Teleworking and the Growth of Community Networks.
Paper given the second international conference on Telework held in Amsterdam from 2nd September to 5th September 1997.
Let me first of all offer some clarifications of terminology. By ‘telecentre’ I mean a building or location offering facilities which support teleworking. By ‘teleworking’ I mean economic activity that involves the use of ICTs as a core business function. By ‘community networks’ I mean ICT mediated connections among a group of users. ICT means Information and Communications Technologies.
If we look at what we might call a ‘classical’ model of a telecentre, we would see a building, probably in a rural area, in which we would find computers, printers, software, most likely a photocopier. IT might also have a scanner and a rack of leaflets and brochures about local business support services, what the council does, where to get advice about tax and so on. In the UK and in some parts of Europe, telecentres are sometimes called ‘telecottages’. In the UK well over half of all the units listed by the Telework and Telecottage Association as being telecentres have names that include neither the word ‘telecentre’ or the work ‘telecottage’ but which are called by some business or community name, for example Adur Resource Centre, BOON Ltd, Colne Valley Trust Business Services. All the TCA listed units have had to pass selection criteria in order to be listed in its directory and hence they can be referred to as telecentres, even if they are not called that.
Telecentres emerged in the mid 80s as a response to the demand for access to IT but at a time when PCs were not as affordable as they are today. The first telecottage to open in the UK was the Moorlands Telecottage near Buxton and it is still there today. The first telecottages in Europe started a few years earlier in Sweden but as a concept they were born in the United States where a range of projects and initiatives began to make computing facilities available to people in local communities.
Now  there are about 160 telecentres in the UK in membership of the Telecottages and Teleworkers Association (the TCA). There are some chains of telecentres such as those being developed in Devon – the RATIO project – designed to put some 40 local centres into place across the county. In Norfolk there are half a dozen telecentres established by partnerships and funded by Europe and similarly Powys has a network of local centres. In general however telecentres in the UK tend to be individual units and the majority of them are supported by public funding to some extent, primarily in their first few years before they make the transition to sustainable business. Many are purely business units but most perform dual business and community roles.
The majority are one off projects created locally by people or groups. Very many of them now offer access to the Internet. They are not Cybercafes – there is also a UK network of independently run Cybercafes that offer access to the Internet. The primary function of the telecentre is to provide a physically accessible location for access to Information Technology and its supporting functions of training, consultancy and maintenance.
A map showing the location of the telecentres across the UK indicates that they range from the Islands of Scotland down to the South West peninsula with a concentration in Wales and perhaps something of a scarcity in the Midlands. Despite its population concentration and its large rural counties, the Midlands is not well served by telecentres.
Teleworking is a very varied phenomena. It is a form of economic activity that has very open and permeable boundaries. I would argue however that there are some characteristics of teleworking that are essential to its being a definable activity.
There are three defining characteristics of teleworking: the first is working with Information Technology. Teleworking is largely about knowledge or information based activities. It would be difficult to regard someone who does not use a computer as a teleworker. It is often confused with home working. Many teleworkers do work at home but not all and it is not an essential characteristic. There are many home workers who do not use computers as a prime business function; there are home workers who happen to use computers as do many self-employed people or small businesses and there are home workers who have no computers at all and would never need one. A person who receives work in the post from a remote client, processes it without the use of IT and delivers it back by post could claim to be a teleworker and would indeed fit some of the criteria. Hence my argument that the definition is open and not watertight but I don’t think this what most people would regard as teleworking.
Secondly, teleworking, in essence, involves working over distance, involving some form of telecommunications medium such as e-mail, FTP, ISDN and so on. It is possible to telework with a telephone and a fax machine but this would be a very marginal form of teleworking. The mainstream of telework is computer based and in fact ICT oriented. The ability to send files along telephone lines has always been seen to be an important aspect of teleworking and has been possible for over fifteen years now. Some teleworkers have sent their products by computer disk rather than by file transfer. Some are multi-tasking with a portfolio of clients and their output and mode of delivery might vary from one job to another.
Thirdly, it involves the delivery of work to a remote employer to customer or client. This involves a contractual or management relationship different to that normally associated with face to face work in offices. Teleworkers can be employees, self employed or members of a small business, collective or virtual team. There is no point in talking about getting a job as a teleworker: it is a mistake people make who misunderstand the terminology. I often say to them: would you look for a job as an employee? No, of course not. So no one works as a teleworker. People do teleworking as part of their job or business. Some teleworkers have just one customer (possibly an employer) and others have many customers. The key characteristic is that they are far enough away from each other that the cost of traveling to face to face encounters is more than the cost of telecommuting. Another feature is that the telework owns his own means of production and maintains his own workplace but that on its own is not a sufficient characteristic.
3. Telework and Patterns of Work.
Patterns of work are changing and this has fuelled the recent growth of and interest in teleworking together with other forms of flexible patterns of work. The job for life has disappeared and the full time, permanent job is becoming increasingly rare. Jobs as being replaced by contracts, self employment and piece work. Corporations have downsized and shed tiers of specialists and middle managers as they have adopted flatter management structures and have sub-contracted specialist functions. Increasing investment in technology has reduced the need for technical posts. This has in some areas flooded the market with people who need to replace the full time permanent job with some form of self employment.
Telecentres do support teleworkers but alongside other species of self-employed worker and micro business. They also support volunteers from local communities and provide resources for the employed teleworker. They often perform both business incubation and community support functions.
The number of teleworking employees has grown steadily as large companies have realised the economic benefits to be gained from offer teleworking is one of a number of flexible working practices. This grow has been supported by the market for ICT: costs have reduced comparatively but at the same time the productivity of the technology has increased. Teleworking still remains however a marginal mode of working even within ‘white collar’ and professional occupations. No UK government has yet adopted taxation policies designed to offer incentives to employers to developing teleworking. The increasing costs of transport (especially commuter transport) has also pushed teleworking and as urban traffic congestion increases and the cost per mile of commuting increases, so the pressure towards teleworking will grow.
4. Community Networks (C-Nets)
The 1970s and 80s saw the rise of the low cost personal computer. The last 80s and the 90s have witnesses the mass ownership of PCs. The 90s have seen the phenomenal growth of the Internet. These trends in the IT market have resulted in the development and spread of community networks – C-nets – as ICTs have become more accessible and affordable. Underlying these trends in IT have been fundamental changes in the power and sophistication of telephone networks. There has been a convergence of telephone and computer technologies.
Terrestrial telephone networks have increased in power and sophistication. Teleworking products have been developed for the small office and home office markets. ISDN is becoming less expensive, mobile phone or satellite telephone networks have grown enormously and the traditional copper wire has been replaced by fibre optic and satellite connections over many of the principle trunk routes.
In response to these trends in the technology, C-nets have arisen, driven by economic, education and social agendas. Often these came into being (in the USA) by colleges or libraries reaching out into the community to bring in people who were otherwise unable or unwilling to access the resources they had to offer. The features that distinguish C-Nets from other activities on the Internet are (a) the offer a diverse range of information, (b) they serve all sectors of the community and (c) they offer and encourage levels of interaction from email to synchronous conferencing. But above all they are people-focused and place-oriented. This definition can be found on the web site of UK Communities On-Line, the organisation that acts as the focus for C-Nets in the UK. David Miller of Sheffield University has written a paper discussing types of electronic information networks [commities.org.uk]
David focuses on geographical networks rather than those which function as a community of interest. He argues that C-Nets should be free at the point of access and owned and controlled by the communities served. A comprehensive list of local community networks in the UK can be found communities.org.uk [no longer on this website].
The significance of C-Nets for teleworking is that they perform functions that are similar to telecentres in supporting individual teleworkers. Local C-Nets can act as distributed telecentres, providing teleworkers with many of the functions previously available only at telecentres. C-Nets can support both geographical communities and communities of interest. The Telework Forum at America on Line is a community of interest, being a network mediated group of teleworkers, mainly from the UK but with some from North America and Europe, receiving support and interacting with each other via the Internet.
5. The World Wide Growth in C-Nets
Freenets came into being in the USA and Canada and then found a foothold in Europe. They have now arrived in the UK having become a world wide phenomenon. The first Freenet was established in Cleveland, Ohio in 1986 and is now said to be the “largest community network in the world”.
Freenet Finland is an Internet based network for Finnish elementary, secondary and high schools that provides free access to the Internet. It enables the whole community to gain access to learning. It is financed by the National Board for Education and its costs about 95,000 per year and has some 70,000 subscribers.
To take another example, the Seattle Community Network is a free, public computer network run by volunteers. It is committed to running equal access to information for all users. User registration is free and includes an e-mail account. Visitors can read Usenet newsgroups, participate in forums and join some face to face activities including regular general meetings of the users. Many neighbourhoods, environmental groups, arts groups, political parties, schools, health care and social advocates, outdoor clubs and others discuss their activities on this network. The SCN is a non-profit organisation [www.scn.org].
Cheap internet access in the US has in some areas resulted in about half the population being on line on a regular basis. An article in the Washington Post (May 1997) reports that more than 50% of the 37,000 residents of Blacksburg, VA, regularly use the Internet. E-mail is the most popular activity followed by personal web pages and reading on-line news. A recent survey discovered that people often spend as much as an hour a day dealing with e-mail. Some voluntary organisations have reported increased attendance at face to face meetings as a result of publishing notices about them on the Internet.
Community networks offer much more than just information or communications. They offer multiple functions: (a) Information through web pages, e-mailing lists, on-line newsletters, newsgroups (b) Communications through e-mail and chat rooms (c) Training either on line or face to face, formal courses and skills exchange programmes and (d) Access to IT and software through the provisional of kiosks, terminals and resource centres.
Where connectivity is concerned, C-nets can network through the Internet, through cable intranets or through wireless. A full community network is more than just hardware and connectivity: it involves agendas that are about community support and change. They can provide a platform for business incubation, learning, entertainment, debate, net-activism, democracy or youth work. They are infrastructures for the delivery of community development or social action and for the support and maintenance of various forms of economic activity.
C-nets have many features and functions available to them and have the capacity to become information rich. Hence one of the most important features is content. Web sites are becoming ubiquitous and information is becoming available through web browsers as a standard medium for navigation and display. Some of the information systems set up using Teletext are now converting to Internet compatible web browsers. Other information systems rely on touch screen technology which has become very sophisticated in recent years.
The characteristics of community networks therefore include (a) organised providers and users of information, (b) provision of an information rich system generating organised and navigable content, (c) open public access or registered users, (d) connectivity through telephone dialup, cable or wireless, (e) social and community agendas including civic engagement, democracy, citizen empowerment, business support, incubation and regeneration, social and cultural enrichment, a medium for community communication.
These networks grow out of pre-existing communities, providing a medium that will to be some extent replace paper with electronics. The first generation of C-nets were very text based using bulletin board techniques. HTML’s growth allowed more graphical content to develop and content to become livelier and more colourful. Improvements in the technology and software permitted interactive techniques, such as chat to enrich communications.
Local governments are beginning to see the potential for using ICTs to gather feedback from service users. There has always been and no less so now a considerable use of ICTs in the field of education. The voluntary sector is gradually taking up Internet functions but is one of the slowest sectors to move in this direction.
6. Telecenters versus community networks
Telecentres have played their part in providing access to IT but that role is now being challenged as PCs become cheaper, modems become cheaper and more and more computers are being brought on-line. This enables C-nets to provide remote access to facilities such as printers, high spec peripherals and software banks. What I envisage is that telecentres will become smaller and will cease to provide much in the way of access to PCs but will concentrate on providing high specification and high value facilities that can be accessed remotely. They might take on the role of resource and training centres for local communities of self employed people, teleworkers and those running offices at home. They will need to base their business plans not on casual users but on contract users who contribute to subscriptions and sub-contract packages on an annual basis. There will be insufficient demand for access to PCs and mass consumption software to sustain these as viable business units on that function alone.
There will still be demand for access but through existing community channels such as schools, colleges, libraries and community centres rather than through specialist units such as telecentres. Telecentres need to be compared with networks in terms of the access facilities that they provide.
The future pattern of service provision envisaged here is of small resource hubs comprising servers supporting a small amount of direct hands on utilisation but with a much large amount of remote utilisation. High value, high capacity printers will be accessed by remote users and the output couriered or posted back, depending on quality and distance. Some out put might be manually channelled into the postal services. Some units might offer call centre and paper handling services for contract clients. Training, consultancy and maintenance services as part of the service agreements will enhance business viability and sustainability.
Connectivity will be in the form of subscription intranets based on ISDN or fibre optic cabling. These intranets, offering a higher level of content and systems management than the public Internet, will incorporate an array of digital conferencing functions, including white boarding techniques, video conferencing, increasing utilisation of audio platforms and much more sophisticated e-mail. They will enable use of applications similar to Lotus Notes.
All telecentres need staffing of some kind: the majority of telecentres have paid staff to run then though I suspect many depend heavily on volunteers. This imposes costly overheads. In addition the buildings themselves are costly overheads with a range of running expenses. By comparison networks are capital rather than labour intensive. The overheads of C-nets can be spread amongst a much larger number of users; even the largest telecentres probably will not have more than 20 or 30 people using their facilities at peak times. C-Nets can support hundreds or even thousands of simultaneous users. The comparisons pose a number of problems of course. In C-nets the working capital involves the users owning their own equipment; in Telecentres, users come in and rent equipment and software. C-net users do not of course use their computers solely for the purpose of accessing the network.
Unit costs of telecentres are likely to be higher than those for C-Nets because overhead costs can be spread amongst a much higher population of users. The producers in telecentres are comparatively few: often only the staff working in them. But in C-Nets all users are potentially producers. Any users who contributes a comment, piece of information or message to the system become one of a multitude of content producers. C-Nets are more likely than are telecentres to have a multiplicity of people and groups involved in information provision, content management, training and advice provision and development functions.
7. The impact of C-Nets on Teleworking
The needs of teleworkers for training and support services will probably not change very much during the growth of C-Nets but the means for meeting these needs will. Teleworkers will access support functions on-line rather than by a visit to a local telecentre. The connectivity of both the local C-Net and the global Internet will generate more and more scope for collaborative working. Teleworkers will have increased potential for working together in teams, exchanging skills, information and knowledge, forming virtual businesses and securing contracts collectively that would be denied to them as individuals.
As markets become increasingly global, so too will producers. C-Nets are both geographical and interest-oriented. It is quite possible for there to be a C-Net for teleworkers at European level and indeed the ETO (European Telework On-Line) is just about there in the range of functions it delivers.
Local C-Nets can and do support teleworkers by meeting those informational, communications and training needs are a best provided on a local basis. C-Nets can help to develop teleworking locally and provide forums and packages for teleworkers. Companies might be more willing to allow employees to telework if they knew that there was a local C-Net which would provide support. The cost of deploying teleworkers would decrease a little if some support services were to be provided by the C-Net rather than the company. Some local governments in the UK are providing teleworking employees with support services through telecentres and neighbourhood offices but there is scope to also provide these services on-line. Both national and local governments should encourage the growth and development of C-Nets as infrastructures for business, education and community needs. There should be a synergy between local C-Nets and the Internet.
The growth of ICTs is likely to present a serious challenge to the continuation of telecentres in their present form. There is no reason to conclude that telecentres will become extinct but their role and function is likely to change considerably as C-nets become more and more common. Instead of producing access to computers, C-Nets are likely to radically curtail this service or cease it altogether. If they continue to provide access to software it will be through file transfer, allowing down loading of software files or through client-server use – allowing the user access to software packages on-line. Telecentres in C-net areas are likely to become very much smaller and to operate mainly as part of the C-Net. Their main function will be to provide access to peripherals – high specification and high cost equipment that most users could not afford to own individually and who would use such machines relatively infrequently.
Telecentres as part of C-Nets are likely to offer high specification colour printing, a variety of presentation and graphical technologies, on-line software libraries and a variety of multi-media support facilities. In a nutshell the telecentre will be an on-line facility concentrating on providing access to equipment or software which is either too expensive or too low-use for the individual user to maintain.
C-Nets will lead to much more collaborative working of people within business communities. In fact, the availability of the technology will incubate virtual businesses. This has already begun to happen, with teams and virtual companies already being a familiar aspect of cyberspace. What we are likely to see is the development of knowledge managers, such as professionals with higher degree qualifications being supported by the system, a range of technicians with skills and competencies in various niches of the emergent work market and clerical and administrative support workers covering a range of functions.
Hence what we will see is the replacement of the electronic village hall by the electronic business centre. Facilities previously concentrated in buildings will be invested in networks and distributed over a wider geographical community. Telecentres are likely to experience a transition from being free-standing, independent units to being adjuncts to other community operations. It will become less and less necessary to have dedicated employees running such centres. The new breed of C-Net telesupport hubs are likely to merge with the servers for the C-Nets . Some telecentres might well grasp the nettle and start up C-Nets themselves and replace on-site with on-line users.
The creation and development of C-Nets will have far reaching impacts on work markets (previously called labour markets or job markets). In our vision the word job will become an anachronism. Economic activity will become more varied than in the past, including a wider variety of modes of income creation.
Urban areas will no longer need to provide the main location for economic activity. In the knowledge economy, networking will allow people to live in rural and suburban areas. Transportation will become more diffuse with commuter rush hours diminishing. One area where change is required is education. We need to find ways of stemming the increasing tide of women driving children to school at set times. Schools need to become resource centres.
At present there are intentions of providing schools with internet connections as though this was something experimental with perhaps one computer having a dialup internet account. We think this piecemeal approach should be avoided in favour of a much more strategic approach to community networking.
In order to make C-nets work effectively, there needs to be a coherent and comprehensive telematics strategy at local authority or regional level. This can be achieved through joint public and private investments.
Trevor Locke was the Proprietor of Event and Project Services.