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Universal Access - TELECOTTAGE & TELECENTRE SURVEY 1998
 

Analysis by Bill Murray & Dominic Cornford

Small World Connections

A survey of Telecottages & Telecentres was first carried out by SWC and the TCA in 1994. The results of that survey were published in the Feb/March 1995 edition of the Teleworker magazine. In the first half of 1998 SWC & the TCA sent out a revised version of the original 1994 questionnaire to around 150 UK & Irish Telecentres & Telecottages. One third of the telecentres/telecottages responded to the questionnaire and a review of their responses is provided in this article.

Summary

The 1998 Telecottages & Telecentres Survey confirms many of the findings of the 1994 Survey but also highlights some interesting new trends in the development of the "Telecottage/Telecentre Model". Twice as many Centres are now making a profit than was the case in 1994 but the number of loss-making Centres remains about the same - at around a third. There has been an increased emphasis on training as a major activity for Centres and the provision of Internet related services (eg. Internet training and internet access) has also become an important focus and is expected to increase in importance. There has been a slight increase in the proportion of Centres providing sub-contracted work for local teleworkers.

Over half of the Centres responding to the survey have been established since the results of the last survey were originally published in early 1995. It has been estimated that there are currently around 200 Telecottages/Telecentres in the UK & Ireland and - although exact figures have been impossible to obtain - it is felt that numbers have increased by approximately a half since the last survey.

What's in a Name?

Use of the term "telecottage" to describe teleworking Centres is diminishing. In 1994 only two out of five respondents described their Centres as Telecottages and now only one in five do so. Around 15% prefer to use the term "telecentre" and a similar number refer to themselves as "business Centres". The remaining 25 Centres used 23 different titles to describe themselves! Other titles included Community Resource Centre, IT Centre and Telematics Centre.

Image 1

In the 1994 Survey we found that only half of the respondents considered their centre to be located in a rural (11) or village (14) location –with the rest located in towns or cities. This had been a surprising result which did not fit with the experience of either SWC or the TCA. Accordingly for the 1998 Survey we expanded the number of "area" categories from 4 to 6 including splitting "town" into small and large categories. This has resulted in what appear to be more realistic figures with the vast majority of Centres (88%) falling within the rural or small town definitions.

Opening Time!

In 1994 over half of the Centres had been in operation since 1992 or earlier - with 7 new Centres having been established in the first half of 1994. However, over half of the respondents to the new survey had not even existed in 1994. This latest finding either suggests a continuing upsurge in the establishment of teleworking Centres or the fact that the older Centres are fed up with completing questionnaires - or have gone out of business. Whilst it is obvious that a number of Centres have ceased trading in the last 4 years it is felt that the results confirm the generally held view that the total number of Centres continues to increase. The current "best guess" of numbers suggests a possible 50% increase in numbers - from around 130 in 1994 to approximately 200 in 1998. (However, it should be borne in mind that these figures are estimates.)

Ownership and Funding

Almost 30% of the responding Centres are privately owned – an small increase from 1994 – and a similar percentage are funded primarily by central or local government (a small decrease) The remaining 40% have a mixture of public / voluntary / co-operative structures. Of the 15 private Centres all but one started life as privately funded. In fact very few Centres have changed their ownership structure – with only one moving from public funded to private funding and two changing to charitable status from public sector ownership.

The provision of grants, equipment and other funds obviously played a large part in the initial start-up of almost three quarters of the Centres. Funding included assistance from the European Commission (especially ERDF & various EC Programme Grants), TECs, Local & Central Government, RDC, SRB and companies (e.g. BT, Barclays, Apple). Privately funded Centres relied on the personal resources of the owners, bank loans, subsidies from existing businesses and "borrowed" equipment.

Just over one third of the Centres now rely entirely on commercial operations. Some of the other Centres have a predominately commercial focus but rely (to varying degrees) on training grants, local authority support or European Union funded initiatives to balance the books. However, almost 40% of the Centres rely almost entirely on some form of on-going public funding for their continued existence.

Image 2

It would appear that fewer Centres now have their premises provided at a favourable rent. Whereas only 12 of the Centres paid a market rent in 1994 that number has now increased to 20 (40%). However, the number of Centres provided with totally rent free accommodation has remained stable at around 30%.

The new survey also asked the Centres whether they were now part of a formal network of Centres or stand-alone Centres. Although the vast majority existed "in isolation it was interesting to note that over a third were part of a network of Centres. (This aspect will be followed up in further research.)

Financial Position

Over half of the respondents provided an estimate of their annual revenue. This figure was broken into two parts – commercial income and grant (or other) income. Due to the relatively small sample size and the large spread of the figures provided the "average" (or mean) figure does not provide a very representative result. Instead we have relied on the "median" – which takes better account of the "skew" caused by responses which are "untypical" (e.g. one Centre claimed to have an annual income of £2million) .

The median level of grant received per annum (excluding those who claimed not to receive any grants) came to £29,750. The median income level was £25,000 per annum – although one Centre claimed to have an income of £500,000 per annum. A "representative" total turnover figure could therefore be expected to be around £60,000 per annum.

Image 3

More than twice as many of the Centres were making a profit now compared with 1994 and two thirds of Centres were either profitable, or broke even, in the last financial year. We also asked the Centres to indicate what their performance last year should have been. This revealed that of the 14 loss making Centres 8 had "intended/expected" to be loss making last year (generally those receiving public support for almost all of their running costs).

Comparing these two sets of figures reveals that around 85% of Centres were performing according to plan with only 6 centres making a loss which should have either been breaking even or making a profit.

Staff & Users

Staffing of the Centres appears to have undergone a change since 1994. The average number of full-time staff has risen (from 1.5 to over 2), whilst the numbers of part-time (down from 2 to 1) and volunteer staff (down from 1.5 to 1) have decreased. However, these averages hide a diverse pattern with more than 60% having no volunteers or sub-contracted staff and 10% of Centres having over 5 full-time staff and 4 Centres having over 5 sub-contracted staff.

Image 4

It would appear that telecottages are not used primarily as a "regular workplace" for large numbers of people. Only 3 Centres said that more than 10 people (other than staff) used the Centre as a regular place of work, whilst over two thirds of the Centres had no users of this type at all.

However, the picture was quite different with regard to "drop-in" type users. Whilst 7 Centres had no occasional or regular/frequent "drop-in" type users the vast majority did have a large number of both regualr and occasional users of this type – with over 20% of centres claiming in excess of 50 of both types of users. The average number per Centre came to around 30 frequent users and an additional 30 occasional users. This picture of usage suggests either that Centres are not being used as much as they were in 1994 or respondees are being more honest/conservative in their calculations of usage.

(In 1994 almost half of the Centres had more than 30 regular users of their facilities and in excess of 40 occasional users. One third of the Centres were above the 50 regular and 50 occasional user levels and almost 1 in 5 claimed to have in excess of 100 users of each type.)

Technology

The Centres have moved into the on-line world since the last Survey – which revealed that although more than two thirds had modems less than a half provided on-line database or email access. Now 100% of Centres have Internet access and 82% have a website. Local Area Networks are in use in three out of five Centres and well over half use ISDN lines. Half of the Centres also claimed to have Direct Internet Connection.

Activities & Services

The provision of office services (photocopying, fax etc.) and word processing continue to be important activities for almost all telecottages. Other generally important services include training (especially IT and Internet training), equipment access and desk top publishing.

Image 5

This list, however, masks the fact that some Centres were focusing on less obvious, but more profitable (?) activities as one of their major service offerings. This list included: language translation; bookkeeping; recruitment; abstracting; website maintenance; and commercial & tourist information service provision. Call Centre & message taking services were also growing – although perhaps not as prevalent as some press articles had been suggesting.

Respondents were also asked to describe changes which had occurred in the last three years and changes expected in the next three years with respect the services provided and the Centres commercial activities. Once again a wide variety of opinions were provided – representing the differing aspirations, objectives and experiences of a diverse group of organisations. Some threads were able to be drawn from this

  • Last 3 years
  • more emphasis on training (mentioned by 10 respondents)
  • internet activities increasing in importance (5)
  • local service provision more important than initially thought (2)
  • Next 3 years
  • even more emphasis on training (11)
  • more internet related work (10)
  • more commercial work (10)
  • likely to fold (2)

On-going Research

This article provided an overview of findings to date. Further analysis of the survey results and an investigation of Telecottage/Telecentre experience – based on case study investigations - is being carried out by Small World Connections in association with the TCA. The resulting report will be made available in 1999. Aspects of this research are being supported by Manchester City Council as part of its’ contribution to the research effort of the European Telecities Group.

For more details on the survey results contact Bill Murray at Small World Connections

(Tel: 0161 445 0630 or email small_world@compuserve.com). This article and some of the supporting analysis will also be made available via the TCA website

(INTERESTING NOTE: The questionnaires were initially sent out in email format for a quick response. Less than 20 Centres responded to the emails and we reverted to the more standard mailed-out questionnaire.)

 

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Updated : 2001-07-04