THE CONCEPT IS FAIRLY SIMPLE: USF pays the Broadband Service Providers to set up Telecenters at selected villages and hand those over to selected rural organizations, who would run these on a self-sustainable basis.

The experiences gained by USF from endeavors such as the so-called ‘Community Broadband Centers’ (under USF Broadband program), the pilot project of providing broadband to few existing rural ‘Computer Centers’, the studies carried out by World Bank consultants SATC and later the USF consultants, re-affirms the maxim jis ka kaam ussi ko sajhe! Tasks should be left to those who specialize in them. In other words: let the Broadband Service Providers do what they are best at – providing broadband – and the rural organizations do what they are best at – mobilizing rural communities, creating awareness and helping the rural folk get most out of ICTs!

There are a total of four entities involved – the Universal Tele-Center (UTC) itself, Universal Service Fund (USF), Broadband Service Provider (BSP) and the rural organisation which will run it – call it Universal Tele-Center Operator (UTCO).

The Telecenter (UTC) consists of 10 modern PCs with a Printer, a Fax-cum-copier-cum-scanner, necessary furniture, powered by a solar UPS and hooked up to 2MB Broadband connection of the BSP – all paid for by USF! All that the BSP has to do from there is to keep the 2MB connection alive (also paid for) and be available (either his own people or through his selected equipment vendor) to assist the UTCO in technology issues.

The BSPs will be selected by inviting them, to compete to get the “subsidies”, through national Press and Websites. The successful BSPs will be those who ask for lowest subsidies on UTC-to-UTC basis. The process – as is usual with USF – is completely open and transparent.

The UTCO is also not left entirely on his own. First he gets free electricity (Solar solution). Plus he gets Free 2MB broadband for first 3 years. And all his equipment would be covered with 3-year warrantees.

UTCs would be expected to ‘at least’ provide email, general purpose computing facilities, fax, photocopying, printing, scanning, computer training (esp. internet usage), basic ICT education, basic e-Government functions like downloading & printing of forms, video chatting with friends/relatives abroad etc.

Self-sustainability is a key issue of Telecenters across the world. Therefore UTCOs will only be from amongst organisations with stakes/presence in rural areas, like Rural Support Programs, Rural NGOs, corporate entities with operations in rural areas (or their CSR units), local entrepreneurs/communities, etc. etc. To ensure that they also have a stake in the process, they have to cater for the premises, necessary human resource and the day-to-day running costs. They are supposed to recover these costs (and also earn) by “selling” the services – entrepreneurial model!

UTCOs will be provided training in not only how to run computers but also on how to run telecenters as small businesses. To help UTCOs create additional revenue streams USF will provide initial hand-holding in establishing services like utility bills payment, branchless banking, etc.

To further help sustainability, initially these telecenters will be set up only in large villages (minimum population 5,000), with additional “catchment population” of surrounding villages (exceptions for sparsely populated areas like Balochistan).

For the selected villages it does not end here. Each telecenter is proposed to have an outdoor hotspot covering the village with WiFi. So if the local school, or the basic health unit, or the union council, or the bank branch, or for that matter an individual who gets his own laptop/smart-phone – all – should be able to access broadband. This too will be initially subsidised but the BSP will run it on his own and may charge the hot-spot usage (tariff not to be higher than corresponding tariff in the cities).

Before the launch of the first phase, a Pilot Project of 24 Telecenters, 6 in each province, is being launched (Advert of 30th July 2011) to test different models in different areas. Phase 1 of the main project, consisting of several hundred UTCs, will be launched after incorporating the lessons learnt, refining the process and getting the necessary USF Board approval.

There are a number of threats and challenges to the program in current circumstances, like difficulties in access to some areas, lack of content in regional languages, maintenance/support issues and the interest of BSPs. It may surprise the readers that, in USF’s experience, the last one is a huge issue. Very few BSPs like to participate when it comes to rural – perhaps understandably. That is why in this scheme everything is paid for the BSPs. I would like to end by urging all BSPs to PLEASE participate. Undaunted by the conditions around us, let us keep trying to do our bit to bring this nation up.