Let’s imagine there are only two kinds of Public Internet Access Points, that is, a place, different to your house or your work where you can connect to the Internet:
- A library, a civic centre, or an ad hoc place equipped with computers and connection to the Internet; access and usage is free because its supported by public funding or private not-for-profit funding. Its goal is philanthropic and aimed towards making an impact on people’s livelihoods: empower them to fully achieve their citizen rights, help them to climb up the welfare ladder, etc. Let’s call them telecentre.
- The other kind is similar to the previous one but it is not free. And it is not because its aim is to return the investment the owner made — an entrepreneur — in the form of revenues that will hopefully become profits, that is, costs will be lower than revenues. Let’s call them cybercafé.
Things are quite more complex and reality constantly shows that there are not pure models. But let’s keep things simple, very simple, for the sake of the explanation.
If things were that binary, telecentres would be having an impact on people’s lives while cybercafés wouldn’t; on the other hand, cybercafés would be economically sustainable (self-sustainable) while telecentres would not.
Internet penetration: a double edged sword
Internet penetration is growing everyday, for several reasons: willingness to adopt because of increasingly perceived utility, lower costs, public policies to foster Internet access at home and work, etc. This increased penetration can have two direct consequences:
- As more people are connected, the remaining unconnected people will either be too poor/difficult to connect (on a cost/benefit basis) or just absolutely refusing to connect due to personal believes (refuseniks). Thus, it is likely that both governments and nonprofits will shift away from e-inclusion projects to other areas of development that have ranked higher in priority.
- On the other hand, less people will go to cybercafes, as the demand will necessarily be lower. Indeed, the more infrastructure focused are public policies to foster the Information Society (e.g. putting laptops on kids’ hands) the stronger will be this moving away from cybercafes.
So, what will the future of telecentres and cybercafés be like? More than answers, questions is what really arise:
- Will telecentres fade away and end up disappearing? If they were economically not sustainable (in the sense that they depended on third parties’ funding), will they shift towards cybercafes-like models? Or will some of them just remain to try and cover the needs of the ones left behind? How is it that some voices foresee the end of telecentres while bookshops and cheap softcover pocket editions did not succeed in getting rid of costly public libraries?
- Will cybercafes shift to more telecentre impact-like focus and less access-based business plans? Will they compensate their shrinking access market by expanding towards a capacitation-based market? Will they be providing more content and, especially, services? Will they create communities of people around cybercafes as it is already happening in cybercafes whose customers are e.g. mainly immigrants and gather together around the cybercafe?
- Will both telecentres and cybercafes evolve into enhanced centres (e-centres), where communities will gather and benefit from several community resources, computers and Internet access among others? Or will they just disappear?
Fortunately or unfortunately, things are neither that simple nor static and are way more complex and dynamic in reality. But these are, nevertheless, questions that both decision-takers and tax-payers should be taking into account so to be prepared for what is going to be next.
As libraries have provided more than books, but a place where to learn to read and find kindred souls, it is my guess that public Internet access points will disappear as such, and will either be embedded within existing structures (libraries themselves, or civic centres, to name a few) or the existing telecentres and cybercafes will evolve into a next stage where the learning and community factors will be much more relevant. We are indeed seeing plenty of examples of this, and it is a matter of time that priorities or the focus turns upside down: instead of going to access the Internet and finding people, one will go and find people and use the Internet as an enhanced way to socialize. At its turn, this should be accompanied by the end of this false dichotomy on whether you’re a citizen or a netizen, as if the Internet had a life and a citizenry on its own. But time will tell.
NOTE: I owe some of this reflections from conversations with people I met at IDRC on my visit at their headquarters in Ottawa: Florencio Ceballos, Frank Tulus, Tricia Wind, Meddie Mayanja, Silvia Caicedo and Simon Batchelor (the latter from Gamos).