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Internet Point of Presence in Lebanon

The Professional Computer Association internet Point of Presence (PiPoP) presents itself as a worthy model for establishing telecentres.It currently hosts 50 telecentres that cover the different rural areas of Lebanon. Mr. Nizar Zakka, Secretary General of....


Internet Point of Presence in Lebanon

The Professional Computer Association (PCA) internet Point of Presence (PiPoP) presents itself as a worthy model for establishing telecentres (http://www.pipop.org). PiPoP currently hosts 50 telecentres that cover the different rural areas of Lebanon. Mr. Nizar Zakka, Secretary General of the Union of Arab ICT Associations (IJMA3) and PCA. The description that Mr. Zakka presented of this program was very exciting. It had a great blend of activities that position it to be an exemplary model. It integrates community ownership, capacity building, an internet community development, content development and a mini incubation program in a sustainable model. The model presents itself as the most complete model I have seen thus far in my study in the MENA region. As a matter of fact I am looking forward to visiting as many of these centres as I can during my stay in Lebanon.

The PiPOP presents an effort to bridge the digital divide of rural communities in Lebanon. The program provides the initial infrastructure through PCA (infrastructure includes PCs, UPS, wiring, and furniture). This is done through contributions of PCA's several partners and donor organizations. A typical PiPOP contains 10 connected PCs in addition to an internet connection (they can be as low as 5 and as many as 25). The internet connectivity is an in-kind contribution provided by the ISP members of PCA. In addition to providing technical support to these telecentres, networking activities and public events, PCA provides a ToT for community leaders. The community provides a suitable and easily accessible space. The community must also demonstrate the need for the telecentre and provide suitable candidates to manage the centre from the local community. These candidates, usually five, receive this ToT that covers in addition to a standard ICT introduction, a telecentre management program. A major criteria in selecting these candidates is that they will most probably remain in the community.

One of the key factors that contribute to the success of this program is the fact that communities take ownership of this program, and hence most of the non-financial factors of sustainability are met. As a matter of fact, this will also make financial sustainability an easily accomplished task. The community ownership of the program is further enhanced through the flexibly provided by PiPOP in management policies. The community is allowed to develop the means by which it wishes to manage the centre rather than having a certain procedure enforced. In addition to helping nourish the community ownership, this communal approach makes centres more appealing to the community to have their children use computers. This is also true even in larger towns where access is available elsewhere. The appeal is more profound with girls in rural communities where cyber cafés are perceived as hangouts for youth rather then a place for development.

The PiPOPs provide capacity building programs in basic ICT in addition to providing internet access. The centres charge fees for these services that help create sustainability. As a matter of fact, some of the centres that have matured have expanded their facilities through adding PC and upgrading them rather the replacing equipment. This was achieved through the collected finances and through donations from local communities. The program also creates a digital community of users and centres. Each user of these telecentres, as well as each center itself, is given an email address on the PiPOP domain. This allows for easy access to the centre, in addition to access to a broad community within rural Lebanon. The emails of the centres promotes the networking between the centres, not only through automatic online updates, but by providing easy of communication. In addition, each centre is requested to maintain a website under the same domain. The template used encourages people to put local information and information of common interest. In addition, a major component of the website is community news where newborns, weddings and death are announced. In a country like Lebanon where the population living in the country is out numbered with those abroad, this information is key for bringing people to learn more about their families and friends.

Mr. Zakka compared the PiPOP program in Lebanon with that he has seen in Iraq. Access points have mushroomed in Iraq in the last years, but have focused more on technology then community. He has been visiting Iraq frequently and was aware of the telecentre activities there. However, due to difficulties there most of them are not functional. There are no support networks, as well as lack of community ownership to them. In Lebanon, on the other hand, PCA provides a support mechanism that makes the telecentres functional and connected. The maintenance is performed within a 24hr period, and the size of Lebanon helps in keeping this level of service. Maintaining this level of service will continue to enhance the trust of the community in the activities of the PiPOP. In addition, the next phase envisioned by PCA for this program will see members of the local community take charge of this service.

The program is currently being investigated to enter a new phase. This phase is split into two directions. The first, will see the PiPOP develop into a Non-Governmental independent entity. This "spin-off" of activities, as Mr. Zakka referred to it, will insure the continuation of this community. It will also integrate training material, content and protect intellectual property developed within the network. The second direction will see this program support a mini-incubation unit within each PiPOP. Mr. Zakka outlined that incubation within these communities usually lack many dimensions. These dimensions are the lack of adequate skills, supply and client links. The mini-incubation policy is expected to support this activity through providing the supply chain through the PCA network. In addition to ensuring a fair start of client base through the centres themselves, and the NGO network in the vicinity. The capacity building programs will help build know-how within these communities. PCA will also encourage private sector institutions, including banks, to support this activity through a corporate responsibility program.

A success story of the PiPOP, and how it encourages development, was highlighted by Mr. Zakka in software developed by one of the managers. The software performs telecentre management. PCA provided support to help mature this software, and then adopted it within its network. It was developed as a web-based system that included features such as issuing user-ids, and establishing email accounts. The manager continued to create a company around this produce and currently supplies it to several cyber cafés in Lebanon.

Mr. Zakka feels that establishing a partnership among telecentre programs should be through alliances. These alliances should be national, and then develop into a regional body. The national alliance will help maintain training material, provide management policies and synchronize efforts in content creation. The regional alliance will provide a telecentre umbrella and an Arabic content portal. It will help establish a standard for telecentre activities in the region and aggregate funding opportunities.

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