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Telecentres in Rural Australia

This article by Andrew Bibby, in a slightly different form, was first published in Teleworker magazine, 1999

Coolah was not in my guidebook. There were a thousand pages of recommendations of places to go and things to see in Australia, but this small town on the further side of New South Wales's Great Dividing Range was inexplicably missing.

This was a disappointment but no great surprise to the people I met there. Coolah has, I suspect, long been used to having to make its own way in the world. According to the cynics (and cynicism about politics is an Australian pastime) NSW for the politicians stands just for Newcastle, Sydney and Wollongong, the three large coastal cities of the state; anywhere else, in other words, struggles to have their voice heard.

By British standards, Coolah is small: only about eight hundred people in the town itself, with a couple of thousand more in the outlying towns and villages which make up the local government area of Coolah Shire. But Coolah can boast a strong sense of community. Since last October, it can also show off its own telecentre and Internet cafe.

It is early days for the project, which is tucked away at the back of the old Shire Hall, on Coolah's one main central street. However Don Cameron, the telecentre's manager is optimistic about the prospects. The centre has begun organising computer training courses, tailored particularly at non- computer users, and the drop-in Internet Cafe facilities also seem popular. In fact, Coolah telecentre has rather ambitiously decided to provide PCs with Internet access in three other smaller settlements in the area: Dunedoo has its own 'Internet cafe' at the back of a bank, whilst in Mendooran and tiny Cassilis the local post offices provide the venue.

Internet access was previously difficult and expensive from the area, so in December last year the telecentre set up its own ISP, which now has approaching two hundred subscribers. "Developing an ISP is one way to minimise the disadvantage, and to get on an equal par with urban Australia," Don says. "We presold Internet access to a hundred people for a year ahead." It helps that almost all the farms in the area are active users of on-line services, using the Internet among other things to check livestock auction prices and the meteorological outlook.

The money for the telecentre facilities and for Don Cameron's salary has come initially from grants of about A$440,000 (about 160,000), the bulk of which has been made under Australia's innovative Networking the Nation initiative (officially called the Regional Telecommunications Infrastructure Fund). This is earmarked money which was raised from the partial privatisation of the country's state-run telephone corporation, Telstra. Telstra's privatisation remains a controversial issue, but the use of some of the capital generated from the first share issue for telecommunications development seems a masterstroke.

Coolah's telecentre is one of a number of initiatives which a group of active local people have taken in the past few years to regenerate their community. Earlier in the 90s, with agriculture in some difficulty, Coolah was in danger of slipping into the downward spiral which has affected other small rural towns in New South Wales where the loss of the local bank branch, post office, stock and station agency (estate agency) and shops has led to a growing economic malaise. But the Coolah District Development Group, set up after a public meeting about five years ago, has worked hard to turn the town around, and claims in all to have attracted A$1.6m in funding support. Eleanor Cook, the dynamic co-ordinator of the Development Group, points out proudly that all the shop units in the main street are now occupied. Main Street itself is undergoing a facelift to help smarten up the town.

Nevertheless, grant-funded initiatives such as the telecentre face problems of sustainability, as Don Cameron knows only too well. The track record of telecentres in Australia (with the specific exception of Western Australia - see box) is unfortunately patchy, with - as in Britain - a number of telecentres folding after relatively short periods of operation. Co-ordination between telecentres in the eastern Australian states is also relatively poor, with the Australian Rural Telecentre Association currently at a low ebb.

"Too many telecentres have closed their doors. Our objective from day one was to be commercially viable," Don Cameron says. Becoming an Internet Service Provider has provided welcome income, but the telecentre is also looking hard for suitable opportunities for telework jobs.

One possibility could be to compete with Australia's growing number of call centres, by offering 'virtual call centre' facilities - in other words, using local people handling calls in their own homes. If this idea materialises, the work is likely to arrive in Coolah through the agency of another interesting new Australian initiative, TeleTask.

TeleTask has its office in Armidale, NSW, not very far (well, only a three hour car journey) to the north-east of Coolah. TeleTask, a non-profit company which has also had substantial funding from Networking the Nation, is an ambitious attempt to operate an Australia-wide telework agency (the 'National Teleworking Taskforce'), bringing employment opportunities to rural parts of the country. As its business plan puts it, "The current state of technology allows for virtually any creative or processing task to be performed telematically... TeleTask will not only be compiling a skills base to assign operators to jobs appropriately and effectively, but will be ensuring the quality of the product."

TeleTask's initial marketing material includes a long list of the services which the agency hopes to provide. These include secretarial and transcribing services, web site design and management, technical writing and proof reading, system analysis and computer programming, virtual call centres and also relatively low-status work such as typing and data entry.

As British and Irish telecentres which have attempted to attract telework will be aware, TeleTask faces a considerable challenge in finding suitable contracts. The company began operating in October last year, and has funding (of A$580,000) for a period of just over two years. Its two executive directors, Andrew Hunter and Graham MacKay, know that they have only a limited time to show that TeleTask can deliver, and there have been some early frustrations as potential contracts slipped through their net.

Fortunately, however, both Andrew Hunter and Graham MacKay have considerable experience behind them from their involvement with the successful telecentre at Walcha. Walcha, a small settlement seventy kilometres south of Armidale, was Australia's first telecentre, opened in July 1992 and still operating today. The telecentre is based in an old primary school and currently provides the editorial and printing facilities for the local community magazine, as well as having contracts to run the town's tourist information service and social security information point.

Much of the impetus behind the opening of Walcha telecentre came from Graham MacKay, at that time a senior academic in the community education department at the university in Armidale. Graham was aware of the development of telecentres in Scandinavia and Britain, and was interested in trying to adapt the idea to the Australian situation. A small amount of funding was found from Telstra, and Andrew Hunter (who had previously been running his own office systems company) was taken on as the telecentre's first part-time co-ordinator.

Andrew Hunter has made his entertaining and informative account of the story of the telecentre available on the Web:

"It was always obvious that the Telecottage would never survive on the meagre income from adult education classes, and so we immediately started the quest for paid work. We were literally prepared to do anything.. We tendered for batch billing, license printing, label sticking, you name it we tendered for it. The common response was 'Where the hell is Walcha, and what's a telecottage?'. "

But eventually work did arrive. The first contract involved data entry of 30,000 hand written receipts from a Salvation Army appeal. Then in 1995, a more substantial data entry contract came from the Australian National Church Life Survey, involving 350,000 records:

"The client greeted our initial quote with considerable scepticism, because we were far too cheap... Negotiations dragged on over six months and finally the client advised me that they had decided to split the job 50-50 between us and a Melbourne based company. At this stage I decided to stick my neck out and I thanked the client for the work but I also pointed out that with only half the job they would go from being our number one customer to 'just another job'. And even if the Melbourne company wouldn't admit it, they would feel the same way. Less than an hour later the phone rang, we had the whole job...

"The actual work commenced in October 1996 and employed, to various degrees, 34 people for up to five months. We begged borrowed and rebuilt old PCs which were then given to those who didn't have their own. The majority of people worked from home picking up boxes of forms and dropping floppy disks by the box full..."

Since that time small supplementary contracts from the same client have continued to be processed at Walcha, although generally speaking telework has become a much less important part of the telecottage's activities. Andrew Hunter himself has moved on, though Graham MacKay continues as one of the volunteer directors.

It was Andrew and Graham's experience at Walcha, however, which was behind their determination to launch TeleTask. As Graham says, it is not easy for individual telecentres to have the marketing resources to find work for themselves: "It is very difficult if you are working in a telecentre to get outside work, and to be taken seriously." TeleTask's original plan, in fact, was to focus on providing telework for telecentres to undertake; however, the original submission for funding was turned down, with TeleTask asked to concentrate more on work with individual teleworkers. TeleTask is currently building up a skills database of potential teleworkers available for work.

Graham MacKay is aware of similar developments over here from recent visits he has made to Britain (and indeed TeleTask has joined as a member of the TCA). However, it is to France, and particularly the experience of Telergos, that TeleTask looks for a model of a successful telework brokerage company. As Graham told an Australian audience in TeleTask's first newsletter: "Nine years ago Denis Haulin started Telergos in Paris, using his insurance background. It has become a very successful teleworking operation that supports five telecentres in France and one in Britain. Telergos turns over FF20m based around three core businesses: audio typing, document formatting and clerical services".

It will not be clear for a few more months whether the model of a telework brokerage in Australia can be made to work, though TeleTask has been set up with much endeavour and deserves to succeed. If it does, there will be many people in the British Isles who may want to check out TeleTask's winning formula.

*****

Developments in Western Australia

Anyone who wants to find a part of the world where rural telecentres are both vibrant and growing in numbers should consider visiting the state of Western Australia.

Thanks in large measure to support from the state government's Department of Commerce and Trade (through its Regional Development Division's Telecentre Support Unit), the fifty-plus telecentres in Western Australia have back-up resources to call upon and an active WA Telecentre Network. The Telecentre Support Unit publishes an impressively glossy magazine 'Telecentre Network Connection'. (Connection is available in PDF format on the Internet, or can also be ordered in hard copy free via the web).

Gay Short, who heads the Telecentre Support Unit, paints an up-beat picture of developments in the latest issue of the magazine: "Twelve months ago there were 38 telecentres in Western Australia," she writes. "Today we have 52 centres funded, with an additional four applicants currently awaiting approval... An additional sixty communities are currently working towards Telecentre status.

"Telecentres have matured. Today we hear success story after success story as individual telecentres identify new programs and monies of their own."

Distances in Western Australia are vast in a state which by itself is the size of western Europe. This means that in some communities telecentres have a valuable role to play in delivering a broad range of community and government services. The Lakes Link Telecentre in the community of Lake Grace, for example, is undertaking a three-year pilot to deliver university- level distance learning. Wyndham Telecentre is co-located with a business enterprise centre and a government information service centre. Telecentres are also developing links with the federal social security service Centrelink.

Western Australia has also seen the development of a prototype portable telecentre, MITE (Modular Interactive Telecommunications Environment), which incorporates talkback TV, videoconferencing, Internet facilities and PCs and printer equipment. The project has been supported by funding from the WA Telecentre Support Unit and Networking the Nation. The first MITE was piloted last year in Exmouth, a community which unfortunately has since been devastated by a severe tropical storm.



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