Telecentre Network in Malaysia: Bridging the Digital Divide

Filed under: September 2009 |
“In the information age that we are living in, the Malaysian society must be information-rich. It can be no accident that there is today no wealthy, developed country that is information poor and no information-rich country that is poor and undeveloped. There was a time when land was the most fundamental basis of prosperity and wealth. Then came the second wave, the age of industrialisation. Smokestacks rose where the fields were once cultivated. Now, increasingly, knowledge will not only be the basis of power but also prosperity. Again we must keep up. Already Malaysians are among the biggest users of computers in the region. Computer literacy is a must if we want to progress and develop. No effort must be spared in the creation of an information-rich Malaysian society.”

 

Tun Mahathir Mohamad
Former Prime Minister of Malaysia at the Malaysia Business Council
Kuala Lumpur, 28 February 1991

The vision of the former  prime minister has paved a new strategic path for Malaysia to embark onto the knowledge-economy. Significant benefits have been reaped both socially and economically from efforts made in steering the country in this direction. As with most countries, development of infrastructure and modernisation start with towns and urban areas. With time, such urban dwellers become  more advanced leaving behind rural communities. The fast advancement of technology further increases the divide thus aggravating the imbalance in the socio-economic well being of society. The Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) and its use, though, on one hand enables generation of wealth, can also cause a rift between the information “haves” and “have-nots”. In Malaysia,  the digital divide is defined as  a condition when a part of society is unable to gain access to ICT infrastructure or unable to use such infrastructure due to IT illiteracy or unable to create value out of the ICT facilities available.

Access, awareness and affordability

About  40 per cent  of our population lives in the rural areas, which are mostly underserved especially in terms of access to information infrastructure. They also constitute most of IT illiterate population. Surveys also show that about 83 per cent of rural households and about 50 per cent of urban households may find it difficult to afford to buy PCs and to be connected to the Internet. The cost of a PC to average income in Malaysia is about 14 per cent compared to the United States where it is about  two per cent. The lack of local indigenous content has also contributed to the digital divide where about 70 per cent of Malaysians know only the local language (Bahasa Malaysia) and about 90 per cent of content on the Internet is in English.

Strategies to bridge the digital divide

In Malaysia, most  urban areas are connected to the Internet, for about 40  per cent of the population living in the rural areas, it is still very much work in progress. At the end of Q2, 2009, the Internet penetration rate is 65.7 per cent while that of broadband is 24.8 per 100 inhabitants. The percentage of Internet users between urban and rural households is at 85  per cent to 15 per cent respectively. In order to achieve the target of 50 per cent broadband penetration rate in 2010, a High Speed Broadband (HSBB) project has been rolled out and among the initiatives included under this effort is Broadband for the General Population (BBGP). Under this project, main industry areas including big cities and local public universities will be connected  with high speed Internet  by using fiber optic up to 10mbps, while the sub-urban and rural areas will be connected by using Broadband up to 2mbps and wireless Internet,  such as 3G and WiMAX. The HSBB project is a public and private partnership between the Government and Telekom Malaysia and besides providing connectivity, Telekom Malaysia is also obliged to build more telecentres in urban areas to provide broadband access to the urban poor. Taking cognisance of the current scenario and the challenges of addressing these issues effectively, the National Strategic Framework for Bridging the Digital Divide (NSF-BDD) was formulated and approved by the government on 20 August 2007. The NSF-BDD consists of three components and five implementation thrusts as depicted in Figure1.

There are nine groups identified as the most vulnerable and can easily be marginalised by the digital divide. These are the elderly, women, rural community, small, micro and medium enterprises, youth, children, people with disabilities, indigenous and the poor. All these groups fall within the responsibility areas  of certain ministries. These ministries have been nominated to assume the role as lead agencies, which will coordinate the implementation of bridging the digital divide efforts for the group within their responsibility area. The Lead Agencies engage with stakeholders, including public, private and non-profit organisations as well as the community itself in a coordinated approach with the objective of bridging the digital divide through the development of appropriate infrastructure and introduction of programmes, which can add value to the everyday lives of the community leveraging on the telecentres and available ICT facilities. A Top-Down-Up methodology is adopted in the design and implementation of programmes by blending the strengths of grassroots participation with institutional resources. Besides telecommunications infrastructure, the issue of affordability of devices is also a barrier for certain segments to get access to the Internet.

Telecentre development programme

Today, there are 2,150 telecentres set up by various Federal and State Government agencies. There are also a number of centres set up by private companies in collaboration with non-profit organisations under their corporate social responsibility programmes.

In general, the telecentres are equipped with facilities, such as computers, Internet, printers, scanners, digital cameras, telephones and some with LCD projectors. The number of computers in each telecentre varies from two to  twenty, depending on the size of the local community being served. These centres conduct training on the use of basic software applications as well as the use of the Internet to get information, to communicate and to do basic transactions with the government, private and financial institutions. Some telecentres also conduct training on basic computer maintenance. The daily operations of the telecentre are managed by staff appointed by the respective implementing agencies on a full time basis.

There are various models of telecentre implementation in Malaysia, but all have an underlying principle of providing either free or minimal fee access to the Internet. The Rural Internet Centres (RICs) set up by the then Ministry of Energy, Communications and Multimedia (now Ministry of Information, Communications and Culture) in 2000 are located in the annex part of the Post Office buildings. The Post Office is an ideal location, as it provides outreach to remote places, is secure and is a place frequently visited by the community as a one-stop centre to pay their utility bills and to do most of their other transactions. Each RIC consists of between five to eight computers with Internet connectivity. The usage of computers for Internet browsing is free for the members and a minimal fee is charged for non members. The Medan InfoDesa telecentres (MIDs), an initiative of the Ministry of Rural and Regional Development (MRRD), are set up in buildings belonging to MRRD. The MIDs charges a small fee to users for all services offered including Internet browsing. The revenue collected is used to fund some of the operational expenses, such as utility charges, computer accessories and paper for printing. A major portion of the funds for the sustenance of the RICs and MIDs still comes from government funding.

Two other models are the Community Broadband Centre (CBC) and the Community Broadband Library (CBL) started by the Malaysia Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) with the target of achieving at least one CBC and CBL per selected mukim by 2013. The development and operations of these centres are funded under the Universal Service Provision fund, which is a mandatory contribution by the telecommunication operators. Selected mukims refer to the designated underserved areas in compliance with the Communications and Multimedia Act 1998. The CBCs involve a smart partnership between MCMC and the local authorities where MCMC will appoint a telecommunications service provider to build and operate the centre in a space or building provided by the local authority.

Telecentre managers: role and responsibilities

In Malaysia, most telecentres are operated by a manager and assistant manager. These managers and assistant managers are mostly graduates and local candidates are given priority. The roles and responsibilities of a telecentre manager include  sensitising the community about the services provided by the telecentres, promoting telecentre usage among them, conducting ICT training and reporting computer hardware and software faults to facilitate speedy maintenance, communicate with the local authorities, attract local entrepreneurs, help private companies and so on.

Collaboration between public, private and non-profit organisations

More recently, a collaborative effort was made between the government’s  MOICC and MRRD (telecentres) and Microsoft Malaysia, Virtual Malaysia and the National University of Malaysia. This is an effort to enable promotion of rural products using existing e-business sites with ready customer base and global reach, such as virtual Malaysia. Another collaborative effort, which is underway, is between the Ministry of Education, MOICC, MRRD (telecentres) and a private sector e-learning content provider. This e-learning content would be distributed to telecentres under this programme, as it requires low bandwidth and can hence be accessed by rural students using the telecentre facilities.

Impact of the programme

Since the Eighth Malaysia Plan, the programme has, to a large extent, achieved its intended objectives of providing collective access, creating awareness on the capabilities of ICT in improving the community’s socio-economic status and increasing computer literacy among the under served communities. Until 2008, more than 200,000 participants have been trained by the main implementation ministries, namely the MOICC, MRRD and MCMC. The total number of people trained in ICT would be very much higher if those trained by telecentres operated by the state governments and the non-profit organisations are also taken into account. In several locations, the telecentre programme has contributed towards generating economic value to the local community in many different ways.

Challenges towards sustainability

There are still challenges that need to be overcome for better implementation of the telecentre programmes. A main challenge is the sustainability of the programme itself. Several factors, such as low population density, low income, high operating cost, etc, have been identified as challenges of sustaining telecentre programmes. A study is currently being conducted to develop telecentre models that best address the needs of the local community.

Future plan

The focus during the Tenth Malaysia Plan will be on elevating telecentres to provide value, both social and economic, to the underserved communities through the use of ICT. The provision of broadband infrastructure via the nationwide broadband roll out will also upgrade connectivity to the telecentres. A set of measurable targets for BDD need to be identified in order to benchmark our current status. Existing measurement focuses on infrastructure readiness, such as Internet, PC and cellular penetration, etc. Some factors that also need to be measured are ICT literacy rates, number of local content generated and socio-economic benefits to community. The National Coordinating Committee on bridging the digital divide will focus more on coordinating the initiatives undertaken by the numerous stakeholders; development and provision of appropriate and customised content; and improving the management of telecentres through the inculcation of best practices. As the telecentres evolve with the needs of the community, future plans must be considered to ensure continued relevance and sustainability of the telecentres.

Conclusion

Malaysia has made significant headway in projecting telecentres as agents for bridging the digital divide. Several of the initiatives have gained international recognition, such as Eagles’ Nest, for the elderly, e-Homemakers, for housewives and single mothers and the e-Bario. However, more needs to be done to provide opportunities for the underserved groups in Malaysia towards ensuring a more equitable distribution of benefits to all. 

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