Nepali Times
Cyber space


Only very rich people in Kathmandu surf the net. Wrong. Only tourists visit cyber cafes. Wrong. English is a barrier for Nepalis wishing to go online. Wrong.

Ten years after Kathmandu got its first taste of the internet, there are now 50,000 registered subscribers with the valley's 26 licensed internet service providers (ISPs) with an average of four people using each connection. Add to this the numbers that go online in cyber cafes, and user numbers could be as high as 500,000. Now, with several companies vying to provide cable internet, subscribers can get unlimited internet access through the cable that brings them tv at home (see box). "Now a 24-hour broadband connection is just a click away," says Sudhir Parajuli of Subisu Cablenet, a pioneer web tv provider.

All this should mean prices are going to come crashing down. Or does it? Already, competition among cyber cafes has brought prices down to as low as Rs 15 per hour in some areas. The World Wide Web is now open to anyone for the price of a soft drink, and local demand is now high enough for cyber caf?s to mushroom all over the Valley, not just in Thamel, as it used to be. However, with prices that low, cyber cafes say they can't make ends meet.

Over the years, the world of computers for hire has come a long way from the two antique-PCs-on-the-ground-floor-at-home variety. Today's cyber cafes (there is even a Cyber Kitchen in Jawalakhel) are big, clean, slick and equipped with the latest gadgets and gizmos. PCOs with STD and ISD calling options have also started to plug in a couple of computers and develop cyber caf?s of their own.

Cyber caf?s are like cold stores, they don't have to be registered. But because so many close down within a few months of opening due to cheap internet it is hard to say how many cyber caf?s are in operation in the Valley. However, industry insiders estimate there may be as many as 2,000 venues. Most have between 6-15 computers, all networked so they use a single Internet link, usually a dial-up connection. Because the connection is shared between several users, cyber caf?s can afford to slash prices.

However, the flip side is that connection speeds are much slower in most cyber cafes we surveyed for this article. As an increasing number of cyber cafes switch over to wireless, dial-up will be a thing of the past. And as cable internet provides faster and cheaper access, it will put pressure on the cyber cafes to offer even more competitive rates.

"Excluding speed, I have no hesitation to saying that through cyber cafes, Nepalis enjoy the cheapest Internet access in comparison to other countries," says Pavan Shakya, of ISPAN (ISP Association of Nepal). This despite Internet bandwidth being significantly more expensive in Nepal, as all ISPs use expensive satellite hookups to international backbones.

Most cyber caf? owners agree prices for surfing the Internet are too low, but are unable to do much about it. Although the price of the connection is shared between users, there are still the phone bills. Most cyber cafes pay as much as Rs 10,000 per month to Nepal Telecom for a single phone line. While cyber caf? owners say present rates are as low as they can go, they admit profits would be higher if Nepal Telecom gave them special deals. In an effort to supplement income, many struggling cyber caf?s augment revenue by offering photocopying, printing and telephone services besides drinks and snacks.

"My English is not a problem to use the net because I only check mail and chat with friends," says a 18-year-old college student at Net and Web Station, a cyber caf? in Jamal at 7:30 in the evening. "I logon for up to half-hour every day and do all my mail, my friends' English is the same level as mine so language is not a problem," she adds in Nepali.

The real push in business for cyber cafes this year came when the American Diversity Visa applications went online. Cyber cafes did roaring business not just with higher online time, but many floated package deals to help people with the applications. The online SLC results last month also brought another surge in visitors trying to get a hardcopy of Gorkhapatra with their results. But logging in was difficult because one of the sites providing the results hosted the data on a US server and the system clogged up with traffic.

As Nepal bridges the digital divide, and more and more young people with disposable income start surfing, it is only a mater of time before advertisers discover a brand new medium to reach consumers through.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)