May 24, 2002

Telecenters bring Free Software to the whole world

- by Tina Gasperson -
In cities around the United States, there are Kinko's outlets. Patrons can make phone calls,
send and receive faxes, duplicate important documents, and use computers to
connect to the Internet. My local Kinko's is convenient and nice to have
around, but not necessary. I can do all the above at home pretty cheap. And I
can use Linux to do it. Not everyone in the world has the luxury of Kinko's or
home computing equipment.But imagine a place where less than 1% of the population accesses the Internet,
because telephones are scarce, dialup is prohibitively expensive, and not many
people even own a PC, let alone have an AOL account. This is El Salvador, and
Bangladesh, and remote areas of Chile and Argentina. These places and many others,
where the population is effectively cut off from the same information that is freely
available to the rest of us, are the places that really need a Kinko's down the street.

And that's what telecenters are. Francisco J. Proenza, an economist with the
Investment Centre of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United
Nations, along with Roberto Bastidas-Buch at the Telecommunication Development Bureau and Guillermo Montero with the
Inter-American Development Bank, define the telecenter as "a shared site that
provides public access to information and communications technologies." Some
telecenters focus on providing telephone service, but more and more of them are
offering access to the Internet and to productivity software and printers. In
addition to providing the tools, telecenters also provide training to teach
locals who have never used computers how to do it.

According to Proenza et. al., it only costs $15k to $20k in funding from the
United States to open up a basic telecenter in Latin America. But this amount is
drastically reduced by using older hardware and Free Software like the Linux
operating system. Scott Robinson, of the Universidad Metropolitana-Iztapalapa in
Mexico, notes that a low-cost telecenter ideally consists of five or six
networked Linux PCs, connected to the Internet via satellite, dedicated lines,
or dialup to regional ISPs. With this kind of setup, the cost goes way down --
all the necessary software (free of charge) doesn't require the latest
hardware in order to run efficiently.

Perhaps it was the increasing use of telecenters in South America that led
the Peruvian congress to propose a law that would require the government to use
only Free Software. Maybe Congressman Villanueva Nuñez knew about the thriving
telecenter set up for the Ashaninka
about 250 miles west of Lima, Peru.

Before they got wired, the Ashaninka community knew only
hardship and extreme poverty. After their telecenter sprang up, they learned to
make money through the Internet by selling oranges to Lima, which boosted the
tribal income by 10%. They set up a cybercafe. Young men and women in the
community were inspired to hope for a different kind of life, studying to become
programmers or graphic designers. Then the telecenter was burned down by an
arsonist. They're still working to put the pieces back together. If only they'd
used Free Software to begin with, the monetary loss wouldn't have been so great.

Africa and India are making use of the telecenter concept as well. Microsoft is
well aware of this and is making moves to donate software to help the centers
get started. Forward-thinking IT people will see the potential danger in
accepting such a gift -- NewsForge columnist Jack Bryar
points out
that, although Microsoft has said it has no plans to require
license fees from the telecenters, there's no guarantee, and in fact, Microsoft'
s past actions
seem to indicate that it will eventually ask for the money.

Though Microsoft is making moves to be the first technology adopted by remote
rural areas around the world, Linux is poised to snatch its share of the new
territory, too. The buzz is that Linux, along with satellite technology that
provides instant "portable" broadband, is about to show up in Brazil. The World
Economic Forum has already taken action in a program that would use Sony Playstation
consoles, running Linux and equipped with satellite links to access the

If first-timers use Linux and OpenOffice and Netscape/Konqueror/Mozilla/whatever
first, they won't feel a need to use Microsoft products, especially when they
discover how much those products cost compared to the freely available
alternatives. That's why Microsoft doesn't want Open Source software in
telecenters, in government, or in your house.


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