Sustainability Failures of Rural Telecenters: Challenges from the Sustainable Access in Rural India (SARI) Project

Michael L. Best, Rajendra Kumar

Abstract


We have examined longitudinally an ICT for a development project in rural India, closely watching activities and surveying users at as many as 100 Internet facilities in more than 50 different villages. The Sustainable Access in Rural India (SARI) project in Tamil Nadu, India, enjoyed many successes, including palpable—albeit localized—social and economic development impacts as well as the incubation of an—albeit inconsistently—celebrated ICT for a development start-up company (n-Logue Communications Pvt. Ltd.). Ultimately, however, the SARI project did not sustain itself. In the particular outcomes reported here, we follow the prospects of 36 private telecenters which were opened at various times between November 2001 and February 2004. By May 2005, 32 of these 36 telecenters had closed. However, in the same time period, most of 42 telecenters in the same area that were opened and run by a local NGO continued to function. We provide a comparative analysis between these two groups of facilities. We find that the best explanation for variation in a kiosk lifespan was their level of satisfaction with n-Logue Communications. Moreover, those sites that did express satisfaction with their institutional and technical support were in service for, on average, an additional year compared with dissatisfied sites. In addition to technical and operational support issues, we find that the lack of long-term financial viability was a major reason for the closure of the private telecenters. Financial sustainability was not realized by many centers; indeed, 85% of the operators interviewed cited finances as a major cause for their closure. Finally, telecenters that were owned by individuals with prior training in computers, or that had a separate trained operator, remained operational for a longer period.

Keywords


ICT; development; rural India; sustainable access; digital divide; ICT4D; telecenters

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