Cybercafés arise as small urban businesses but are not financially viable in rural areas.
Telecenters are a governmental response, modeled after cybercafés, to try to bring the
benefits of computers and the internet to underserved rural communities. Worldwide,
cybercafés are far more numerous than telecenters. There are some urban telecenters, but
most are rural.
Telecenters are commonly associated with the provision of physical access to equipment
but, ultimately, their objective is to bring the benefits of computers and the internet to
underserved rural communities through shared facilities. This usually involves much more
than physical access.
There is considerable evidence that shared public access to computers and the internet,
whether through cybercafés or telecenters, have had significant positive impacts on
users. Telecenters, however, are out of fashion. The reasons for this include the significant
challenges that rural initiatives face, the poor record of overly ambitious programs that have
tried to reach deep into rural areas that have little potential demand, the disappointment
when unrealistic expectations regarding self-sustainability fail to materialize, and the
revolution in access that mobile phones have propelled.
We use the terms telecenter and information and communication technology (ICT)
center interchangeably, but, as we look forward, the latter term is preferred; not as a radical
conceptual departure, but to acknowledge that changes in approach are necessary. Fifteen
years ago, the primary role of telecenters and cybercafés was to facilitate communication.
Since access through mobiles is becoming increasingly affordable, the demand for
computer and internet use through public venues has been falling. Today, it would hardly
make sense to set up a telecenter exclusively dedicated to providing access to computers or
the internet. It would also be reckless to ignore the lessons of experience.
This report reviews the experience of rural ICT center programs with three objectives in
mind: to better understand the challenges that rural initiatives must overcome; to show
why, notwithstanding these challenges, ICT centers remain popular; and to identify design
features of successful programs that help further rural development.
A frequent objective of state-sponsored rural telecenter programs has been the phasing
out of subsidies and eventual achievement of sustainability. In practice, rural telecenters
seldom achieve financial self-sustainability. Rural sustainability is challenging because
of sponsors’ decision to locate telecenters in rural communities. Cybercafés and related
private ICT businesses cannot serve these areas on commercial terms because they face
four constraints. Two are supply-driven: (i) high connectivity costs and (ii) high costs of
equipment and service maintenance; while the other two are demand-driven and arise
because of two features of rural environments: (iii) limited computer literacy, and (iv) low
population density. Program features result from choices about the structure of funding
and incentives, center location, and the services offered. They either ease or worsen the
The inability of the private sector to serve rural areas has made public assistance and
funding indispensable. Some initiatives are orchestrated and run by the government, but
different public–private partnerships have been tried. To prepare this report, we conducted
two case studies: a government-run initiative in the Philippines, and a public–private
partnership in Sri Lanka. This first hand evidence is complemented with findings from
The first community e-centers (CeCs) in the Philippines were launched in October 2004
and by 2011 there were a total of 550. CeC establishment has been sponsored by the
national government. Operations are run and supported by local government units (LGUs).
The long-term target is the establishment of a center in each of the country’s 42,000
barangays (villages). There is unfortunately little information about what has happened to
many of the CeCs established.
In searching for showcase centers, we visited 12 CeCs, 6 in southern Luzon, and 6 in
Western Visayas. Five of the centers visited can be considered showcase. Although CeCs
are not meant to be self-sustaining, these successful centers have made a positive impact
on the population, especially imparting digital literacy training and developing a blended
learning remedial education program to help out-of-school youth. These successful centers
were located in relatively large towns. Since they are run by large municipalities they are
generally well resourced.
The $83 million e-Sri Lanka Development Project launched in 2004 included a $7.4 million
ICT center component. Implementation was completed on 31 December 2013. More
than 10 years have passed and many of the centers created, which are known as nenasalas
(meaning “wisdom outlets” in Sinhala), have been open for several years, presenting a
unique opportunity to assess what happens as ICT centers mature.
A comprehensive monitoring and evaluation survey conducted in 2014–2015 surveyed 884
centers, of which 336 were found closed and 584 were still operating. This report draws on
this data with a special focus on 752 centers of the four most common types established
(religious, enterprise, community-based organizations, and public library) in four locations
(remote, rural, semiurban, and urban). Special attention is given to centers set up between
2003 and 2011 because these show what happens with the passing of time. This is perhaps
the most comprehensive data set ever assembled on a significant rural ICT center initiative.
A summary of recommendations directed at governments and donors considering
supporting rural ICT center programs follows.
The objective of rural ICT center programs is to introduce a variety of services, in the
expectation that the rural population learns to use ICT tools and starts using them
like modern societies everywhere do today. This does not require that an ICT center
established by the program exist forever. The program’s aim should be for the centers it
sponsors to generate long-lasting benefits while they are open.
Should Rural ICT Center Programs be Supported?
ICT centers are dear to governments and to the people they serve. They are seen as
harbingers of modernity and progress. Sri Lanka’s nenasala program has shown it is possible to
implement a rural ICT center program with efficacy, and to make an impact in rural people’s
lives by enhancing digital inclusion. International donors can make a contribution supporting
these worthy aspirations, as the World Bank did with the e-Sri Lanka project.
The main risks are insufficient service demand, proclivity for decisions to become
politicized, and rapid technological change.
Rural ICT center programs must achieve a delicate balance. Subsidized centers should not
compete with urban cybercafés. They are justifiable in underserved villages that are not too
small, i.e., which have a large enough pool of potential customers. Achieving this balance
can be challenging.
The dream of blanketing a country with ICT centers is a common political aspiration.
In Sri Lanka, the President decided to increase the target number of nenasalas from 200 to
1,000, and the evidence suggests that the program paid dearly in terms of high closure rates
and wasted resources.
With the rapid spread of mobile phones, the demand for access to communications has
drastically fallen, affecting such services as fax and voice over internet protocol (VOIP).
Concentrating on services that can be frequently upgraded, such as skills development in
the Philippines and Sri Lanka, makes ICT center programs less susceptible to technological
Sri Lanka’s experience with four center types suggests each has positive and negative
- Enterprise centers were the most resilient. They had the largest number of visitors
and the lowest closure rates. Only a few were established in 2003–2011 and even
fewer were located in rural areas, so it is not clear whether they would have fared as
well in large numbers to serve rural communities.
- ICT centers run by community-based organizations in Sri Lanka were more
resilient than religious centers, but less so than entrepreneurial centers.
A significant number of nongovernment organization centers served rural
- ICT centers in libraries are resilient, e.g., in Chile and in Sri Lanka. Because state
funding is usually secure, financial incentives may be lacking and special efforts
may be necessary to expand outreach and enhance impact.
- Religious centers fared poorly. In principle, these centers should have done better.
They had infrastructure, a service vocation, and a suitable locale. Their poor
performance may have been due to overly ambitious program targets, which fell
primarily on religious centers to fulfill.
Serving all rural people may be a lofty and even popular objective, but grand schemes
that propose to blanket a country with ICT centers with little regard for potential demand
should be avoided. Choosing to set up ICT centers in remote locations or small villages
courts disappointment and failure.
The number of people that will use a given ICT center regularly is circumscribed to a
relatively small catchment radius of around 3 kilometers, with variations depending
on population density and transportation facilities. For program planning purposes, a
minimum-sized village is needed to ensure there is sufficient potential demand for the
centers. Future rural ICT center programs are unlikely to be very large, simply because rural
areas generally have only a limited number of suitably sized towns.
Access to computers and the internet should not be the exclusive or even primary function
of ICT centers. Nevertheless, access should be provided so that novice users can practice
their skills; be a supplementary source of income for the centers; be a complementary
service for agencies that already provide a public service, such as post offices and
libraries; and to foster gender-balanced environments that can serve as a model for urban
Training in ICT skills is a potentially high impact intervention that can empower
disenfranchised peoples. Curious interest in acquiring ICT skills does not become
willingness to pay for training, particularly among rural people, because of information
asymmetries—nonusers seldom know the benefits they might derive. Encouragement and
the opportunity to try out the tools are required. Government intervention is justified on
efficiency and equity grounds.
Service aggregation should be pursued. Each center should provide a range of remedial
education courses, along with other services that are important for rural populations;
namely, e-government services, basic ICT skills training, and access to computers and
The need for English language training is patent in India, the Philippines, Sri Lanka,
and other Asian countries that want to expand their information technology business
outsourcing sector. Training apps like Duolingo are available to self-learners. What is
missing is a program to help youngsters get started and accompanies them through the
early stages of English language training. This form of remedial education is worth pursuing
as part of a rural ICT center initiative.
To use ICT centers to deliver government services is sensible, but has limitations. ICT
center programs cannot provide for process reengineering, which is usually needed to
deliver government services online. Further, it is doubtful that an ICT center can achieve
financial self-sustainability solely on e-government service fees.
Presently, the most effective way to improve agricultural markets appears to be to expand
mobile phone coverage. Rural ICT centers can however be useful as training venues where
farmers can communicate with other farmers; and traders, using e-mail and social media,
learn how to search for information, and learn how to learn on their own using ICT.
Fees do not determine whether a center will have impact or not, but fees affect incentives.
Programs that assign high priority to self-sustainability should charge for services. Programs
that do not charge fees should specify beforehand where the funds to maintain the centers
would come from. Nonfee centers should also implement an aggressive outreach program.
Otherwise, there is a risk that the ICT centers set up and maintained by government end up
serving only a few users.
Malaysia’s public–private partnership approach to ICT center management, using 5-year
contracts to run and staff the centers, limits the extent and duration of subsidies. This
model can be applied elsewhere to service financially weak rural communities.
There are differences in gender balance by venue type. Cybercafés often cater to young
men’s demand for gaming and pornography, creating a hostile environment for women.
Simple design decisions, e.g., locating terminals so that they are visible to operator and
other users, avoiding partitions between workstations, can help governments promote
gender balance in ICT centers and cybercafés.
Digital Inclusion and the Future of Rural ICT Centers
Rural ICT centers can help achieve the ambitious agenda set out by the Sustainable
Development Goals. To do so, they must be seen as technology hubs, as places where rural
young people can learn ICT skills and learn to learn on their own, and as catalysts for digital
inclusion in rural areas. Their role is to amplify citizen access to a variety of digital services,
most importantly to skills that enable young people to get rewarding jobs and participate in
the process of innovation that ICT makes possible.