How cybercafes popularized the Net

by May 26, 2022 0 comments

Edited excerpts from an exhaustive video interview with R Ramaraj, Founder, Satyam Infoway (Sify)

“It was not yet Y2K. We at Sify were listed on Nasdaq in October 1999. We were the second company from India (Infosys being the first) and the first Internet company to do so. Then we spoke about taking the Internet to the people as one of the ways in which we could open out because, in China and Korea, the way was cybercafés. In India, there were 60 lakh PCOs (Public Call Offices), so people were used to going out to connect to the phone in some way. The Internet was being connected from homes and businesses to an extent from dial-up.

Cybercafés as business centres

We said let us launch cybercafés but try and put slightly higher speeds. (64kbps was a high speed at that time!) We had challenges. How to get that last mile connectivity? How to find a line of sight? How to get kids to come to cybercafés because parents were asking them: What are you going there for? We had to sell the parent’s courseware for children to come and use the Internet.

Because these were fast connections, relative to anything else, day traders and traveling salespeople would use this place. It became a nice business for a small enterprise. If you had a few hundred square feet and you didn’t know what to do with it and you might have a nephew or niece you wanted to put in high tech, then the cybercafé was an option.

Launching 5000 cafés

We at Sify rolled out 5000 cybercafés in 18 months. We franchised, but we had to set up Sify’s own, to begin with, to show people how it was to be done. We learned from the likes of McDonald’s that you needed to cookie-cut and standardize everything. Whether it was a two-seater or a twenty-seater it would be completely cookie-cut. Everything was standardized and central supplies would help set it up in four weeks. For staffing, we trained school dropouts to become cybercafé instructors. It was evangelizing in a way. That’s how people started realizing the power of the Internet.

As games evolved, especially the multi-player games, we set up gaming cafés with a capacity of up to 50 where kids could play against each other and with anyone within the café, across the city, and even across the world. Their décor and screens were very different from the rest of the cybercafés.

The era of cybercafés

In 2005, there were 2 lakh cyber cafes in the country. I would think that might have been its peak. I am told that there are maybe between 50,000 and 70,000 even today. They are mostly browsing centers, not taking gaming arcades into account. When you go there you can take printouts, so you browse and get additional services. I believe there is still a cybercafé association.”

These are excerpts from a video chat with Editor Sunil Rajguru and part of our PCQuest 35 Years Series on the Yesterday, Today & Tomorrow of Technology.

Check out the complete interview…


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