“Coolah has been what I'd call a very smart consumer of outside resources, but I think there's the other side to the picture about Coolah, in that there's been a real degree of investment by local people.
“People have been prepared locally to invest in their future.
And that's what I'm finding, that many of these towns are beginning to discover that you don't build these communities from the top down or from the outside in, you don't wait for the cavalry to arrive from Sydney or Canberra with their grants to do it.
You, as a community, need to start investing in it. I think that was the story of Coolah as much as anything.”
Peter Kenyon speaking on the ABC LateLine program, 18th July 2000
Coolah is a small town in NSW with slightly less than 900 permanent residents. The town provides social, economic and civic services for the smaller towns and farming communities that constitute the Coolah Shire. The Shire itself comprises an area of roughly 43,000 square kilometres, and has a total population of 3,770.
On December 1st 1998, the Coolah community celebrated a significant event. A Community Telecentre opened its doors for business, and for the first time ever, all Shire residents were provided with local-call access to the Internet.
The story of designing, funding, and building this infrastructure would complete a book in itself. From the visionary concept of local farmer Michael White, community leaders and groups spent thousands of hours conducting surveys, analysing needs and requirements, designing and re-designing concepts, raising local funds and completing Government funding applications. This was all conducted in an environment of urgent community need, because only two years earlier, the town of Coolah had lost a vital community asset.
The local Sawmill, the town’s largest employer, had closed to make way for a National Park. Community spirit was at an all-time low, and to most local residents, the future of the community looked grim. It was only a matter of time.
For Coolah to survive, the community desperately needed a vision and a reason to fight on.
Noted English Telecentre journalist Andrew Bibby documented part of this story for the UK Telecottage Association in August 1999.
Coolah is small: only about nine hundred people in the town itself, with a couple of thousand more in the outlying towns and villages which make up the local government area of Coolah Shire. But Coolah, New South Wales can boast a strong sense of community. Since last October, it can also show off its own Telecentre and Internet cafe.
It is early days for the project, which is tucked away at the back of the old Shire Hall, on Coolah's one main central street. However Don Cameron, the Telecentre's manager is optimistic about the prospects. The Centre has begun organising computer-training courses, tailored particularly at non-computer users, and the drop-in Internet Cafe facilities also seem popular. In fact, Coolah Telecentre has rather ambitiously decided to provide PCs with Internet access in three other smaller settlements in the area:
Dunedoo has its own 'Internet cafe' at the back of a bank, whilst in Mendooran and tiny Cassilis the local post offices provide the venue.
Internet access was previously difficult and expensive from the area, so in November last year the Telecentre set up its own ISP, which now has approaching two hundred subscribers. "Developing an ISP is one way to minimise the disadvantage, and to get on an equal par with urban Australia," Don says. "We pre-sold Internet access to a hundred people for a year ahead." It helps that almost all the farms in the area are active users of on-line services, using the Internet among other things to check livestock auction prices and the meteorological outlook.
The money for the Telecentre facilities and for Don's salary has come initially from grants of about A$440,000 (about GB£160,000), the bulk of which has been made under Australia's innovative Networking the Nation initiative (officially called the Regional Telecommunications Infrastructure Fund). This is earmarked money that was raised from the partial privatisation of the country's state-run telephone corporation, Telstra.
Telstra's privatisation remains a controversial issue, but the use of some of the capital generated from the first share issue for telecommunications development seems a masterstroke.
Coolah's Telecentre is one of a number of initiatives which a group of active local people have taken in the past few years to regenerate their community. Earlier in the 90s, with agriculture in some difficulty, Coolah was in danger of slipping into the downward spiral which has affected other small rural towns in New South Wales where the loss of the local bank branch, post office, stock and station agency (estate agency) and shops has led to a growing economic malaise. But the Coolah District Development Group, set up after a public meeting about five years ago, has worked hard to turn the town around, and claims in all to have attracted A$1.6m in funding support.
Eleanor Cook, the dynamic co-ordinator of the Development Group, points out proudly that all the shop units in the main street are now occupied. Main Street itself is undergoing a facelift to help smarten up the town.
Nevertheless, grant-funded initiatives such as the Telecentre face problems of sustainability, as Don Cameron knows only too well. The track record of Telecentres in Australia (with the specific exception of Western Australia) is unfortunately patchy, with a number of Telecentres folding after relatively short periods of operation. Co-ordination between Telecentres in the eastern Australian states is also relatively poor, with the Australian Rural Telecentre Association currently at a low ebb.
"Too many Telecentres have closed their doors. Our objective from day one was to be commercially viable," Don says. Becoming an Internet Service Provider has provided welcome income, but the Telecentre is also looking hard for (other) suitable opportunities.”
(Kind permission to reproduce this extract was granted by Andrew Bibby)
Andrew highlights a significant challenge inherent in a community adopting a new industry, especially when the intent is to integrate the industry as part of the community social fabric.
“We have community support, we have built all this infrastructure, everyone tells us that it’s wonderful… but how do we make sure its still here for people to use in five years time?”
To understand the importance of the Telecentre and its range of services to the Coolah community, we must first understand what it is that the community defines as valuable, and what would be impacted by the loss of Telecentre services.
Susie Brown, a former Coolah Land Care Coordinator, undertook an analysis of Coolah’s Social Capital using the following measures:
The analysis finds that Coolah is rich in Social Capital:
Social capital involves asking people to participate and recognising their strengths and almost exploiting them. Asking reticent participants increases participation by highly talented people that may be a little shy (to begin with).
A community that has a strong social capital is a community where people are not afraid of change or embracing technology because someone is always there to hold their hand or to ask.
Transformational leadership manifested in a team approach generates social capital as members of the community develop their own leadership skills through delegation of responsibility and given the trust that is inherent in making responsibility work.
(Kindly reproduced with permission from Susie Brown)
Coolah considers her highest wealth to be in the areas of social interaction and teamwork. “Pulling together as a community” is the strength of the town, but could also be its downfall if something significant is lost, because the loss impacts on every community member. This sense of loss was strongly evidenced following the closure of the Sawmill.
After such a concerted effort to bring the Telecentre project to fruition, the subsequent loss of the Telecentre would be a second, and perhaps irreversible blow to the Coolah community.
The Coolah Telecentre has been highly successful in the delivery of technology-based services.
Taken individually these successes are significant, however the true value of the Telecentre is the interaction of these services into everyday life and society.
Through the Internet, community members are provided with a mechanism for social interaction, to conduct business, and for educational opportunities that were previously non-existent without a long drive to town.
The Telecentre has become a true “common”, a place for people to meet and interact in an environment of learning and support. Teachers and Doctors can schedule events around a one-hour videoconference (instead of a full-day trip to a Regional Centre).
These are the real community assets.
The Coolah Telecentre maintains a charging regime based on cost recovery, however charges are largely structured in accord with community expectations and the desire to provide services to as many people as possible. Coolah is not an affluent community, and many Telecentre customers are in the lower economic bracket even by rural standards.
Dial-up Internet access is provided from as low as 0.35c per hour (for 100 hours per month), and the delivery of training from as low as $5.00 for an evening course.
Cost recovery is being achieved in the areas of Internet Services (ISP dial-up access) and Internet Homepage Hosting. Training has not yet reached a point of cost effectiveness. Whilst community training charges could be raised, this would only be done as a last resort due to the importance of continuing to attract a high level of community participation.
On-site Telecentre services are charged at $5.00 per hour regardless of the services or equipment being used, though additional charges do apply for printing. The number of people using the Telecentre has not reached a point where this results in sufficient payback to achieve full cost recovery.
The most significant challenge facing the Telecentre today is to be able to continue to provide community services. This can only be guaranteed if the Telecentre achieves financially sustainability.
The Telecentre recognises that in order to sustain current services and technologies, income must be derived from external sources. The town of Coolah is simply too small a market to sustain business overheads and future growth projections.
Local Web Hosting is a business venture proving highly successful and attractive to businesses outside of Coolah as well as within. This is primarily because the Telecentre can provide reliable hosting with the culture and ethos to understand rural business requirements and markets.
Companies currently hosting web sites on the Coolah servers include:
Web Hosting is a growth business offering sustainability potential with the added benefit of increasing community income.
The Sale of Intellectual Property is another growth area of Telecentre business enterprise. Coolah has been successful in providing consultancy services to several other communities embarking on similar programs. Once again this provides outside income to help maintain locals service delivery.
Video-Conferencing and Event Web Broadcasting offers a potential for the community to generate income by providing conferences and lectures to audiences in a variety of diverse geographic locations, and is not limited to the Australian market. This business is as yet fully implemented however initial trials are suggestive of a very successful outcome.
Additional Government Funding is an option not many people in Coolah wish to consider, even though perhaps this avenue should be investigated further. The community values self-reliance. “It’s far better to succeed on our merits than to ask, cap-in-hand, for more Tax-payer funds”. This spirit is an underlying component of why the Telecentre project was initiated, so the community could develop their own path and destiny. It is also typical of many rural Australian communities. However Coolah must be careful that she does not let community pride destroy what she has worked so hard to build. If other initiatives fail, then further Government funding may be essential.
Each of these initiatives is designed to increase income, however when taken in concert, they are all designed to increase local employment opportunities, skill development, and to ensure the continuance of essential community services.
The Coolah community recognises the enormity of the challenges it faces. The Global Economy coupled with increasing corporate awareness of the value of rural markets stipulates that if the town is to survive, then it must compete on this stage.
Coolah must generate income; she must provide skills in the new fields of technology; she must generate employment; and she must provide what is today viewed as essential community infrastructure - access to the Internet. But most importantly, Coolah must retain the very social capital and values that make the community what it is, and such a great place for people to live.
Traditional industries of agriculture and retailing will continue to be the lifeblood of the community, yet a change in the way these are managed is inevitable. Through the acceptance of technology, Coolah has adopted a pro-active approach to global trends. She is well placed for tomorrow, even though there is still much work to be done.