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To Get Online, Most Indians Go to Cyber Cafes - 2004-08-15

In India, cyber cafes are steadily gaining in popularity because few people own computers and Internet access is expensive. Internet usage in India remains limited even though the country is known as an information technology hub.

Nineteen-year-old Jaskaran Lamba heads straight for a cyber cafe every afternoon after his classes at a New Delhi college are finished. For several hours, he logs on to the net, searching for material for his college projects, checking his e-mail and chatting with friends.

He is among the thousands of Indians who flock daily to the cyber cafes that are sprouting up in crowded markets, shopping malls and rail stations. Cyber cafes offer computers with Internet access to anyone who pays a fee.

Nearly two-thirds of the 12 million Internet users in India frequent cyber cafes, according to industry estimates, and in the last two years, the number of establishments has doubled to 50,000 to meet the demand.

Industry experts say the business is likely to thrive. Less than one percent of Indians own computers. And like Jaskaran Lamba, even those do who do often prefer to use cyber cafes to avoid the high cost of Internet access at home.

Amitabh Singhal, president of the Internet Service Providers Association of India, says most private Internet users in India rely on expensive dial-up connections costing nearly 60 cents an hour. Cyber cafes, on the other hand, run on high-speed broadband connections, cutting the cost by nearly half.

"Cyber cafes have been a successful model," he said. "We see a quality of service which is better than the dial-up, [and] the prices are also very reasonable, so a lot of people find that a better option."

Mr. Singhal says the government wants to widen access to the Internet and aims to increase the number of subscribers to 40 million in five years' time. It hopes to do so by reducing tariffs to make high-speed broadband access more affordable for ordinary Indians.

Even if that happens, cyber cafes are confident they will stay in business. Industry experts say computers will remain out of reach for most of India's one billion people for years to come, so cyber cafes will continue to be the vehicle for taking the Internet to the masses.

That is why one of India's largest cyber-cafe chains, "iWay," is opening three new outlets a day, branching out from big cities to smaller towns.