With rise in internet penetration, not many opt for cafes

The realisation that the cyber cafe she used to frequent a couple of years ago was closed now could not have come at a worse time for Ranjani Sekaran, a marketing executive, for she had forgotten her railway ticket at home and hoped to take a print out from the cafe on the way to the station. “There used to be two in this complex, and one next to it, but they have been replaced with pastry and furniture outlets. With most phones being wifi-enabled and every household having a computer and a broadband connection, who goes to cyber cafes now?” she asks.

In agreement with her are numerous cyber café owners in the city who say with internet penetration increasing, whatever technology they had invested in, is of little use in making ends meet.

“We had more than 150 browsing centres in this area alone till last year. While many have shut down, the intense competition has forced most of us to offer unreasonably low tariffs of less than Rs.10 an hour,” says Kannan, who runs the fourteen-year old Galaxy Net in Triplicane. He says he makes barely Rs.8,000 a month, which according to him hardly covers the depreciation cost of computers now. He no longer hires assistants like he used to five years ago when the business was at its peak.

“With unlimited broadband connection available at less than Rs.1, 000 at home, few come here other than those living in the ‘mansions' nearby,” he adds. “After one year, I suspect there will be hardly any of us around, especially with 3G mobile services in such demand,” says Dhanasekharan. Y who owns Infocafe on Nungambakkam High Road. With business having dropped by more than 60 per cent in the last few years, there is hardly any profit made now after the rental and maintenance charge, he says.

Regular scrutiny by the police which ensures cabins are not closed and the demand for details from customers irritate those who seek privacy, says Mr.Kannan. “Over the past one year, even bigger players have shut down in this area. The situation seems so doomed that I do not even upgrade my systems now,” says Mr. Dhanasekaran.

Some cyber cafes still make about Rs.15,000 a month, but only by staying open for 14 hours every day. For the ones in areas where power cuts occur frequently, life is all the more difficult. Some also admit that quite often they resort to dubious means in order to survive, ranging from downloading new movie releases to allowing users to surf objectionable content.

B. Kandasami, coordinator of Internet Users Club of India (Chennai Chapter) says that while internet services in browsing centres have become cheaper over time, the quality has been declining. With no official figures on the size of the cybercafé market, he says, the unorganised sector needs to be standardised in terms of rates of browsing, speed, security and infrastructure, and not just be “extensions of photocopying centres.”

Holding online study centres and examinations, arranging video conferencing between companies and even matrimonial alliance management for families are things we do to keep business on track, says A. Subburaman, who runs a cyber café in T. Nagar.

“Since most cyber crime activities originate from cyber cafes, we are extremely strict about recording the identity of the user so that it can be tracked down,” says Additional Deputy Commissioner of Police, CCB, M.Sudhakar. Regular checks by instructors also help in deciding which cyber cafes licenses are not to be renewed, he adds.

And then there are the lucky ones like Satheesh Babu, who started Genius Planet, a cyber café in 2002, only to shut it down in 2008. He says, “The regular walk-ins had stopped coming by 2007, and the customers were restricted to medical representatives, and some emergency browsers. I did face a loss of Rs.5 lakh, but that was the time to take the cue.”

More In: Chennai