Tuesday, September 14, 2010

R.I.P. cyber cafes

The year 1996, saw the internet coming to India. In the initial stages, Videsh Sanchar Nigam Limited (VSNL) was the only entity allowed to function as an ISP. And like all those things that came from the west, the accessibility of the internet was restricted to a privileged few, as the cost were tremendously high. Then, came competition. With private sector ISPs roped in to provide services, the cost of acquiring an internet connection dropped, but was still very high, compared to today. There was another problem, though. The cost of owning a PC was still prohibitively high. So, penetration of the internet into homes still wasn't that great. To own a PC with an internet connection was a status symbol in those days.

This situation presented a unique opportunity for business. People bought or leased out PCs, got an internet connection and started providing access to others who couldn't afford. These entities were termed as cyber cafes. Depending on the location, speed and ambiance, they charged anywhere between Rs. 20 to Rs. 45/- per hour. They were a boon for the teens (who were the first to latch on to the internet wave), who couldn't afford to own a computer at home. And it was convenient, because you could access the internet from anywhere in the city, without too much worry.

Then, the inevitable happened. Sensing business opportunity, cyber cafes started springing up like mushrooms in the monsoon. There was a time when two or three cyber cafes would be located within a distance of half a kilometre. The good thing was that rates dropped to Rs. 10- Rs. 20 per hour. This caused a reduction in margins and business was more dependent on volumes. Prices of hardware too dropped, thereby allowing scale-up of business easily.

Then came the second inevitable thing. Beginning somewhere in 2003, prices of hardware dropped drastically. Computers were now more affordable to individuals. From 2005, internet connectivity improved, with broadband access becoming available at a very less premium over dial-up access.  In big cities, this dried up the flow of people to cyber cafes. People started accessing the net from the cosiness and security of their homes. Slowly, cyber cafes started closing down, giving way to other booming businesses like mobile phone handsets, restaurants and retail stores. From two-three cafes in half a kilometre radius, the number came down to one every one kilometre or more. They too are struggling for business and have to keep up the revenue by providing other services such as gaming, or selling pre-paid phone refills, computer accessories like CD/DVD pen-drives, etc.

I too didn't seem to miss the cyber cafes too much. Till, the internet at home was down and there was no chance of the technician visiting home for rectification and restoring of the connection, as there were three days of holidays. Grudgingly, I trudged down the familiar lanes around my house, searching for a cyber cafe, so that I could check my e-mail and reply to the ones that needed urgent action. But alas, where there existed five cafes three years ago, only one was left and that too, tucked away to the extreme end of the lane. The cyber cafes have played an important part in familiarising the internet to lakhs of people in the country. In small towns, they still do that. All, we can say is, R.I.P., cyber cafes!
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  1. We also talk about this a lot at home. Even today while passing the Cyber Cafe, I looked out of the auto. There were not many foot wear outside the cafe. You forgot to mention the air-conditioning which we were treated to in Cyber Cafes. Now every house has an air con!!!

    R. I. P truly in our place!

    Joy always,

  2. They have lived there lives I guess. In a few years, everybody would have fast internet access right on their phones. That would probably be the last nail.

  3. @Susan,
    Yes, air-conditioning is one add-on that I forgot to mention. But, students still preferred the non-air conditioned ones, because they were invariably cheaper that those with air-conditioning.

    Yes, they might have lived their time. But I think it is a long journey till the time we have good wireless connectivity.