Internet cafes: a dying culture

Karachi: Gone are the days when the mere mention of the name internet cafe brought to mind images of dimly lit shops with cramped cabins and a less-than-ordinary internet service. With the advent of personal computers in most households coupled with affordable cable internet or Digital Subscriber Line (DSL) packages, the café culture is on the decline.

What gave rise to the increasing trend of cable internet, however, is the frequent and prolonged usage by young men and women, who spend most of their time on social communities such as Orkut, Facebook or chat on instant messengers such as MSN or Yahoo!

Spending several hours on these sites means spending a fortune at internet cafes that charge on an hourly basis. The owner of a CD shop said that he wound up his café business a couple of years ago, as his business declined with the arrival of DSL and cable internet.

However, to say that the trend has completely vanished would be wrong, as cyber cafes are still used by people who are either out of town or have issues with internet usage at home. Atif, the administrator of Hip Hop Cafe in Gulshan-e-Iqbal, said he has been able to maintain his clientele as a good number of his customers are students, mostly foreign students, residing in hostels in nearby universities. Students, he said, come to his cafe to either print assignments or chat with their relatives and friends back home.

Talking about his customers (between 16 to 25 years), Atif also said a large majority comes to use Orkut or MSN Messenger. "There is 100 per cent privacy in my cafe. Every computer is separately connected to the internet so we can monitor the activities physically by looking at the screen, if the need arises."

Over the years, Atif has become good at reading faces and understanding body language. Asked whether he is concerned about people using his cafe for illicit online activities, including e-terrorism, he says: "We note down the names of everyone who comes in and apart from our regular customers, if someone new comes in, we get a pretty good idea of what they are up to from their body language. Then we keep a check on them."

A year ago, Rauf Siddiqui, Sindh Minister for Culture and Tourism, issued specifications for cabins erected in cyber cafes. All of Atif's eight cabins are "in accordance with the official specifications, that is, five feet high and exposed to three feet from the ground up".

In order to stay in business, many internet cafes have been forced to follow popular trends by turning them into gaming zones, while providing internet facilities on the side. One such cafe is Digital Internet Cafe near Expo Centre, Gulshan-e-Iqbal, whose owner, converted his cafe from an internet-only to a gaming zone cum internet cafe.

The charges in an internet cafe vary from area to area. However, it is around Rs20 to Rs30 per hour, some times going as high as Rs40 per hour. In Defence it is a minimum of Rs35 per hour which goes as high as Rs50 per hour in some places.

One of the internet cable networks, which can single-handedly claim to have put hundreds of cafe owners out of business, is World Call. The company brought broadband internet services along with other facilities such as video on demand, cable television and telephone on a single hybrid fibre coaxial cable. Its massive campaign and service effectively put an end not only to countless internet cafes but also many a cable operators (TV and internet both). Others followed suit soon afterwards and, thus, the demise of internet cafes sped up.

By Gibran Ashraf
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