Cyber Cafes and Telecottages: Increasing Public Access to computers and the Internet
This is a report of a survey carried out on cybercafes and telecottages currently operating in the UK. Cybercafes and telecottages provide a novel social environment in which people can get access to computers and the Internet.
Over 300 telecottages and cybercafes in the UK were initially identified. Of these around a quarter were no longer functioning or not yet in operation. Responses to the survey were gained from 62 cybercafes and 86 telecottages. Of those responding 50% have been established since 1996.
Cybercafes and telecottages are not tightly defined or distinct types of organisations. Nevertheless cybercafes are most often found in urban areas, are likely to be private sector operations and to provide computer and Internet access on a commercial basis alongside café or restaurant provisions. In contrast telecottages are more likely to be in rural locations, they may be within the voluntary sector attracting public support, and may offer subsidised training and access linked to community facilities.
Key findings of the survey include:
Cybercafes and Telecottages:
Increasing Public Access to computers and the Internet
Access to goods, services and information, to say nothing of employment and ways of communicating, is increasingly dependent on ones ability to use information technology and the Internet. But how are people expected to learn about, and access such technology? Optimistic commentators assume that it is only a matter of time until everyone will have access to the Internet from their own home, possibly via a set-top box on their television. Such devices are expected to be sufficiently user friendly to present few learning problems for the majority of the population. However there are reasons for doubting whether such a scenario is plausible in the short or even medium term. Universal infrastructure provision looks unlikely in rural areas or on inner city estates. Meanwhile the cost of computers, modems, and links to an Internet service provider remains a substantial investment for many, particularly in the UK with charged local calls. The effective use of technology also requires appropriate skills, know-how and information services in addition to access itself.
In this context fears have been expressed about the creation of a group of information poor: that section of the population excluded from the information society. Such social exclusion is not simply a consequence of lack of money. It may also occur because of an absence of training and other support networks to learn about the potential of the technology and to provide a context in which people feel comfortable using it. It can also come about from an absence of services tailored to the needs of particular groups or to the ways in which they want to access information. As with other areas of social exclusion the consequences are not just a lack of material goods but an impoverishment of a range of social interactions normally associated with being a member of a community and a citizen.
New Types of Public Access Facilities
The privatised notion of universal infrastructural provision with households choosing what services and facilities to purchase or subscribe to can be contrasted with a public sector model with institutions providing access and training. Increasingly traditional sites of learning and information provision such as schools, colleges and libraries are seeking to fill this role. Useful as these provisions undoubtedly are there must be questions about their ability to attract those who are not already strongly motivated to learn or those for whom such facilities have negative associations because of past failures or lack of familiarity.
Most policy proposals limit their focus to these two broad approaches with the US Information Highway model emphasising the infrastructural issues in contrast with the European Information Societys institutional concerns. Yet one of the interesting features of both the USA and Europe is the emergence of new types of innovative organisation. These seek to fill the gap between the wider public and private responses to the problem of providing public access to computers and the Internet.
Two of the most prominent of these organisational innovations are known in the UK as cybercafes and telecottages. There is no firm definition of either but cybercafes tend to be found in urban settings, are likely to be private sector operations, and to provide computer and Internet access on a commercial basis alongside café or restaurant provisions. In contrast telecottages are more likely to be in rural locations, may be run on a voluntary sector basis often with public support, and may offer subsidised training and access linked to community facilities. Little is known about the ability of either type of organisation to support public access: for example how extensively are they used, by whom, and for what purposes. Nor is it clear the extent to which those running these facilities see extending access as part of their objectives and, if so, how they think this can best be achieved.
To begin to answer these questions a survey, using e-mail and where necessary telephone or fax, was carried out of cybercafes and telecottages currently operating in the UK. The sites were identified via membership of associations or appearance on particular web sites. As such organisations were self identified as of one type or the other and in part the survey provides a basis for telling whether such organisations are distinctive in practice. Some of the organisations initially identified were no longer in existence or were not yet operating. These were removed from the list leaving 90 cybercafes and 146 telecottages. Of these 62 responses were received from cybercafes (69% rate) and 86 from telecottages (59% response rate). The questionnaire was directed to those running the facilities but requested information about both the facilities offered and those who used it.
Cybercafes and Telecottages are committed to encouraging new users of computers and the Internet
The vast majority (around 90%) of those running both types of organisation said that their goal included providing access to information and communications technologies to new users. This included providing the necessary training and support. Both were more orientated towards individual users rather than business use and telecottages were more likely to stress that their provision was orientated towards people who lived locally. They had different ideas about what would attract such people. Telecottages most commonly said that the availability of equipment and facilities to which users would not otherwise have access was their main attraction to new users. In contrast cybercafes were more likely to stress their management style and their ability to create a distinctive and attractive environment.
Concerns have been raised about whether particular groups of people, such as women, older people, or the disabled, might be particularly vulnerable to exclusion from the information society. However only a minority of cybercafes and telecottages (around 30%) set out to attract specific groups of users. Of those that did target it was not necessarily towards the groups listed above. A number of cybercafes specifically mentioned young people - a group less usually seen as having problems learning about computers but for whom access may still be difficult. Telecottages were most likely to mention businesses and business users, although job seekers were also referred to. This finding probably needs to be seen in terms of the rural location of most telecottages where the owners of small businesses, including shops, which are a key part of the local economy, may find it difficult to learn about and gain access to computers and the Internet. It may also be a consequence of the priorities set by those funding such ventures.
Cybercafes and telecottages are successful at attracting a wide range of inexperienced computer and Internet users
Both types of organisation are achieving their objective of reaching people not yet fully competent with the new technology. 56% of cybercafes and 77% of telecottages said that half or most of their users were inexperienced with PCs. The comparable figures for the Internet were 67% of cybercafes and 87% of telecottages. This mixture of experienced and inexperienced users may create a novel environment in which people can develop their skills.
In terms of demographic characteristics, both types of organisations attracted a wide range of people. Around half of both types of organisation reported that they had equal numbers of male and female users and a third of telecottages reported that they had more female than male users. In contrast the Which? Online Annual Internet Survey 98 reports that only 35% of UK internet users are women. Those cybercafes that reported an imbalance were most likely (37%) to say that they had more male than female users. In terms of age, the Which? survey reports that 58% of UK Internet users are in the 15-34 age band, 35% are aged 35-54, and only 7% are over the age of 55. Again many of the organisations contacted in our survey appear to be reaching a different and more varied clientele. So 40% of telecottages reported that most of their users were in the 36-50 age group and 10% that most were over 50. Nearly three-quarters of cybercafes did report that most of their users were in the 18-35 age range (as did a quarter of the telecottages) and 15% of cybercafes said that most of their users were under 18. But it was rare for either type of organisation to be overwhelmingly dominated by one age group. Only 11% of cybercafes and 7% of telecottages said that they had most of their users from one age band and few from all other groups.
Somewhat more surprising, in terms of the type of person who might be thought to benefit most from such provisions, was that 47% of cybercafes and 24% of telecottages reported that most of their clientele were in paid work (rather than in full-time education or unemployed or retired). At least some of this group might be expected to encounter information technology in their workplace, and have the resources to purchase equipment for their home. This raises a question for further research of whether there are a significant proportion of users of such facilities who do, or could, gain access to such technology elsewhere but who still value aspects of what cybercafes and telecottages provide. Again few organisations seem to have a homogeneous clientele in terms of economic status. Instead those looking for work, those in work and those in education, with domestic commitments or retired have more than a token presence in most organisations.
Both types of organisation tend to offer facilities on a relatively small scale. Nearly two-thirds of telecottages reported that they had less than 5 computers connected to the Internet. Cybercafes had slightly more facilities on average, being most likely to report that they had between 5 and 9 Internet connected machines. There was a larger difference in terms of the number of daily users. 45% of cybercafes reported 30 or more users per day whereas 42% of telecottages reported having between 1 and 6 users per day. The majority of both types of organisations operated throughout normal office hours. 42% of telecottages and 89% of cybercafes reported some level of weekend or evening opening, usually in addition to full office hours.
Cybercafe and Telecottage facilities are used for a wide range of activities: both work orientated and social
Both types of organisation reported their facilities being used for a wide range of activities. They were asked to rank the following types of activities in terms of their importance to those using the computer facilities: work / employment related activities; educational and training; community / voluntary related; personal use / socialising; and networked game playing. The use of computers and the Internet for socialising and personal use was mentioned as one of their top two activities in 65% of cybercafes. In contrast only 16% of telecottages gave it this prominence. Work / employment and education / training were of greatest importance to telecottages with around 60% of them placing one or both in their top two activities. These activities were also important in cybercafes being mentioned by more than a third of the sample. Community activities were one of the two most important activities for 28% of telecottages but only 13% of cybercafes. Networked game playing was in the top two for 31% of cybercafes but only 6% of telecottages.
These differences are broadly in line with differences in the types of organisation. Cybercafes, as the name suggests, are usually linked to food and drink provision encouraging drop-in or casual use. They stress their social environment and some are linked to other social or cultural facilities such as arts centres. Telecottages have aimed to provide work and training opportunities for those in isolated locations and some are linked to established community centres. The different type of use also seems to be in line with the slight differences in demographic characteristics of users of the two types of facility.
These different types of social location and the variation in use made of the computer and Internet facilities may also explain, at least in part, the greater number of people who seem to visit cybercafes. The location of cybercafes facilities both in an urban environment and associated with food and drink is likely to mean that there will be a substantial number of passers by who may be tempted to drop in. In addition the emphasis on personal and social activities - a key element of which is e-mail - is more likely to be of short duration than the work and educational uses which are more important to telecottages. We did not ask detailed questions about charging but this may also be a factor in the amount of time an individual user spends in a telecottage or cybercafe.
National and Local Government could provide a range of different types of support to sustain cybercafes and telecottages
Cybercafes and telecottages, as other small organisations, seem to have a high turnover rate. If, as appears, they are providing a valuable service then it is important to understand what factors might reduce that vulnerability. The majority of respondents from cybercafes thought that it was in their own hands, arguing that a flexible commercially orientated approach was what was needed to keep such organisations viable. This is not simply an issue of how much is charged for facilities but also of what is provided in what sort of environment. About a quarter of telecottage respondents agreed with this view suggesting that some at least think there is a way to survive without subsidies. However a third of telecottages thought sustainability depended on more stable and freely available public funds or other types of subsidy. This may reflect a lack of experience with other ways of operating since it was a view rarely expressed by the cybercafes. Alternatively the mix of activities they are offering, or the population they cater to, might make this a less viable approach for them.
In response to a question about what National and Local government could do to support them some cybercafes said they should do little more than leave them alone. Some described public sector subsidised provision of Internet access via libraries as unfair competition which threatened their survival and should be stopped. More positively, around a sixth of both cybercafes and telecottages suggested that local government could support them, and promote wider access and training, by buying services from them on behalf of particular groups - a model akin to that of schools purchase of leisure centre or swimming pool provisions. However a substantial minority of both telecottages (42%) and cybercafes (29%) would favour more direct subsidies either in the form of funds or tax relief of some sort. The model of rate rebates, applicable already to some village shops, might be appropriate here.
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