Gurstein makes the case for telecenters

Posted on February 20, 2010  /  15 Comments

In an interesting post, that we recommend you read in full, Micheal Gurstein makes the case for telecenters despite the Nenasala debacle of the ICT Agency of Sri Lanka.

Here is his key question:

Or to put the question another way—what do we lose if we (or rural Sri Lankans) only have mobile communications with optional access to the Internet and we by-pass the personal computer completely? What happens if that becomes the communications paradigm for a range of countries such as Sri Lanka who, having not managed to effectively respond to the digital divide to this point, decide basically to give up the fight and leave it all to the ambitions and creativity of the mobile operators.

We can say more, much more (and have, with more evidence than casual observation), but here is the comment I left on his blog:

“Give up the fight and leave it all to the ambition and creativity of the mobile operators?”
Well, isn’t that a smooth rhetorical move? Ceasing to repeat a futile and wasteful act is giving up the fight, and who would want to be labeled a wimp? And which of the critics of the telecenters said anything about the ambition and creativity of mobile operators as being the only alternative?

To talk of mobile networks connecting people to each other and to information and giving them the ability to engage in transactions and remote computing is not to limit the discussion to mobile handsets. The extraordinary takeup of mobile dongles in the developing world suggests that the mobile networks will be used to connect to the Internet by users from various devices: Chanuka has documented that telecenters that do not connect through dongles affixed to desktop computers are throwing money away. Netbooks on the one hand and smartphones on the other are converging the functionalities of computers and mobile phones while also bringing down the costs of connectivity to levels unimaginable just a few years ago. The creativity of more actors than the mobile operators is at play here.

The mistake that is being made is to imagine a highly constricted version of mobile-based connectivity when the manner by which one connects to the Internet via mobile networks is changing very rapidly. This is like trying to discuss travel on an expressway solely in terms of what is feasible on a dirt road.

The other sleight of hand is to say that the aspects of computer use that are not dependent on the Internet (such as typing up resumes) will all be irretrievably lost should the government-subsidized telecenters shut down. Peter Benjamin showed years ago that indeed most S African telecenters ended up as disconnected computer training shops. If there is a demand for resume preparation or whatever, the market will meet it, using subsidized or other computers. And has the writer not heard of OLPC and other low-cost computer solutions that will allow young people to use computers more normally than in virus infested common use settings?

It is highly wasteful to keep pouring millions into subsidized telecenters that people do not use, simply to ensure that young people have the opportunity to type up resumes. If the writer had kept his eye on the roadside signboards in Sri Lanka more closely he would have seen the proliferation of computer skills training centers and courses. Do these establishments not have computers? Do they not allow those computers to be used for a fee?

The opposite of “giving up the fight” is to continue to pour money into telecenters. Seems to me that Einstein describes this behavior well: “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

Join the debate. Here or on Gurstein’s blog. Those whose children will have to repay the loans taken to subsidize telecenters (low interest or other) are especially welcome.


  1. (I’ve just posted the below comment on my blog as a response to Rohan’s comment above…

    Thanks for entering into an interesting and (I hope) useful discussion on these issue…

    Maybe I wasn’t sufficiently clear Rohan, I didn’t mean to suggest that the “fight” was simply around telecentres or no telecentres. For me telecentres are a means to the desired end which is some degree of digital development (and equity) as a basis for local empowerment and active participation in the overall society/polity. Telecentres are a means that have been developed and with highly variable success have been implemented in support of this overall goal (and I concur with your reference to and the applicability of my friend Peter Benjamin’s findings in South Africa).

    My point as you note was to indicate that mobile communication was currently not really up to the task and to lay down an (implicit) challenge to folks such as yourself (and of course there are many others, notably in the bilateral funding community) to either come up with some realistic alternative or to come back to the table and figure out how to make what we have now work rather than to abandon the field altogether which to me is the easy (but irresponsible) way out.

    Also, I should mention that my point was a general one and I recognize that, in some, there may be specific local circumstances that mitigate against this strategy (endemic corruption, political interference or an incapacity on the part of responsible authorities to deliver are of course among such local conditions in some instances) but I think this simply reinforces the case for a “community” informatics (bottom up) driven approach to these developments rather than for example a state run top down ICT4D approach.

    I take your point about not assuming a too “restrictive version of mobile based connectivity”. However, I think the general point still stands which is that while there may be convergence in the methods of connecting (to the Internet and to telephony), the availability and use of Internet and PC based applications are not currently widely distributed. In part this is because of cost, but also because of the “aesthetic” limitations of current lower cost handsets and the conceptual framing where Information related activities are generally assigned to PC’s while communications related activities are generally assigned to mobile telephony.

    As to your analogy concerning the expressway and the dirt track, as I understand it most of the folks that the current e-Sri Lanka program are meant to be addressing are very much currently traveling on the dirt track (and with bicycles or tuktuks rather than Benz’s or BMWs) rather than on expressways and are likely to be doing so for quite a long time into the future as well. That of course, makes designing national digital strategies rather more complicated since it is necessary in most cases to find ways of accommodating both, but I think it is difficult to argue that there is no longer a need for a digital “development” strategy for the folks on the bus as well as the folks in the limo and even more so, if one believes as I do. that becoming digitally enabled is at this time a major and even necessary component of any effective strategy for broad based economic and social development.

    And yes, the market will likely provide for preparing word processed resumes for those who need resumes although that wasn’t my point at all. Rather I was making and would repeat the point that the overall objective here is to “provide the foundation from which digital creativity and innovation can flow and by means of which a country like Sri Lanka can go through that phase change to shift from a pre-digital society to a digital society and thereby lay the foundation for transitioning into an Information Economy’. How waiting for the market to provide the 21st century equivalent of the village scribe will support that goal I’m really not sure.

    I did notice the interesting proliferation of computer schools throughout medium sized towns in Sri Lanka as elsewhere in the world and certainly this combined with an effective investment in computer labs and training in public schools will in the fullness of time lead to a broadening of the society’s digital base (my personal feeling is that OLPC is not a useful strategy here except in very specific circumstances but that discussion is for another time).

    What I also observed though to my astonishment was the street of lawyers and surveyors adjacent to the Temple of the Tooth in Kandy where there was not a computer to be observed at all and which is certainly a living museum of manual upright typewriter technology and all of the related paraphernalia of carbon paper, white out, carbon spools and all the other stuff that in most of the world only people as old as myself still remember from their youth.

    This isn’t to mock those estimable professionals honourably plying their trade but rather to suggest that whatever alternative strategy towards broad based digitization is being pursued it clearly hasn’t made any significant inroads in two of the communities which would benefit the most (in terms of immediate contributions to productivity) and which presumably would have both the education and the financial wherewithal to make the appropriate investment in capital equipment and the related training.

    Which is more wasteful, spending funds on implementing a program for broad based digital awareness and introductory training or leaving one’s professional classes stranded with an antique and completely inefficient physical and administrative infrastructure.

  2. Small businesses in the US have a 70% chance of making it for two years and a 50% chance of making it for four.

    ICTA’s Nenasalas which are selling an unfamiliar, unproven product to those without much ability to pay for it have similar rates of success. If that’s a debacle, then bring on some more I say!

  3. I quoted the exact rhetorical legerdemain (“Give up the fight and leave it all to the ambition and creativity of the mobile operators?”) and refuted it. The response: “Maybe I wasn’t sufficiently clear Rohan, I didn’t mean to suggest that the “fight” was simply around telecentres or no telecentres.” The quote is as clear as could be. Clarity is not the issue. Error is.

    Now we have broad generalizations based on casual observation. The manual typewriters on DS Senanayake Mavata in Kandy point to “leaving one’s professional classes stranded with an antique and completely inefficient physical and administrative infrastructure?”


    The courts in Kandy used to be in that location from colonial times. Several years ago, they were moved, leaving these law offices stranded. The progressive lawyers would most likely have moved to the courts complex on Gopallawa Mavata, leaving the rest behind. Worth investigation, I guess, for one who is interested. Or as my old law teacher used to say, some clients are dogs and follow lawyers when they move; others are cats and keep coming back to the office irrespective of which lawyer sits in it. Perhaps these offices are kept to catch the cats and transport them to the real offices?

    I have no idea what they are doing with typewriters, but it is quite possible that they are using them to produce documents in Sinhala and Tamil. There is an actual economic logic to using typewriters rather than multi-purpose and very much more expensive computers to produce single-use typewritten text, especially when labor is cheap. But as most people who have actually dealt with lawyers in Sri Lanka would have said, if asked, most standard legal documents such as rental contracts, powers of attorney, etc. are produced on word processors, in English as well as in Sinhala and Tamil.

    I am happy about this, having conducted the first IT familiarization seminar for the lawyers back in 1987. But I have been away from the law and legal profession for a long time. I hope a young lawyer with more knowledge will add to my casual, but not-so-casual, observations.

  4. 1) It seems that everyone here is going on anecdotes. Rohan uses a single Nenasala to illustrate debacle-hood. Mark visits a street of lawyers in Kandy using typewriters and assumes all lawyers in SL use typewriters.

    If he had visited the street adjacent to Hultsdorpf in Colombo, he’d find the numbers of those are dwindling every day and if he’d done proper research, he’d find that most lawyers – if not the most visible ones who hold office on the street – do indeed use technology extensively.

    2) It is not anyone’s job to push business into technology; if businesses are convinced it is valuable and time saving, they will invest in it. Already most corporate/high court lawyers do nothing without a computer; the rest will either follow or die off, leaving it for the next generation to take up.

    1. There is a difference between generalizing from a single case and using one to illustrate what is a generally well known fact.

      We have systematically studied telecenters. I know that Sarvodaya has closed down many of those it was operating. Chanuka Wattegama has traveled the country looking at successful and unsuccessful telecenters. We have tried to assist telecenter operators adjust to changing market conditions.

      Try searching the website using telecenter as search term. Lots of data and discussion. Not correct to say the debacle is being alleged based on a single case.

      Businesses succeed and fail. Fine. But businesses that receive large government subsidies failing is a different problem. Especially when the subsidies were given contrary to the original design, based on political considerations.

  5. (Here is the reply I posted to Rohan on my own blog but I think it is an appropriate reply to Foodie’s comments above as well.

    I think the issue Rohan, is not whether the most advanced members of a profession (or a society) are now digitally enabled — from my experience virtually all are–including with the latest iPads, Kindles, iPhones, and so on–and with very exceptions, in all corners of the globe.

    Rather the issue that I think should be addressed is whether the least advanced in the profession (or in society) are even in the same universe of technology enablement (let alone on the other side of a digital divide). The lawyers on DS Senanayake Mavata in Kandy all seem to have their cell phones ringing constantly while they type away on their antique typewriters (in English BTW).

    So the answer to the question that I started out with i.e. “what do we lose if we don’t have the Internet” still seems to me to be — that what we lose is the creation of an inclusive “digital economy/society”.

    So, and this is not a rhetorical question–if you don’t like the formulation “Give up the fight and leave it all to the ambition and creativity of the mobile operators?” what are you offering in its place?

    I think you know where I stand on that issue (with broad/community based programs for digital access/digital literacy) but I don’t yet know where you stand.


    Mike Gurstein

    1. Oh, I thought my position on these matters was well known. Please see my paper and presentation at IGF 2009. And there was a considerable amount of debate around that.

      If this is too long, a short version is also available. Kentaro Toyama summed up the debate. There’s even video!

      1. Thanks for the reference, I missed the IGF this year unfortunately…

        Having read the paper fairly carefully though I’m afraid that I still don’t see any evidence presented that those without current knowledge of Internet based applications are using the expanded capabilities (including their own through their mobiles) to undertake any of those applications and particularly any that would be in any sense “developmental”. The question I think remains whether any of this increased “access” has contributed to any increase in “effective use” particularly by the marginalized and economically excluded (the point of my original blog post) and is increased “effective (developmental) use likely to happen in the absence of any deliberate program towards “digital inclusion” where of course, telecentres would likely (for cost effectiveness reasons) play a key role?

  6. Best way of discussing things in this day and age is on a blog: comments anyone can read, and comments that can be read five years from now.

    For some reason, I keep getting comments on my email. So I will paste this one, only because it is a stark reminder of the dangers of casual observation, which seems to be the basis of much of the telecenter advocacy movement’s deliberations. It is followed by evidence refuting the claims.

    Here is Gurstein:

    “A very good point Don although my understanding about the current mobile broadband access in Sri Lanka is that it is not really accessible outside of the major urban areas and a few other scattered pockets. Howevere, that doesn’t undercut your overall message which is certainly the case for South Africa where mobile broadband via dongles is to my understanding almost universally available although at a multiple of the cost in Sri Lanka.

    What I think your message does point to (at least for the rural areas in SA with which I am somewhat familiar) is the difference between “access” and “effective use”–dare I say the difference between most existing telecentre programs and community informatics based digital inclusion strategies.

    While there may be ubiquitous mobile broadband “access”via HSPA or GSM or whatever in rural areas as you say, the issue in much of rural SA and by extension rural areas in other LDC’s is the absence of the means to achieve “effective use”: — the absence of affordability of access and of receiving devices, the absence of awareness/training in the use of the technology, the absence of information sources in local languages, the absence of locally significant applications, the absence of local frameworks for the implementation and use of many “development” oriented applications and so on.

    This could and should be among the objectives/program for the next round of activities in support of digital inclusion with fixed location telecentres as one of the means (to be assessed in terms of cost-effectiveness and other criteria) for the delivery of these programs.”

    Here’s a response from someone ( who uploads blog posts and newspaper columns from throughout Sri Lanka:

    “Sri Lanka has cheap mobile broadband access everywhere. I use a $500 netbook with 3G built in and I’ve been able to connect (3G) from Jaffna, Vavuniya, Trinco, Batti, Haputale, on the train, in the hills, on the beach, etc.

    In Trinco we were staying at a house that had no electricity but I was still able to connect to the net. I’m in India now and Sri Lanka’s mobile broadband service is WAY better than here. I would rather have the rural 3G around Anuradhapura than the 2.75 in Mumbai.

    Just because you don’t see people computing as you drive through doesn’t mean they’re not doing it. I know a ton of kids in rural areas for whom mobile broadband is the only way they get a connection. Check out a bunch of the kids in the Sinhala Bloggers Union, or anybody on Twitter.

    Just cause you don’t see Internet use in cursory travels doesn’t mean it’s not there. I use the Internet like a fiend all over the country and it works great. I know a lot of kids that do, and companies have seen fit to invest in the infrastructure. Look around for example.

    I think you’re completely wrong to say SL is 10 years behind. We’re definitely 10 years ahead of India and probably percentage wise cover more of the country than even the US. The Internet is great here, I think you’re just missing it. As I said, check out Twitter and elakiri and whatever and see what’s going on. It’s not something you’d catch from a car window.”

    Enough said.

    1. Hi,

      I’m delighted to hear about the wide distribution of broadband throughout Sri Lanka. Unfortunately your information seems in direct conflict with that I received from two highly knowledgeable sources in Colombo when I was there and whose names and email addresses I would be delighted to provide to you by private email.

      BTW, I wasn’t comparing Sri Lanka to India and all of the observations that I presented in my original blog post were confirmed by the two aforementioned local Sri Lanka ICT experts.

      Hi Rohan,

      (The issues being discussed here and on my blog are also of very considerable interest to the 1200 or so subscribers to the several community informatics elists that I host and I took the liberty of pointing them to my (and your) blog posts and out of courtesy copied you on those emails.

      That several of them chose to respond to the elist and to you by email, archaic though it may be, was their choice. I of course, chose to respond by email to their emails. BTW, the archive (and subscription information) for the main elist going back almost ten years is available at

  7. More discussion from email that I am cc’ed on:

    Parminder from Delhi:

    > Also, whether a PC is the end device of a mobile/ handset is an issue completely different from the question of the underlying infrastructure –
    >Internet or mobile telephony infrastructure. The two questions should be teated separately and not conflated as is often done Beyond that,
    > there are certain limitations in relying ‘only’ on mobile/ handset as the user device, which choice affects the kinds of activities and applications
    > that can be accessed/ done. This factor too can determine the nature of uses of the Internet, in terms of empowering uses versus passive uses
    > – a factor I consider very central to the consideration of ‘development potential’ of new ICTs.

    Don Cameron responding:

    Hi Parminder,
    Just a quick note re your comment above – nowadays all mobile handsets supporting HSPA (mobile broadband) also operate as a mobile broadband device for a PC or Laptop – it is no longer a matter of having to choose between a PC or mobile handset as the end device, people wishing to use a PC, tablet, notebook or micro simply connect it to the mobile phone handset (I do this every day). There are no longer any limitations or issues regarding the kinds of activity that can be done online – broadband is broadband. You can connect your computer to fibre at your home, to ADSL, a satellite router, a ‘net enabled cat5 or 6 LAN, to a public or private Wifi, or to Mobile Broadband via your mobile phone – all provide the same access to online services, activities and applications. The only real difference is portability. Some allow for freedom of movement and access from remote locations (of particular import to those of us living and working in rural environs); others do not provide this level of portability.

  8. You don’t need any anonymous ICT experts. Just go anywhere in Sri Lanka and open a netbook. I’ve connected from just outside Menik Farm during the war and a remote house in Nilaveli with no electricity. If you think I’m the only one, just check out elakiri (search for Dialog or Mobitel), or Twitter.

    First of, Sri Lanka has had 3G for years and the coverage maps (Dialog and Mobitel mainly) are public. I generally have 3G everywhere I go. Two exceptions was inside a navy camp in Trinco and inside Menik Farm right after the war, but that’s literally it. I go to some pretty obscure places and by now I assume I’ll get 3G. I mean, I went to Jaffna like a month after the road opened and they had 3G there. Sri Lanka has really good mobile broadband coverage. The maps are public and I’ve experienced it. So I don’t think any expert opinion is required there.

    Second, the infrastructure is all public and there. It’s not buried in some reports. HSPA Dongles are sold by the major providers and they sell like hotcakes. Sub-$500 netbooks and even cheaper PCs are available islandwide. The connections are also damn cheap. I pay about Rs. 2,500 for an insane amount of usage, when I’m working I can upload a few gigs per month, not to mention downloads. There are prepaid options which are much much cheaper. I haven’t used in SL, but in India I paid like INR 200 and I’ve been using this for weeks. So again, there’s no expert opinion required to see that mobile broadband is readily available in Sri Lanka.

    I think the only item up for debate is whether people actually use it. All I can say is that I used to work at Dialog and when we first came out with the dongles they sold out every week. There were huge debates online about speed and Dialog vs Mobitel with literally hundreds of comments per thread. If you just look through ElaKiri (biggest forum) there are hundreds of threads and thousands of views on mobile internet issues, by actual users. The companies are actually selling this product and making money.

    And btw, I don’t think anyone on ElaKiri would be caught dead in a telecentre. There is exactly one mention of ‘telecenter’ on ElaKiri, and that’s in an ad for a government conference. No one I know cares, we just want normal Internet, and we have it. These kids are smart, they can get enough money together to pay their bills, they don’t need Internet with training wheels. These are coders, graphic designers, bloggers, students, whatever and they are fully capable of using normal Internet like westerners. Get a computer, get a connection, go online, pay your bill. Sri Lanka is not a backwater and mobile broadband service is actually exceptional here. The people are also pretty capable and they can use Internet the same way as everybody else. In fact, we are.

  9. Coming in to this interesting discussion late…nevertheless… I wanted to touch on the point Michael makes on the inability of ‘effective’ or developmental use via more-than-voice applications on mobile platforms [As explained by you “only have mobile communications with optional access to the Internet by-passing the personal computer completely”]. Note I am purposely keeping the scope wide enough to catch-all.

    Now let’s take a simple example of a green gram farmer from rural Sri Lanka [By the way, most rural folk are engaged in agriculture]. What kind of development is he looking for? Get the best possible price for his green gram so his income can be enhanced might be as good as any answer. So the information-interaction-transaction he could be looking for can take several forms. Perhaps current prices for green gram if he has already harvested; possible forward prices for green gram say for next week if that is when he plans to harvest? Or even futures prices for delivery in a month’s time if he can store his green gram?

    Check on how many green gram farmers are logging in to the ICTA-powered subsidized applications of the Department of Agriculture available on a big screen monitor at their neighborhood Nenasela to register with the green gram service for effective or developmental use ‘deliberately’ designed for these ‘digitally excluded’ people to use your lingo

    Answer is zero for green gram; as is the case for all 48 crops [a month ago there were a few though…]. Why? Farmers are not likely to do it. For starters it’s just too much of a hassle to go to the Nenasela… and it’s not convenient. I have personal experience with farmers from as far back as 2003 and I know.

    Enter the mobile operators and content providers with ambition and creativity. See what we are doing in Sri Lanka True, it’s just started [end December 2009], but already we are in the middle of registering not 5 or 50 but 5,000 farmers at just one [central] location. And this developmental information is not “point to point, individual to individual, transaction centric and so on…” as you say, but allows for much wider multi-party interaction ending [ideally] with a transaction

    Lesson is that developmental or effective use can not be a must not be seen in one’s own prejudiced template. True, for some a PowerPoint presentation on a PC may be that developmental use; but for another it surely could be the dynamically analyzed information on green gram futures [of course connected via the Internet at the backend] and the subsequent interaction with three possible forward buyers culminating in a transaction that would be much more profitable for the green gram than selling his green gram in the current setup.

    No point in pouring more money on the green-gram register sitting in a nice wide screen PC at a Nenasela; put that money in developing the best possible mobile communications application with optional access to the Internet!


    1. Following Rohan’s lead, I’m going to include your note Harsha and my reply as comments on my blog as well.

      Thanks for this very interesting example and one BTW which I looked at and discussed with several people, including the mobile operator while I was in SL (in fact I’ll be blogging on that in the next very few days). Your example shows and I have no doubt that you are correct in your overall assessment of the relative merits of mobile support as compared to Nenasila support for this application. This is a newly available set of opportunities (given widespread and very low cost mobile access/use charges in SL.

      But what your example doesn’t show I think is whether there is a related positive impact on the farmer’s level of overall literacy, computer literacy, digital awareness, skills development etc.etc. There may be but the relatively simple transaction model that is being developed may expand into other forms of transactional interaction but I’m at a loss to see what the broader impact could be — the example of the ATM is revealing I think… Learning how to navigate an ATM machine doesn’t contribute anything to one’s overall knowledge about banking, or credit let alone small business development etc.etc. That doesn’t mean that the ATM isn’t valuable — it certainly is — but rather that broad based entry into the “information society” will likely require a lot more than is be presented here.