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November - 2008 - issue > Cover Feature
Reinventing cyber cafes
Jaya Smitha Menon
Wednesday, November 5, 2008
Who said cyber cafés are an endangered species? Look at this math: There are about 1,80,000 cyber cafés in India, which have seven PCs on an average, and these are available for around 12 hours every single day. In fact they serve more than 72 million strong English speaking population in the country. With the availability of tools that helps translate English language content into the local languages, the cyber cafés, in fact, are empowering the population in remote locations across the country. Naresh Ajwani, President, Consumer Infrastructure and Operations, Sify Technologies points out, "As people in different places become more used to using the internet there has also been a growing requirement for public internet access." He believes that the Internet café has a bright future and says consumer demand remains as high as ever.

Two common scenarios in today’s cyber cafés

Scenario 1: "Shoot him, knock him down", shouts a 12 year old boy to his friend sitting at the other end of a room. It is not a physical fight. The scene is in a cyber café where five boys, between 12 and 15, are crowding around a PC, the keyboard of which is getting tapped not only by the one sitting on a rickety old plastic chair, but by all the boys around him who are emotionally worked up by what is happening on the screen. Their eyes are glued to the screen, on what looks like a violent game. Around them, the other surfers are quietly engrossed in their business. They’ve been here before.

Scenario 2: A 60-year-old woman walks into Net City, a small cyber café in an alley in a crowded residential locality of Bangalore. She does not even know how to switch the computer on. The boy in the café sets up the system and puts her before her son who is on the other side of the globe, through a webcam. They are able to see each other. She doesn't touch the system, but talks to her son loudly and sincerely complains how thin he has grown and advises him to take care of his health. After talking for half an hour she walks out paying the money, brimming with the happiness of having 'seen' her son.

Proliferation and evolving uses of the cyber café

Once upon a time, the cyber café was a place for surfing the Web and sending emails to friends. Very few people had access to the net and yet everyone was fascinated by the idea of getting online. But with the internet access so widely available now, paying for the privilege to go online just doesn't seem worth it. More and more of us can log on at home and many have free access in the workplace. Although not everyone is benefiting from this yet, it is still a complete change from how we were a few years ago. Thus, for those wanting their Internet café business to thrive, adapting to more sophisticated demands become crucial. The decreasing revenues from internet browsing, high rental charges, declining customer base, and other factors have prompted the providers to transform cyber cafés into a hub for a variety of e-services, going beyond vanilla web browsing and chat, which were hitherto the mainstay of the business. While the major ones went for re-branding initiatives and adding a host of sophisticated services, the street corner cafés went for value added and personalized services. The two scenarios explained above prove this fact.

Sify technologies, which runs iway outlets across the country, is attempting to shift from the concept of cyber cafés to e-stores. The new model will address the need for multiple online services. More services will be available at Internet cafés, which have for the last eight years been primarily a place for net surfing. Sify iWays, now offer a range of online services such as ticketing, bill payments and shopping in addition to Internet access, online games and international voice calls over the Internet. "Our intention is to make them the most convenient place for a host of online services that will make life simpler and add to the quality of life of users" explains Ajwani.

Sify hopes the additional services and re-branding could improve the viability of the cafés. Once the new ePort outlets go on stream, users can conduct e-business using the café owner's card and pay cash to him. "Today, for example, you need your own credit card to book tickets at our outlets. But with the new outlets, the café owner can pay and accept cash from the customers," Ajwani said.

Reliance Communications is able to make better use of its outlets where it not only provides broadband services but also uses them for billing and collection, sales of telecom hardware and services, and serves coffee and snacks through an exclusive arrangement with Java Green. Gaming is also a major attraction for the kids to visit the Reliance cyber cafés known as Reliance Web World.

The branded cafés are also offering other services like e-learning, e-ticketing, and online tests (like the NSE and BSE tests). These cafés also have tie ups with companies for conducting recruitment processes.

However, according to a CII-IMRB Broadband report, the number of cyber cafés, which was growing at almost 60 percent in 2004 and 2005, has fallen to almost 20 percent in 2008.

Reasons for the slow growth rate

It is surprising to note that in a country with as many as 1,80,000 cyber cafés there are no laws to protect the interests of the stakeholders. In fact, the existing law says that only an internet service provider has the right to sell internet to the end user. Major players attribute this sorry state of affairs to lack of subsidy and support from the government, coupled with increased security concerns and harassment of cyber café owners. Higher rentals for commercial spaces and a rise in other operational costs also are forcing the owners to close down the cafés.

It sounds ridiculous that in a city like Pune, to open a cyber café one has to take permission from the municipal health department, just because 'cyber' has got a 'café' suffixed to it. (The literal meaning of 'café' is 'a place to have coffee and snacks'). Moreover, across the country, the local police have to provide a no objection certificate to open a cyber café. Experts say that drastic decline of cyber cafés is due to harassment that owners face at the hands of the local police. There are many security challenges faced by the café owners; for instance, if someone called from a PCO and threatened an individual no action is taken against the PCO owner, but if a threatening email has been sent from a PC in a cyber café, action is taken against the café’s owner.

"The reason many cafés close down is also due to the extra-strict laws. Maintaining a log of all sites visited by a customer along with a copy of his or her id proof is one of them," says Biju Joseph, Proprietor, Net City. Joseph points out that the economic downturn has in fact turned out to be a blessing in disguise for him, since youths flock into his café to surf the job sites. Like many of the new age cafés his café also offers value added services like printing, scanning, typing services, and even travel bookings.

Even now, cyber cafés emerge as the most popular access point for internet at 36 percent, followed by home (30 percent) and office (25 percent). But, the lackadaisical attitude of the government towards the growth of cyber cafés is impeding the growth. “For the growth of cyber cafés, the government should bring about a centralized framework of regulatory laws and the discriminatory approach towards cyber cafés vis-à-vis PCOs should be rectified, adds Ajwani. These measures along with the redefining and transforming measures taken by the owners of the cyber cafés will ensure a steady growth for the cyber cafés.

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