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Surfin' Hindustan

Text: Shobha Warrier | Photograph: Sreeram Selvaraj

Broadband killed the café star

Sixty per cent of India's Internet users access the Net through cybercafés. India has more cybercafés than post offices and an estimated 200,000 cybercafés play a vital role in everyday life across the country. On the occasion of 15 years of the Internet, takes a peek at what goes on in cybercafés around the country. After checking out Mumbai, Pune, and Kolkata, today we travel down south


Mahendra Kothari decided to convert his STD booth -- located in the basement of a shopping arcade -- to a cybercafé in 1997. Those were the days when the word 'broadband' was not part of the everyman dictionary. Very few even had dial-up connections. Excited by the new tool, people used to flock to his cafe to surf the Net, send e-mails, send job applications and chat.

"We used to open by 9 in the morning, and when I reached the café, I could see people waiting to occupy a chair," says Kothari. "That was the kind of rush we had then. Though our timing was 9 am to 9 pm, most of the days, we used to close only by 10 pm. Some days, it even went beyond 11 pm."

He started with six machines, but had to double the number because of the demand. There were five more net cafés in the same shopping arcade then. Now, Kothari's is the only one remaining. All the others have shut shop.

The number of customers started dwindling in the last two to three years, says Kothari. From Rs 60 per hour, he reduced the charge to Rs 30 an hour. But the customer graph has been steadily on the decline.

"Now, everybody has broadband connection at home. They do the chatting and surfing at home. With Wi-Fi, even the floating crowd got reduced. Those who come to cafes are mainly the floating crowd, and not those who live here. I don't know what the future of Net cafes is," Kothari sighs.

Till recently, he used to get families who wanted to talk to and see - through microphones and web cam -- their sons and daughters abroad.

"Now, many of these families have all these gadgets at home. So, the number of such customers also has come down."

It is a Monday when we visit Kothari's cafe, and it's 10 am, but the café is completely empty. The only customer who walks wants to scan a picture and write it onto a CD.

Kothari's parting shot: "You should have seen my café a few years ago at this time..."

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