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Developing the digital economy in French rural regions?

A critical assessment of telecenters
Développer l’économie numérique dans les régions rurales françaises : approche critique des télécentres
Bruno Moriset
p. 249-272

Résumés

L’arrivée à maturité d’une économie numérique a favorisé, dans les années 2000, un regain d’intérêt pour le télétravail. De nombreux territoires ruraux ont mis en place des télécentres, immeubles dédiés à l’accueil des télétravailleurs et des petites entreprises de service. Ces centres offrent des équipements informatiques et des services partagés (salle de réunion, visioconférence, connexion professionnelle à haut débit, service de secrétariat). Les télécentres n’ont qu’un impact macro-économique limité. Plusieurs ont échoué à attirer un nombre significatif de télétravailleurs. Mais certains sont une réussite. Ils doivent être considérés comme des « laboratoires vivants » de l’économie numérique en milieu rural, éléments de programmes plus larges destinés à élargir et renforcer la base économique des territoires ruraux.

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Notes de l’auteur

A draft version of this paper was presented at the annual meeting of the Association of American Geographers, Washington DC, 14-18 April 2010, organized paper session: Creative Peripheries.

This paper is part of a larger project: Distant Communication Technology and the Economy of Cognition in Peripheral Areas (DISCOTEC). This project has received a grant from the French National Research Agency (ANR). This paper benefited from field research and interviews by J. Beaufrère, Y. Deschaux, and C. Ramirez, Master students, University of Lyon. The author thanks X. de Mazenod, founder of Zevillage1, who provided him with useful comments.

Texte intégral

Introduction

  • 2 A disambiguation is necessary. The word “telecenter” is often used to describe community technology (...)

1Since the middle of the 2000s, we are witnessing in many developed countries a revival of public and private interest in telework and IT-based rural development policies. Although the concept was recognized as a global failure in the late 1990s, numerous French communities have recently implemented telecenters (for telework centers)2, or are projecting to do so.

2Business-oriented telecenters remain an understudied topic. A bibliographic research shows that academic interest in the past decade has focused almost exclusively on public/community technology centers in developing countries. Few papers, most of them one decade old, are related to business-oriented telecenters in developed countries. A research on Scopus (www.scopus.com) with keywords telecenters and telecentres (British spelling) found 42 and 54 results (02 March 2011). Four papers by P. Mokhtarian et al. focus on Californian telecenters (the latest in 2002). Five references are related to Japan, Australia and New Zealand. Almost all the other references are related to community centers in poor or emerging countries. Therefore, the current emergence of telework centers throughout rural France is an opportunity to update our knowledge on this topic.

3Based mainly on a review of the literature, the first section of the paper analyses the context of rural telework, and explains why, in the late 2000s, it has become again a fashionable subject and a notable field for local policy. Section two is about the telecenter concept "French style", and presents the emergence of the new "telecenter policy" in the French context. Section three examines the goal and strategy of telecenter creations. Section four presents an assessment of telecenter implementations in rural regions, and suggests some explanations of failure and success.

4The paper is based on field researches which are part of a larger research project dedicated to distance working and the development of the digital economy in peripheral regions. Empirical material results from extensive Web investigation and face-to-face interviews with telecenter users and managers. A first list of telecenters was drawn from the directory of telecenters and coworking spaces edited by X. de Mazenod (www.zevillage.net). It was extended through Web research and interviews (the list of people interviewed is presented at the end of the paper). Almost all known telecenters were called by telephone in February 2011, to get additional information related to attendance and attractiveness. Talks with 29 local officers and managers led to strong evidences, which are the most important contribution of this paper.

The digital economy in peripheral areas

The revival of a powerful rhetoric

5The relation between information technology (IT) and economic development in the rural regions of developed countries has drawn interest from many scholars (Grimes 1999; 2003; Malecki 2003; Moriset 2000; Rusten and Skerratt 2007).

6The issue of rural IT may be summarized as follows:

  • value chains have been disintegrated and digitized (Malecki and Moriset 2008)

  • in a "knowledge economy", business can be done "everywhere" (Malecki 2009)

  • therefore, the growth of telework promises a "golden opportunity" to rural economies.

7A "powerful rhetoric" has flourished around rural telework (Richardson and Gillespie 2000, p. 199). Forester (1988) writes about "the myth of the electronic cottage". Famous cyber-utopist N. Negroponte (1998) forecasts "a complete renaissance of rural living", and even the end of "the need for cities". Salomon (1998: 34) suggests that telework "offers a romantic image of returning to the pre-industrial family or community-centered society".

8However, rural-based telework and IT-enabled business is not pure utopia. J. Kotkin (2000) explains why and how some members of the American creative class (Florida 2002) are moving to rural areas which offer much-desired natural amenities. Beyers and Lindahl (1996) describe “lone eagles and high fliers” who live and work in rural places. Clark (2000) and Moriset (2003) have matter-of-factly analyzed IT-enabled rural businesses. In 2000-2001, the dot.com bubble bust and the subsequent economic downturn wiped out media and public interest toward rural telework. Since the middle of the 2000s, there is evidence of a revival of this topic.

9Several indicators reveal this tendency. Governments have asked for reports on telework, digital planning, and sustainable local development (Ferhenbach et al. 2009, Morel-à-l’Huissier 2006, DIACT, ACIDD 2009). Legislators have recently passed or submitted new laws aimed at favoring telework and IT-based economic development, especially in rural areas. On 8 April, 2009, the French Parliament issued a law aimed at the development of telework. On 28 October, 2009, US Congressman Tom Perriello (Virginia’s 5th district) introduced the “Rural and Small Town Telework Tax Credit Act" (Bill, H.R. 3627).

  • 3 For Small Office – Home Office

10The review of Web portals dedicated to local economic development show that the classic rhetoric of rural telework is stronger than ever. The home page of the SoloSoho3 portal in the countryside of Gers (south-west of France) is telling in this regard (figure 1). The toys on the floor indicate that the worker on the image is probably a mother of young children, precisely the favorite target of the pro-telework rhetoric. This image endeavors to recall that telework is family-friendly, helps to eradicate the stress and fatigue that result from long, urban commuting, and reduces fuel consumption and carbon emission. As Handy and Moktarian (1996) pointed out, "telework promises something for almost everyone".

Figure 1. The home page of the SoloSoho portal

Figure 1. The home page of the SoloSoho portal

www.soho-solo-gers.com, accessed 10 November, 2011

11The revival of the telework rhetoric, notably in the rural context, stems from several factors. The late 2000s have seen the rise of environmental issues and the inflation of energy prices (in mid-2008, crude oil price peaked at $180 per barrel, from $20 in the early 2000). In 2008, the worldwide economic downturn added new favorable conditions. It is worth noting that since the beginning of the crisis, the digital economy has been present in all recovery programs, "bail out" plans and other French Grand Emprunt (Juppé and Rocard 2009). Telework received its part. Western economies are in great need of jobs. Because rural labor pools are less costly, rural telework is sometimes regarded as a valuable alternative to offshoring.

  • 4 Autorité de Régulation des Communications Electroniques et des Postes.

12Meanwhile, the Internet society and the digital economy have become more mature. In the late 1990s – the peak of the dot.com bubble – E-commerce was negligible, computers and telecommunications were expensive, and broadband for households and small businesses was almost non-existent. The profound change most Western countries have faced during the last decade must be considered. Between 2000 and 2010, internet subscriptions in France (26 million households) rose from five to 20 millions. In the same period, the share of broadband access sky rocketed from 5 to 97 percent (data: ARCEP4). Long distance telephone has become free of charge. Electronic shopping is now routine.

  • 5 Interview by the author, 22 March 2010.

13Therefore, there is some reason to consider that the level of "IT-readiness" of the country is far higher than in the 1990s. The end of the 2000s has probably marked a turning point. The following fact is revealing: according to S. Oziol, director of the Economic Development Agency of Lozère (a very rural community), for the first time in history, the General Council spent in 2009 more money for telecommunications infrastructures and digital programs than it did for roads.5

Rural telework: widening the economic base of local communities

14Peripheral areas are characterized by a narrow economic base. Employment in farming and manufacturing has suffered from an endless decline. Public services are cutting jobs. Revenues derive increasingly from a roaster of non-productive activities which Davezies (2008) describes as parts of a "residential economy": tourism, health services. Secondary houses and elderly care facilities are flourishing. This trend poses a series of problems:

  • tourism favors part-time, seasonal employment;

  • secondary houses also favor a seasonal, part-time economy, and raise the cost of real estate to the detriment of the locals;

  • young, college-educated people do not find suitable job opportunities in the area.

15Therefore, locally born people who leave a rural region to study at university in a large city do usually not return in the community. The outcome is a permanent brain drain, which further hampers local development. The lack of liquidity of the local labor market is another major drawback. With few, if any, jobs available locally, employees with a full-time working position (in public or private sectors) avoid entrepreneurial risk-taking. Long tenures and low turnover favor sclerosis within companies and administrations (interview of S. Oziol, director of the Economic Development Agency of Lozère, 22 March 2010).

16For policy makers and managers in charge of local economic development, the question is to favor the arrival of entrepreneurs from outside the region, and to spur local entrepreneurship. Given the rhetoric mentioned above, the development of telework and various kinds of IT-enabled business is an obvious target. A telework project in the Southern Alps mentions explicitly the diversification of the local economy. It even anticipates a crisis in the winter tourism industry which would arise from a future shortage of snow.

17Through the development of information technology, the project endeavors to favor job creation in rural areas, to provide an alternative to the residential economy, to raise the occupancy time of secondary houses, and to anticipate forthcoming economic changes linked to global warming.
http://teleactivites.leader-plus.com/​

18As a matter of fact, the permanent or temporary immigration of "teleprofessionals" may contribute to the diversification of the rural society and economy. Thanks to the use of information technology, urban or foreign persons working in the information economy are able to extend their stay in rural places, while keeping in touch with their business. Usual two-day weekends or holidays can transform in half-time residence (Alvstam and Jonsson 2000, Molini 1997). The longer is the stay, the greatest are the economic and social benefits for the local community. Telecenters are regarded as a tool to attract and retain this kind of people.

The come back of rural telecenters

"New wine in old bottles"?

  • 6 France’s mainland is divided in 96 départements, organized in 22 régions. The départements are unde (...)

19The concept of telecenter originates in the telecottages, which became popular in the 1990s, in Scandinavian countries and the UK. The first telecottage opened in 1985 in Vemdalen, in the north of Sweden (Bibby 1995). Telecottages were mainly technology access points open to a large public (Qvortrup 1989). They did not exclude business-related activities, but were primarily aimed at the "digital empowerment" of some citizens who, for diverse reasons (financial, social, or geographic) had not on their own access to digital technology, or needed training or technical support. In Spain, 4000 "telecentros" are open to a large public, for the purpose of training and raising the "IT-readiness" of citizens (www.telecentros.es). French rural communities did not ignore this tendency. For example, the département6 of Ardèche has implemented in the 1990s a network of 26 multimedia centers (www.inforoutes.fr). As written in the introduction, this concept of community centers open to a large public is dominant. In France, these facilities are named literally “public digital access point”. 4743 facilities are listed by the national directory (http://delegation.internet.gouv.fr).
By comparison, business-oriented telecenters have so far remained isolated experiences. The USA has a long-established experience of telework centers, notably in California and the metropolitan area of Washington D.C. (Mokhtarian and Bagley 2000). However, Durkin (1997: 5) mentions « a grim report », with a mortality rate of 50% among the 45 telecenters opened in California since 1991. In Washington, the network of 14 telecenters implemented in the 1990s by the General Service Administration (Washington Metropolitan Telework Centers) is still operational in early 2011(
http://gsateleworkcenters.org). In fine, telecenters in the USA have always remained marginal (Blanc 1998). Many experiences in the UK and Scandinavian countries have failed. Grimes (1999) reports a similar fate about Ireland-based telecenters. Richardson and Gillespie (2000) point out their "limited impact".

  • 7 A State-owned institution dedicated to the financing of public projects.

20The new interest for telecenters in France was initiated in 2005 by the "National Rural Telecenter Program", launched by the DATAR, the planning and regional development arm of the French government. The DATAR issued a call for project named "Telecenters and tele-activities", aimed at the creation by 2007 of 100 telecenters, hosting a total of 1000 work positions (DIACT-DATAR 2006). This project was placed under the umbrella of the National Telecenter Network, a government-sponsored, non-profit organization created in 2004 (www.telecentres.fr). The program was funded with three million Euros. Each project located in a Rural Revitalization Zone could receive 20,000 Euros for 4 working positions and 2000 Euros per additional position. Some complementary funding could be received from the European Union, the Region, the General Council, and the Caisse des Dépôts7.

21La Gazette des Communes, a weekly magazine dedicated to local administrations, titled in 2009: "a new start for telecenter networks". Since then, several départements have implemented networks of telecenters. In the near future, the number of telecenters is likely to increase, given that many communities are planning or considering the creation of new facilities.

22The rural département of Orne, in Low-Normandy, is planning a network of 10 centers – two are already open in Boitron and Bellême, the later as a part of a newly labeled (July 2010) pôle d’excellence rural (Conseil Général de l’Orne 2010; De Mazenod 2010). Web investigation and interviews made it possible to find 35 operational telecenters in early 2011 (table 1).

Table 1. Rural telecenters in France, March 2011

Département

Nb.

Municipalities (communes)

Allier

1

Montluçon

www.centre-multimedia.com

Ariège

3

Lavelanet, St.-Lizier, Verniolle

www.teletravail-ariege-pyrenees.com

Cantal

7

Allanche, Aurillac, Chaudes-Aigues, Montmurat, Murat, Saint-Flour, Ydes

www.cybercantal.fr

Gers

8

Auch, Mirande, Nogaro, Mauvezin, Lectoure, Montreal, Riscle et Lombez

www.soho-solo-gers.com

Indre

1

Saint-Michel-en-Brenne

Loire

1

Epercieux-Saint-Paul

www.zennit-telecentre.fr

Lozère

2

Fournel, Mende

www.fournels.fr, www.polen-mende.com

Morbihan

1

Belle-Ile

www.labrise-belleile.fr

Nièvre

1

Lormes

www.nivernaismorvan.net

Orne

2

Boitron, Bellême

http://www.boitron.fr/​telecentre/​

Pyrénées-Atlantiques

1

Sévignacq Meyracq

Haut-Rhin

1

Ste.-Marie-aux-Mines

Rhône

2

Bourg de Thizy, Saint-Mamert

www.teletravail-beaujolaisvert.com

Tarn-et-Garonne

1

Laguépie

Hautes-Pyrénées

1

Saint-Laurent de Neste

www.cetir.net

Vienne

1

Saint-Savin

Haute-Vienne

1

Cussac

Total

35

Projected

Cantal

1

Mauriac

Loire

1

Les Salles, http://lagrandemaison.portailnearbee.com

Nièvre

1

Moulins-Engilbert

www.sud-morvan.fr

Identified wrongly as telecenters (operate as incubators or business hotels)

Isère

1

Villard-de-Lans

Côtes d’Armor

1

Locarn / Kerhunou

Sarthe

1

Sillé-le-Guillaume

Failed projects

Haute-Corse

1

Cervione

Mayenne

1

Bais

www.zevillage.net and author’s research

Figure 2. Locational map (départements and main cities)

Figure 2. Locational map (départements and main cities)

What is a telecenter?

23French officials describe telecenters as business-oriented facilities, acting as incubators or business hotels for self-employed or salaried teleworkers.

A telecenter is a working space hosting salaried and self-employed teleworkers. It comprises at least a private office space available for rent by the day, the week, or the month, shared equipments (computer, fax, photocopier, and broadband access) and services... The telecenter may be located in a multipurpose facility, such as an incubator, a community service house, a public telecottage... It may be used permanently or occasionally by salaried teleworkers from a remote company, by nomadic workers, and by self-employed, home teleworkers who endeavor to lessen isolation (DIACT 2006, author’s translation).

24This definition is similar to those suggested by Simmins (1996):

A "telecentre" suggests a more commercially focused facility that has been established for specific commercial purposes. Typically to provide workplaces for people who may well have full time jobs but want to work away from their employer’s "functional office" but who don’t want to work in their homes. In this sense a telecentre is like the kinds of "serviced office" facilities that have existed for many years but with a very high emphasis on provision of workspace and facilities with high information technology and networking capabilities.

25The French definition explicitly mentions the near presence of a telecottage or a "community service house". As a matter of fact, many telecenters are dual structures showing the coexistence of business and public services.

Taxonomy and features of rural telecenters

26Rural telecenters identified above could be classified according to location, size, organization, ownership, and use. However, there is no simple categorization.

27Small communities usually implement small, modest facilities. The telecenter of Boitron (Orne, Low Normandy), created in a former primary school, offers one meeting/training room equipped with a videoconference system, two individual offices, and a reception/relaxation space. Many telecenters in the countryside of Gers, or in the mountains of Cantal, show similar features.

28In order to benefit from scale economies, the telecenter is often coupled with other services. This arrangement makes the maintenance and the caretaking easier. In small communities (1,000 inhabitants or less), telecenters are often located within the “house of services”, which may offer a public access point to the Internet, and/or a library. In the Sud-Morvan project (Burgundy), the telecenter will be located in the Rural Service House, which comprises the administrative headquarters of the Community, a tourism office, and meeting rooms (www.sudmorvan.fr). These centers have usually no dedicated staff, but are managed by a community’s employee. Larger communities often show the coupling with an incubator (three telecenters in Ariège, POLeN in Lozère) or a business park (CETIR in Hautes-Pyrénées).

29Chief market towns between 10,000 and 40,000 inhabitants such as Montluçon, Aurillac, and Mende, have financial means and a pool of potential users which lead to larger, well-equipped facilities. In these towns, the equipment often shows the coupling of:

  • a multimedia center open to the public, mainly dedicated to training and public use;

  • a business center which mixes a telecenter space for teleworkers, and an incubator. Business and public access are not compatible and must preferably be physically separated.

  • 8 For Pôle Lozérien d’Economie Numérique. The pun is interesting, given pollen plays a key role in fe (...)

30In Montluçon (Allier, 40,000 inh.), the Chamber of Commerce has implemented a typical dual structure. The multimedia center (1500 m2 of floor) offers two training rooms, one lecture hall of 180 seats, a videoconference facility, a library and documentation center, and meeting rooms. The neighbor business center (750 m2) includes 10 offices, a showroom, modular, multipurpose space, an open space for call center activities (12 seats) and a telecenter (50 m2) dedicated to teleworkers hosting. A similar hybrid structure is showed by POLeN8, created in 2005 in Mende, the chief town of the département of Lozère (www.polen-mende.com). It is hosting an incubator on the ground floor (200 m2, 6 firms, 10 people), and a telecenter on the first floor (250 m2).

31The two telecenters mentioned above, like those of Aurillac, are brand new, purpose-build facilities. However, the majority of telecenters are hosted in old, refurbished buildings. The explanation is trivial. An idiosyncrasy of the French countryside is the enormous number of municipalities or communes (France has 36.000 municipalities, 37% of the total of the European Union). From WW1, in the late 20th century, most rural areas have been subjected to a sharp demographic decline. Public services such as schools and post offices have had to be consolidated. Closed primary schools can be counted by the thousand. The decline of manufacturing activities also has given opportunities to locate telecenters in former factories. The telecenter of Lormes (Burgundy) is located in a former slaughterhouse. The telecenter of Aurillac (Cantal) is located in a former kitchen furniture factory.

32Out of 31 rural telecenters surveyed by Ocalia (2010), the vast majority is owned and managed by local authorities: the general councils (5), municipalities or local communities (11), chambers of commerce (9). Six are managed by private of semi-private structures (associations), but they benefit from public funding.

33Ocalia (2010) has identified 150 teleworkers as telecenter users. 52% are self-employed people or “solos”, 29% are nomadic workers, and 8% are salaried teleworkers. However, the report says nothing about these nomads, who may be independent or salaried people as well. Given the poor record of salaried telework in France (Ferhenbach et al.2009), it is unsurprising that independent teleworkers make the bulk of telecenter users, especially in rural areas. No known telecenter targets a precise kind of teleworkers. Telecenters with a notable presence of employees salaried by remote companies (Lormes, Epercieux-Saint-Paul) are an accidental exception.

Goal and strategy of telecenter implementation

34Telecenter policies in urban and rural areas have the same primary target: to spur the growth of telework (US: telecommuting). But the ultimate goals of these policies are different. In metropolitan areas, telecenters are conceptualized by public authorities as a tool against traffic congestion (example: the Washington Metropolitan Telework Centers). In rural areas, telecenters are dedicated to the attraction and retention of teleworkers, who, in turn, will spur local economic development and help the diversification of the local economy.

Many companies and government agencies would allow their employee to work remotely if they could confirm that their tele-offices are secure and meet the organization’s working standards. A telework center may provide the necessary environment for enhanced collaboration that may require presence, or you may host your customers or clients frequently and wish to demonstrate a professional office environment (www.officescape.com 2010).

35Actually, scale economies in the provision of a "professional office environment" are the very raison d’être of telecenters. These economies result from the sharing of business equipments and IT-based services that isolated teleworkers and small, newly born firms could not afford. POLeN, for example, offers a meeting room and a training room, videoconference, photocopy, and secretarial services, and professional services such as computer-aided publishing and web design. However, beside these technical features, several strategic issues may be identified: social and professional networking, telecommunications and business continuity.

The values of coworking: breaking isolation and avoiding the “teleworkers in pajamas” syndrome

"At home, I feared to become a teleworker in slipper". A self-employed teleworker, telecenter of Saint-Flour (Cantal), 10 May 2011.

36Telecenters should be regarded as coworking spaces which "uphold the values set forth by those who developed the concept in the first place: collaboration, community, sustainability, openness, and accessibility" (http://wiki.coworking.info). The concept of coworking fits the values of the Web 2.0 era, which emphasize on flexibility and networking as sources of creativity and value-added. However, coworking spaces such as La Cantine in Paris (http://lacantine.org) are urban in essence. They endeavor to recreate the atmosphere of Saint-Germain-des-Près cafés where writers and artists, in the 1930s, used to work and socialize. The adaptation of the concept to rural areas is a key issue.

  • 9 People have requested anonymity.

37Technical, commercial, and social isolation has for long been recognized as a major drawback of rural, home-based telework (Clark 2000; Moriset 2003). Therefore, social meetings may be regarded as an untraded benefit of telecenters. A.B. is a home-based teleworker salaried by a Parisian software company who lives near Aurillac, the capital of Cantal. He works two afternoons a week at the telecenter "to shift to another environment". C.D., a self-employed teleworker, acknowledges that the telecenter of Aurillac provides him some contact opportunities, and a more professional working environment. E.F., a self-employed person who works on a part-time basis in the telecenter of Murat (also in Cantal) says that "the goal is to leave home, to avoid isolation, to get in touch with other teleworkers; the center is a secondary workplace where she deals with clients". G.H., also in Murat, often goes to the telecenter for chatting. "Had the telecenter not existed, I would never have created a business in this place". The same person endeavors to "create a network of teleworkers in Cantal" (direct interviews, May-July 2010).9

38These interviews show that telecenters provide not only tangible services and technical support, but also psychological support. Working in telecenters minimizes a major drawback of home-based telework which is the confusion between private life and professional life. This issue is particularly critical in the case of salaried telework. In Epercieux-St-Paul (Loire), the telecenter is permanently used by three salaried workers who do not want to work at home. In Lormes, the center hosts two employees of a software company based in Clermont-Ferrand.

39This practice poses a theoretical and practical problem. Telecenters should be conceived as flexible exchange platforms, that teleworkers must be able to frequent on a part-time or an ad hoc basis. If a given telecenter is nearly full most of the time, it turns being an ordinary business hotel which cannot play its role of a secondary workplace for teleworkers located in the neighborhood.

Telecommunications and business continuity

  • 10 Acronym for Worldwide Interoperability for Microwave Access, a long range, terrestrial radio waves (...)

40At first sight, the provision of broadband telecommunications is among the important services that telecenters offer to their users. The more speed and reliability a given business requires, the more it is likely to seek location in well-connected premises. Most telecenters, such as POLeN benefit from symmetrical, "business" DSL connections, between 2 and 8 Mbps. The new telecenter of Boitron (Low-Normandy) offers a 30 Mbps, symmetrical connection by WiMAX10, a record-breaking feature for a rural telecenter (http://www.boitron.fr/​).

41That may be a critical point. Many rural settlements throughout France still face a digital divide, with DSL connections often at the lowest end of the bandwidth spectrum, and sometimes even no broadband at all. As a matter of fact, Lozère remains the French département the less served by broadband telecom (Moriset 2010). The first tenant at the telecenter of Bellême, in Low-Normandy (opened in September 2010) is a freelance photograph and journalist who cannot get ADSL at home (Caffarelli 2010).
However, the actual benefit of telecenters is lower than expected in the mid-2000s. When the national telecenter policy was launched in 2005, many rural areas were suffering from the absence of ADSL services. Since then, rural areas have been catching up significantly. With a broadband availability rate of 97% nationwide, most rural teleworkers, who are potentially telecenter users, have now broadband at home. This factor reduces the competitive advantage of a telecenter location.

42In the near future, the telecommunications advantage could be increased by the advent of optical, ultra high-speed broadband telecommunications, allowing symmetrical bandwidth exceeding 50 to 100 Mbps. At the present time, FTTH (fiber-to-the-home) is still in the infancy in Europe. France has merely 300,000 subscribers, who are living in large cities’ central districts. In small and medium towns, neither households, nor SMEs, have in-house access to fiber. The "last mile" connection remains made of copper wire. Only large firms with great bandwidth needs can afford a private FTTP (fiber to the premises) service.
Individuals and small firms located in low-density areas cannot expect to get optical telecommunications in the foreseeable future at competitive prices. Rural areas face the advent of a "digital divide 2.0" (Moriset 2010). Therefore, the availability of FTTP or WiMAX connections in telecenters could become a critical asset for small enterprises and rural teleworkers. The definitive scenario will depend, in the end, from the kind of business which is performed, and from the future evolution of bandwidth demand from households, firms and public services. It might materialize only in medium-sized towns.

  • 11 February 27, 2010, a death toll of 53 in France.

43The provision of business continuity is an extra potential advantage of telecenters, especially in mountainous regions subjected to natural hazards such as snow storms. G.H., teleworker in the telecenter of Murat, acknowledges that "the presence of the telecenter guaranties business continuity in case of Internet blackout at home”. A representative of Mirande (Gers, South-West) reports a rush to the local telecenter in the aftermath of the storm Xynthia11), resulting in numerous power cuts and internet failures.

Community networks of telecenters: an issue of regional planning

44In rural areas, easy access to telecenters requires a dense coverage of the territory by a network of several facilities. A small number of leading départements have already implemented networks of telecenters, especially Cantal, in the Massif Central, and Gers, in the South West. Others regions, such as Orne, in Low-Normandy, are following this way.

45The Cantal is both a département and a mountainous, natural region located in the Massif Central. It hosts 149,700 inhabitants, who live in 260 towns and villages, spread over 5,726 km2. It is not served by any highway or TGV train. The nearest university city (Clermont-Ferrand) is a two-hour drive far from the chief town, Aurillac. Remoteness is compounded by rugged terrain and snowy winters. But the region’s unspoilt countryside has much to offer to nature lovers and outdoor recreation fanatics. Because of such isolation, and seeking to take advantage of its environmental asset, Cantal has developed an active telework policy (L’Union du Cantal 2008).

46The département’s first digital program was launched in 1998, with the dissemination of computer and Internet access points in 200 villages. In 2004, 23 main towns and villages were equipped with public Internet access points, connected by satellite broadband. Meanwhile, enterprises received subsidies to develop e-commerce (up to 50% of Web sites development costs). Telecenters are part of the current digital program, launched in 2009, which focuses on e-education, e-administration, and telework.

  • 12 Source: interview with S. Medzianowski, General Council of Cantal, director of the CyberCantal prog (...)

47Seven telecenters are now completed. 300 candidates have received business training and advice, out of those 30 have created a business. Four telecenters are equipped with a videoconference facility. However, this service is not used much by teleworkers and companies, but rather by individuals for the purpose of virtual meetings at the national employment agency, or the Child Benefit and Health Office in Aurillac, the main town. Four telecenters offer an 18 Mbps ADSL connection (download), which is the normal standard in France; three offer a 2 Mbps, symmetrical (SDLS) business connection12.

48A circle of 18 km radius contains a hexagon of about 840 km2. Seven figures of this size cover a Christallerian area of 5,900 km2, which slightly exceeds the surface of the département, 5,726 km2. Therefore, taking into account the uneven terrain and the unequal density of population, it must be considered that a vast majority of Cantal’s citizen is living well within 20 km of a telecenter.

An attempt of evaluation

49At first sight, the national telecenter program launched in 2005 by the DATAR is a global failure. The evaluation report was never made public. The final result – 35 centers with around 150 identified teleworkers – falls short of the initial target of 100 centers and 1000 teleworkers. But there is worst: the actual attendance of existing centers shows miserable figures.

50Telecenters’ precise attractiveness is difficult to measure, because most users are present on a part-time basis, or very occasionally. All but three identified telecenters were called by the author in late February 2011. 28 officials or managers had to answer to a simple question: how many teleworkers use the telecenter? The result of the enquiry, compiled in the box below, may be summarized as follows:

  • Ten centers see no teleworkers.

  • Six centers benefit from a very small, irregular attendance, sometimes empty for two or three consecutive months, especially in winter.

  • Eight centers host between one and 5 people on a regular basis.

  • A network of 3 centers has 17 registered users.

  • One center acknowledges 14 regular users.

51Said flatly, it is a flop. The explanation requires a more careful look at successful telecenters on the one hand, and failed telecenters on the other hand.

Factors of success or failure

52The size of the community, and the materialization of a political will favoring telework development, are critical factors. The General Council of Cantal has been promoting telework for many years. It is unsurprising to observe that the telecenter of Murat has proven the most dynamic of all. It is the place where training sessions for would-be teleworkers attracted by the General Council take place. In Ariège, telecenters are coupled with an incubator. In Epercieux-St-Paul, the geographic situation and the management of the center Zenn’IT are key factors. Although the center is located in a rural area, it is midway between two important cities, served by a highway, and developed by Numélink, a regional association of 140 IT enterprises.

53The telecenter of Lorme, in Burgundy, offers nine separate offices and hosts five teleworkers on a permanent basis. It shows the key features of a successful development. The site was created in 2007 under the authority of a non-profit association, the Mission numérique du Pays Nivernais Morvan, created in 2003, which is the digital arm of local municipalities. The telecenter is a part of a larger program, which encompasses a wide spectrum of digital applications in local administration, education tourism, and small businesses. Mission numérique provides a strong support to the telecenter development, following two main axes:

  • providing technical support in hardware, software, and telecommunications equipment, to help teleworkers meeting the highest professional standards,

  • marketing the local community and the telecenter in the milieu of prospective teleworkers.

In order to reach the later target, Mission numérique has contracted with two cooperatives of teleworkers, Port Parallèle (Paris, http://portparallele.com) and L’Envol (Dijon, www.lenvol-coop.fr).

54At the lower end of the performance spectrum, are found many isolated telecenters implemented by small communities. These telecenters present a set of common features:

  • a small number of office positions,

  • a low level of supporting services, or no service at all,

  • the absence of any promotion.

The creation of these centers was primarily driven by a bargain effect and a bandwagon effect. Local policy makers achieved to attract state funding without any global vision on their own.

55In other words, the recipe that dictates the success of a given telecenter is more or less the same than those which drives successful urban clusters: creation of buzz, provision of high-level services, a critical size that generates scale economies and network effects. These conclusions match those suggested by Abbott and Yoong (2005).

Conclusion

The inconsistencies of the telecenter concept

56The very concept of telecenter remains unclear and shows a certain level of inconsistency. The social and psychological value of rural telecenters (breaking isolation), and the creation of buzz and network effects, like in urban co-working spaces, require a critical size that few rural telecenters can achieve. Should telecenters be conceptualized as drop-in offices for nomadic teleworkers, or permanent or part-time headquarters for self-employed teleworkers, or satellite offices of remote firms that locate some salaried staff?

57The answer must embrace all the three versions, because no known rural telecenter can afford to specialize in a unique kind of teleworkers. Therefore, the assessment of any telecenter-oriented policy should not adopt the metrics of large cities’ real estate industry which focuses on occupancy rates, but rather, must take into account the number of teleworkers who are given support and services, although these people are not physically present on a permanent basis. By necessity, a telecenter must have a high vacancy rate.

Are telecenters worth the price?

58A rigorous economic assessment of telecenters is still needed. Large or small, telecenters rely on public funding. Most French rural areas (especially those located in "rural revitalization zones") benefit from a large array of public subsidies. In addition to the local community effort, telecenters’ financial roundtables often include the European Union, the French State, the Region, and the General Council (Département). These institutions often cover three quarters of the initial investment. Rental fees hardly cover operating costs. In other words, public authorities at various scales are subsidizing the development of the digital economy in rural areas.

59As a consequence of the powerful rhetoric described in the first part of this paper, telework projects are popular, and may be used as springboards for policy-makers, local elected representatives, specialized consultants, and big IT industries which sponsor and publicize small, but well-mediatized operations. Telecenters are a popular cause in several milieus because they materialize the anchorage of the community in a digital knowledge economy. Telework is normally the field of invisibility (Hillis, 1998). In rural areas, there is nothing that resembles office buildings towering over business city landscapes, which epitomize economic power and modernity. Home-based teleworkers are hidden, their number is unknown. Nevertheless, local and national policy makers want to see official inaugurations of "brick-and-mortar" facilities reported in newspapers, in order to show taxpayers and voters the materialization of telework-friendly policies.

60However, given the little number of telecenters, and the small size of most operations, this policy should be regarded as mostly experimental. The goal of telecenter creation is the revitalization of the local community, through the attraction and retention of college-educated people working in the knowledge economy. In many rural villages, some services do not exist, or are near the lowest limit of viability: bakery, grocer shop, primary school, doctor, postal office. A small number of new families in the community could make all the difference, and might generate a virtual circle effect. The result may be the global enhancement of quality of life for the whole population. In this regard, telework may be critical for the attraction of working couples – a major issue of recruitment in small labor pools. A community which endeavors to attract a doctor will face the problem of the employment of his/her partner. A telecenter may raise the argument in favor of the telework solution. This is not a theoretical case study. The telecenter of Aurillac hosts a salaried teleworker who left Paris when his spouse, a professor, was recruited by a local primary school (interview, 11 May 2010).

61Finally, much remains to be learned from today’s telecenter developments in Auvergne, Normandy or Burgundy. These regions act as pioneers, and numerous rural communities are waiting for a better feedback from the experiences in progress. Telecenters might be regarded as "living labs" of the digital economy in a peripheral context.

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Annexe

Telecenter attendance evaluation :

Cantal (6/7):

  • Murat: "Four salaried people and 10 self-employed persons".

  • Aurillac: "Four persons".

  • Ydes: "One salaried people, two self-employed".

  • Saint-Flour: "One salaried people, one self-employed person".

  • Allanche: "Nobody. Equipement is used by the local administration".

  • Chaudes-Aigues: "Nobody".

Gers (6/8) :

  • Mirande: "Three or four people since the opening, two years ago".

  • Mauvezin: "Three persons, less than one time a month. Nobody was seen for two months. More people in summer".

  • Montreal: "One or two people a week. Sometime, three months last without seeing anybody".

  • Riscle: "Ten contacts per year".

  • Lombez: "One or two people, one time a month or less".

  • Nogaro: "Very few people. Ten persons, from time to time".

Ariège :

  • "17 registered users in three telecenters".

Isolated telecenters:

  • Lormes (Nièvre): "Five people, including two salaried teleworkers".

  • Epercieux-Saint-Paul (Loire): "Three offices occupied by salaried teleworkers".

  • Cervione (Corsica): "No demand from teleworkers. The telecenter was converted into a community technology center".

  • Bellême (Orne): "One free lance journalist".

  • Mende (Lozère): "Not any teleworker. Used only by FR3 (a regional TV network) who benefits from the symmetrical DSL line".

  • Fournels (Lozère): "Not any teleworker. More attendance during holidays".

  • Ste.-Marie-aux-Mines (Haut-Rhin): "The equipement is ready, but not any teleworker has so far been interested".

  • Laguépie (Tarn-et-Garonne): "Nobody since the opening in 2008".

  • Cussac (Haute-Vienne): "Nobody was seen for eight months".

  • Saint-Michel-en-Brenne (Indre): "The project failed. But the premises remain available".

  • Bais (Mayenne): "The project failed".

Facilities identified wrongly as telecenters:

  • Villard-de-Lans (Isère): "Not any teleworker, used as a business center"

  • Sillé-le-Guillaume (Sarthe): "It is a business park".

  • Locarn/ Kerhunou (Côtes du Nord): "Not any teleworker. Used by local firms as a business service center"

Persons interviewed:

Self employed teleworkers:

M. Bousseau, telecenter of Aurillac, 12 May 2010.

A. Brunoni, telecenter of Murat, 13 July 2010.

C. Houd, id.

V. Staedelman, telecenter of Saint-Flour, 10 May 2010.

Salaried teleworkers :

M. Carcanague, telecenter of Aurillac, 11 May 2010.

D. Verlinde, telecenter of Saint-Flour, 10 May 2010.

Public representatives, managers :

M. Coste, La Grande Maison, 25 February 2011.

C. Ibarra, director, community service and telecenter of Murat, 13 July 2010.

A. Lulka, director, Association Numelink, telecenter of Epercieux-St-Paul (Loire), 3 March 2011.

P. Marmion, manager, telecenter of Lormes, Nièvres (Burgundy), 17 March 2011.

F. Medzianowski, director, digital programs and telecenters, General Council of Cantal, 29 March 2010.

S. Oziol, director, POLEN (incubator and telecenter) and Economic Development Agency, General Council of Lozère, 22 March 2010.

V. Perrin, program director, incubator and telecenter PEPITA, Bourg de Thizy, 17 March 2010.

S. Soubeyroux, manager, telecenter of Saint-Flour, 10 May 2010.

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Notes

2 A disambiguation is necessary. The word “telecenter” is often used to describe community technology center open to the public, especially in the Third World. However, in France, télécentres are facilities dedicated to business. In the UK and the USA, “telework centers” or “telecommuting centers” are sometimes used to avoid ambiguity. For simplicity, the present paper writes “telecenter”.

3 For Small Office – Home Office

4 Autorité de Régulation des Communications Electroniques et des Postes.

5 Interview by the author, 22 March 2010.

6 France’s mainland is divided in 96 départements, organized in 22 régions. The départements are under the authority of elected General Councils. Their competencies include local economic development and infrastructures (roads and telecommunications network).

7 A State-owned institution dedicated to the financing of public projects.

8 For Pôle Lozérien d’Economie Numérique. The pun is interesting, given pollen plays a key role in fertilization processes. The example of the beekeeper and the fruit grower is commonly used by economic geographers to explain the concept of untraded agglomeration externalities.

9 People have requested anonymity.

10 Acronym for Worldwide Interoperability for Microwave Access, a long range, terrestrial radio waves telecommunications system. WiMAX offers a symmetrical bandwidth up to 50 Mbps at a distance of 10-15 km under direct sight from the transmitter.

11 February 27, 2010, a death toll of 53 in France.

12 Source: interview with S. Medzianowski, General Council of Cantal, director of the CyberCantal program, 29 March 2010).

1 A virtual community dedicated to rural telework, based in Low-Normandy. www.zevillage.net

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Table des illustrations

Titre Figure 1. The home page of the SoloSoho portal
Crédits www.soho-solo-gers.com, accessed 10 November, 2011
URL http://netcom.revues.org/docannexe/image/175/img-1.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 132k
Titre Figure 2. Locational map (départements and main cities)
URL http://netcom.revues.org/docannexe/image/175/img-2.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 37k
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Pour citer cet article

Référence papier

Bruno Moriset, « Developing the digital economy in French rural regions? », Netcom, 25-3/4 | 2011, 249-272.

Référence électronique

Bruno Moriset, « Developing the digital economy in French rural regions? », Netcom [En ligne], 25-3/4 | 2011, mis en ligne le 05 avril 2013, consulté le 20 juillet 2017. URL : http://netcom.revues.org/175 ; DOI : 10.4000/netcom.175

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Auteur

Bruno Moriset

Associate Professor, Université Jean-Moulin – Lyon 3, CNRS – UMR 5600 EVS. bruno.moriset@univ-lyon3.fr

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