To the right is a signboard outside a 'computer academy' which actually turned out to be a cybercafe in a small town called Bakshi ka Talab in Uttar Pradesh, India.
As I travel across cities and villages in India, I see more and more such signboards. Cybercafes come in many forms - from the most basic and I suspect the most proliferate dial-up email-and-surf shops to branded offerings with hi-speed connections, webcams and headsets - from kiosks that are special focus to full-fledged Knowledge Centres. Sometimes, they are run under the guise of computer academies or schools which are meant to offer tuition as well.
Here's an honest share on an experiment conducted to bring technology to rural India through Cyberkiosks. The results were surprising ... the kiosks weren't really used as intended, rather they took on the role of cybercafes! From the conclusion :
Exactly Six months down the line when I reviewed the project. The result was stunning - out of the 17 Kiosks which were operational under the project, we had managed to sell only one tractor through the process. Objectively it was still worth it because for Rs.4,500/- spent on the project we had recovered our cost and also generated a great deal of good publicity for us in the area.
A later analysis of the entire project with the people at N-Logue provided me some insights into the phenomenon. The N-Logue project when it started off providing internet access to rural India with the support of the government of TamilNadu had some noble causes - some of them being
-- E -Governance in Rural India
-- Market Access to Farm Produce
-- Rural Medical Services (Remote Diagnostics)
-- Rural Ecommerce (the way I was experimenting)
But a casual survey with Kiosk operators was able to provide the following response to what the people there actually used Internet for...
1. To Check Daily Horoscope
2. To Check the latest movies released in Madurai and Chennai
3. To check exam results
4. To check job vacancies.
........And many more not so noble reasons...
I guess the reasons are simple to understand. People behave the same way whether they are in Rural India or whether they are in an Urban Metropolis ...When a technology like the internet is provided to them they would find similar uses as any body in urban India would... And over a period of time a certain percentage of population would learn the more commercially advantageous uses of technology and adopt to them. The government and other organisations would best serve the purpose if they only made technology commercially available and viable.. And people will know how best to use them.
I recently read a preliminary paper by Anikar M. Haseloff on Cybercafes and their Potential as Community Development Tools in India.
The premise of the paper:
Cybercafes play a significantly different role in India, compared to the role they play in the most developed countries. Whereas in developed countries, they are just an additional access point for people who already have access somewhere else, they seem to be highly important for the middle class in India, and therefore effectively help to bridge the digital divide for this group.
A few nuggets that I was taken aback a little with : one, that over half the respondents actually used the cybercafe for phonecalls/net telephony, and two, that a fourth felt that although they had access at home, Cybercafes offered better speed and value than connecting at home. This is perhaps true of urban-centric cybercafes - in smaller towns and villages I have used excruciatingly slow dial-up connections. And ultimately got myself a Reliance CDMA phone modem to avoid the frustration.
I'm not surprised with the rest of the findings. Some highlights and excerpts follow.
- While in their initial stage a mostly urban phenomena, cybercafes over the years have mushroomed throughout India, and today can even be found in small towns and some of the bigger villages. They seem to serve a crucial portion of Indian society as access points for the use of computers and the Internet, as can be seen when examining the size of this sector. As there is a lack of common definitions, regulations for registration, and authoritative measurement, the exact number of cybercafes in India can only be roughly estimated. There exist several such figures, but they have to be seen as estimates rather than exact numbers. In 2001 the Indian Market Research Bureau (IMRB) estimated around 12,000 cybercafes in India (Achar, 2001). Since then the number appears to have grown steadily all over the country, and Caslon Analytics (2004, p. 4) estimates the number of cybercafes for all of India as approximately 50,000 in 2004. The same figure is given by Pasricha (2004). These estimates show that cybercafes are slowly becoming part of contemporary city architecture in India and may serve a large proportion of the Indian population as access points to the Internet.
- Table 5: SECs and access place - (SEC = Socio Economic Classification which is a matrix of occupation and education used in research in India to reflect lifestyle, as opposed to mere income - A1 being the higher group and E the lowest). The table below from the report is interesting - it shows that SEC B and C uses more cybercafes than SEC A, as the latter group has greater access to the internet at home and work.
- The most frequently used service in the cybercafe was the World Wide Web (90.3 percent), followed by email (72.3 percent), phonecalls/netphone (52.1 percent), games (49.6 percent) and chat (48.7 percent). Almost half of those interviewed also used the cybercafe for educational reasons, which may be related to the high number of students. But it should also be noted that many teachers use cybercafes in order to prepare their lessons.
- Not surprisingly, the biggest group of users are employees (44.9 percent), followed by students (36.8 percent), housewives (6 percent), and the self-employed (5.5 percent); with others (unemployed, retired etc.) being 6.8 percent. Thus, students are strongly over-represented in cybercafes as compared to being only 14.4 percent of the urban population of India.
- In terms of reasons for using a cybercafe, a third (32.7 percent) indicated the lack of other access possibilities, and quite interestingly, over a fourth felt that it is cheap/cheaper than home - this indicates although they have access at home, it's more expensive and perhaps slower in speed than what cybercafes offer.
- More useful stats available in the article with supporting tables.
And, on a related note, blogging is taking off in Cambodia (via Instapundit).