people, NGOs, workers and trade unions, business and industry, the scientific and technological community and farmers.

    14. In some countries access is denied for political reasons or fear of "uncontrollable development". The ITU can help in sensitizing policy-makers to the need for, and benefit of, open access to advanced telematics services.

    15. See a Technology Supplement to Forbes Magazine, 1994.

    16. Fibre optic cables attached to existing power lines is an interesting option in some cases.

    17. For villages and small towns near the coast, connecting to submarine fibre optic systems may sometimes be the most economic way to provide access to broadband networks, when this is needed.

    18. The telecentre could be located, for example, in the (former) post or telegraph office, in the school, in the local shop or in any other building used for communal activities. They could also be established in deprived urban areas where they would serve a similar purpose.

    19. In case only POTS are needed initially, the telecentre should be planned in such a way that it could extend its services to advanced telematics in a flexible way when needed.

    20. If distance learning and "tele-working" centres are also considered as community Telecentres, there are now thousands of them established in these countries.

    21. For example, the International Association of Community Teleservice Centres (CTSC International). One objective of this NGO is to promote cooperation among national associations and individual community telecentres.

    22. Brazil has recently established a number of telecentres in smaller towns and plans to implement hundreds of them all over the country. Costa Rica is another example of a developing country which is planning to introduce telecentres at a large scale.

    23. The Buenos Aires Action Plan was adopted by the World Telecommunication Development Conference, (WTDC-94), Buenos Aires, March 1994 (ITU/BDT, 1994).


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