Even with the Rs 5,000 PC (5KPC), the total cost of computer ownership may still be perceived to be high for a significant majority of the people, especially in semi-urban and rural areas. This is where telecentres (or Tech 7-11s, as I used to refer to them in earlier columns) come in. By focusing on providing access to computers rather than ownership, we can accomplish the same goal of taking computing to every family and employee.
This is akin to the way telecom access in India is available to most of the country via Public Call Offices (PCOs) even though at a national level, there are less than 40 million telephone lines (and an additional 10 million cellphones) for a population of 1 billion. A million of the telephone lines go into PCOs which serve a community rather than a family. Telecentres take a similar approach a computing.
Telecentres are computing and communication centres. They will typically have 5-40 of the 5KPC, depending on the available space. These PC terminals are connected to a thick server. The server cost would be about Rs 50,000 (USD 1,000). Thus, with an investment of about Rs 200,000 (USD 4,000), it should be possible to set up a 10-15 computer telecentre. In addition, the telecentre will have telecom services, via a few wired or wireless phones, perhaps an IP phone, a fax machine, a printer and a photocopying machine. It also will have a wireless (WiFi) access point, thus providing coverage to the neighbouring homes and offices. It is connected to the Internet through a broadband connection ISDN, cable, fibre or wireless.
What makes the telecentre affordable in terms of investment is its use of the 5KPC running Linux. For an equivalent setup using new PCs and Microsoft Windows and Office, the cost would be higher by about Rs 40,000 per PC, making it unaffordable. Today in India, other than the branded chains, most cybercafes use pirated software but that is not a sustainable model for growth. What the 5KPC provides is a solution which is not only cheaper, but also uses legitimate software. This is the only way to build a scalable, replicable and viable solution.
The telecentres perform multiple functions:
Cybercafe: First and foremost, the telecentres perform the role that cybercafes do – connect people to the Internet. They provide email, browsing and chat, and now increasingly voice-over-IP and video chat/conferencing. The one flaw in a cybercafe-only model is that its only source of income is tenuous that of charging people by the time they use the computer. This charge has been falling steadily. Cybercafes need additional income source to survive and thrive, and this is where the myriad other services that the telecentre makes possible come in.
Computing Point: This is the real strength of the telecentre. It goes beyond just communications. In a way, by providing communications and community services, cybercafes have leapfrogged ahead but left behind those users desiring basic computing services. The telecentre offers computing time and storage space for hire for writing letters, making presentations, or running specialised business applications. It lets people test-drive computers before deciding if they need one at home or in their office.
Digital Library: The server in the telecentre can become a huge repository of digital content. Disk space is cheap. Data mirroring on the local server can be done by dispatching CDs regularly to the various telecentres, and copying the megabytes of data on to the hard disks. What does this is ensure that users dont need to worry about going to the Internet over slow connections they get broadband access to the content on the LAN itself in the telecentre. Anything that can be digitised can be made available locally for access. The digital content can include mirrored websites, software downloads, educational content, e-books, government forms and notifications, and more.
Tomorrow: Telecentres (continued)