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|April 24, 1999||
The room is packed and the mood solemn. A member of the church is conducting the proceedings. Holy smoke consecrates the room. So do Biblical verses chanted in unison. The ritual culminates with the father's blessings. This is no marriage or baptism but papal consent to the inauguration of a gateway to the virtual world, Cyberia, the cyber café.
There seems to be a cyber café in every other lane throughout the sprawling city that accounts for about 40 per cent of the Net connections in the country.
Of late, government patronage of the Internet has been touching. The Prime Minister's Task Force on Information Technology and Software Development is an initiative that has given rise to several similar initiatives. Almost every state government has responded with enthusiasm.
The result is a chain of cyber cafés, cyber kiosks, cyber dhabas, actually cyber anything you will.
Madhya Pradesh, for instance, aims to reach a Net penetration of 1 connection per 5,000 of the population over the next two years. The state also plans to open cyber cafés in 75 of its village by 2003.
A cyber café works on the premise that a Net savvy individual will come craving for connectivity and speed. The café only has to deliver.
But in India, this truth is bigger than anywhere else in the West. Cyber cafés here are often the only way several thousands of students and Internet enthusiasts can ever hope to get online.
That is because, in India, the cost of owning a computer and connectivity to the Net are still prohibitive.
Bombay, which is the most Net aware of all cities in the country, obviously, has a larger share of the cyber cafés too. The city is the financial capital, an educational centre and cosmopolitan. All of this makes Bombay a perfect medium for cyber cafés to thrive.
Ashely John, the promoter of Cyberia, declares: "Every Indian in the future should have access to the Net and an email address just as he has a PAN for income tax."
Cyberia looks forward to opening about 10 cyber cafés all over India. An online hour here would cost Rs 30, probably the lowest rate going.
Typically, the rates range from Rs 60 to Rs 200 per hour. Some cafés let students surf at a concession during non-peak hours.
But who exactly frequents these cyber cafés? What do they use the Net for?
Students, businesspersons, tourists, executives and computer professionals mostly frequent these cafés. The two most prominent activities of these individuals are email and looking up information. In that order.
Rediff recently did the rounds of some of these cafés in Bombay. Says Garret, a medical student from the US, "The email makes you feel connected. Without it I feel lost." Several Web based email services like Hotmail are the most sought after sites in these cafés. In fact, you could safely guess that email takes up over 90 per cent of the Net activity in all cyber cafés of Bombay.
"Some of our customers send up to 30 mails at one time!" Ashely seconds.
Shradhha, 19, is an undergraduate science student. She claims "I use the Net once a week for research information and knowledge."
Deepika Gupta, 24, a product manager, and R P Das, 27, an MBA student, have similar reasons for visiting the cafés. Deepika is aghast at the amount of information the Web chucks at her. Nilesh Gantha, 34, is a businessman who is complaining because his connection at the café is never steady.
Jeetendra, 21, an engineering student, is a reluctant surfer. He fears that increased use of the Net will lead to loss of personal contact. Besides, he is revolted by online pornography.
"We do not let our customers surf porn sites," assures Sam John of Cyberia. "It annoys our 'class' customers," he explains. Warren De Silva, 29, a marine engineer is fed up of being spammed.
Most cyber café owners are very optimistic. Many are into the Web designing business too. They see the café businesses growing beyond the email fixation to increased surfing brought on by e-commerce.
Large companies have set up some of the cafés. For instance, the Indian Express Group runs the Netexpress Cybercafe at Express Towers and the Indage Group owns the Interscape café.
So are the cash counters ringing or are profits elusive, or virtual, to put it more aptly.
"It was good when we started not so now," shrugs Suraj Behrani of Cybercafe 209 at Bandra. "(Film starlet) Preity Zinta used to come and surf for four hours. Now she doesn't," is one of his anxieties. Producer-Actress Pooja Bhatt, he claims, is another of his star customers.
Naturally, most cyber café owners avoid talking about breakeven.
Infrastructure expenses, however could be crucial to the health of these cafés.
Surprisingly, this most important variable in the cyber café equation seems to be the most diverse.
Most small cafés work on dial-up lines.
'Integrated services digital network', or ISDN, wires most of the larger setups. A few also have direct leased data lines from the ISPs.
Interscape, for instance, has leased lines that power 25 PCs. Besides, patrons with a 'mouse wrist' also have the option of arcade games or choosing from five "American" pool tables, insists Dinesh Ramanan, general manager.
Interscape Director Sumeet Rajani believes in family values. "While the father surfs the Net, the children can play games. This is a complete family entertainment centre."
Though these are cafés, none of these offer eatables or drinks as a package with surfing. You can have them only at some extra cost, of course.
But are the ISPs of the city measuring up to the mushrooming of these cafés?
More specifically, we are talking of the government owned erstwhile ISP monopoly, the Videsh Sanchar Nigam Limited and another broken telecom monopoly of the Mahanagar Telephone Nigam Limited.
As of now, among the two of them, they carry most of the dial-up and leased line Net traffic in the city.
Naturally, the two are the target of almost all complaints.
Of late, however, surfers have become more charitable to the duo. "Improved considerably," is the unanimous opinion.
Though, most complain about speed inconsistencies and a weak network backbone, Rajeev Singh of Netexpress Cybercafé dreams of a day when like in the US you could have free access to the Net with T3 speeds.
"MTNL needs to improve its services as we get disconnected often," complains Raj Lalchandani of The Cyber Club and Bosco Fernandes, 28, an avid surfer.
How does awareness about the Net rate among family and friends of the café surfers? Most responses were positive for both categories, though the older generation, seem somewhat sceptical of the Net as a medium.
"My mother uses America Online for emails but she keeps away from the rest of the Net" says Garret. As for the kids they seem to love it. "My niece, 7, knew how to email before I got onto the Net," says Rishma, VJ, Channel [V].
At office and college everyone seems well versed with the Net and its potential.
What is the future of the Net in India and therefore its cyber cafés? They are here to stay and grow is the unequivocal claim by the owners and customers.
"The Net will, in future, be used for almost everything like shopping, e-commerce, movie tickets," declares Charuhas Soman, an avid surfer.
E-commerce, though still in its infancy in India, has already taken roots in the US in a major way but not without critics. Garret complains of having burned his fingers by booking air tickets through the Net.
Others like Waren worry if the Net "Would invade their privacy and time." Addiction is another cause of concern, though a welcome phenomenon for the cyber café owner.
Net addiction could be mainly because of chat sites that keep people hooked online for hours. Jeetendra confesses of being one such addict.
"The connectivity is not going to be as high as claims are being made as illiteracy is a major factor to be countered for the Net to gain its relevance" bemoans Nilesh Gantha.
The growth of the Net in the cities would leave villages disconnected and the prevalence of the Internet would lead to unemployment fear other Netizens.
Here are a few of the cyber cafés that Rediff polled:
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