Post offices in many emerging countries are being transformed from their traditional role of delivering letters, to centers for the delivery of Internet and services in far-flung locations, according to studies by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) and Universal Postal Union (UPU).
Literacy levels and economic growth however what Internet and communications technologies applications will be used by villagers, said Vishnu-Mohan Calindi, coordinator of development study groups at the ITU.
Kitsong (knowledge) centers at 49 post offices in Botswana offer Internet access as well as services such as fax, photocopying, desktop publishing, printing and digital photography services, the ITU report said. The Kitsong centers, set up by Botswana Post and the Botswana government, also provide local content, such as agricultural information, besides training in the use of computers.
In Bhutan, the ITU has been working on a project with the UPU, and the governments of Bhutan and India, which involved setting up 38 kiosks in post offices across Bhutan to provide information and communications facilities to communities in rural and remote areas of the kingdom.
Telecommunication connectivity for this project was provided by solar-powered VSAT (very small aperture terminal) stations linked to an Indian communications satellite. Among the services introduced was e-post, which scans letters sent by villagers, and delivers them quickly using the Internet to destination post offices.
Bhutan Telecom, one of the agencies involved in the project, is now planning to increase the capacity of the VSAT network and use it as a backhaul network for providing mobile communications to villagers in hilly areas, Calindi said.
An arrangement for delivery of ICT through post offices becomes important where the post office is the only mode of communication that connects remote areas, as is the case in Bhutan, Calindi said.
The strategy is to use post offices to deliver ICT services, as most developing countries have some kind of postal network, even if skeletal, connecting the length and breadth of the country, he added.
For the post offices, the arrangement is often a way to beef up revenue as private competition and other forms of communications pick up, according to the report.
The use of the ICT offered by the post offices depends to a great extent on the status and level of economic activities in the region. In Vietnam, with high literacy, local businessmen use the facility for marketing and accessing market information, Calindi said.
In Bhutan, the post offices allow students in villages to access examination results and a variety of online content, rather than have to go all the way to Thimpu, the capital city.
In some cases, the post offices also work as extended arms of government departments for distribution and collection of statutory documents and forms, Calindi said.
However, in areas where the literacy is low and the economy is backward, the use of ICT is generally limited to basic communications and money remittances, he added.
Literacy levels and the availability of online content in local languages also influence how villagers use the Internet connectivity and other services offered by the post offices. Literacy, or the lack of it, is the single most important factor for accessing ICT facilities, Calindi said. Content development in many cases was hindered because of poor literacy levels, he added.
Over 50 percent of the content on the Internet is in a few languages, mainly English, according to ITU.