These days, more and more people stop at Shakabrah Java on Sixth Avenue for more than a latte. Many now come in for fast, easy public Internet access at a low hourly rate. Would you care for e-mail with your espresso today?
In March, Shakabrah at 2602 Sixth Ave. contracted with Powerscourt, a fast- growing computer consulting firm in downtown Tacoma, to offer Pierce County's first public Internet access outside of the public library. To create the Internet cafe, Powerscourt set up three well-equipped terminals in Shakabrah's music room. Originally, the rental charge was $6 an hour, but the hourly rate now has dropped to $5.
For that fee, users can surf the Net with the latest high-tech gear, video conference with up to 15 other sites, e-mail and make free long-distance calls to anyone on the Freetel system. And, do it a lot faster than from home.
"Most people's computers run at 28 to 30 miles per hour at home. We run at 128 miles per hour at Shakabrah," said Bill Towey, president of Powerscourt. "We're three to four times faster than any home user. What takes three and a half minutes at home we do instantly. We have multimedia surfing and full animation capability. I know of no other place in the world capable of video conferencing unattended."
Towey says that unattended aspect to this project is key to its commercial success. The system at Shakabrah doesn't require an on-site technical person. A first-time user can pay for a ticket, apply five basic printed instructions to start, then follow on-screen directions - and do it without help or havoc. Computer veterans love the speed and continually upgraded gear. Beginners appreciate its simplicity without sacrificing performance.
Towey also emphasizes the anonymity of his system - a feature U S West cannot offer with its new computer kiosks in King County. No credit cards are used at Shakabrah, so no one can identify users. They log-in with their own portable ID number that keeps track of remaining time, but no one can trace whose number it is after it's bought with cash.
Ticket portability will become vital as public Internet-access kiosks spread.
"Some day, you'll use your ticket at a coffee shop in the morning, a deli at noon and a tavern at night," Towey said. "We're about to do our second one at SBB Deli in downtown Tacoma. I'm eager to put them in bars and taverns."
Wouldn't damage from spillage by over-wired java junkies or too-relaxed bar patrons mean trouble? Not so, says Towey.
"Surprisingly, we've had very little damage to date," he said. "Somebody tried to steal a video camera and broke it. But, even if coffee gets spilled all over a keyboard, they only cost $18 each."
Jeff Bennett, owner of Shakabrah Java, is satisfied with the drawing power of his Internet cafe, even if he receives only a modest commission on each ticket sold.
"People come in from all over the place and say, 'I hear you've got Internet access,'" Bennett said. "We sell $500 to $700 of time each month. If they buy $5 of time, they also spend $2 or $3 on something in the restaurant. I love it, and it can only get better as we offer more services."
Towey supplies gear at no cost and receives all revenue minus commission. He selected Shakabrah as his computer kiosk test case simply because that's where he stops for his morning coffee. Powerscourt's other computer consulting already generates annual revenue in the seven-figure range, but Towey sees huge potential for public Internet access.
"We have three or four more planned here in the next 90 days, and eventually we have big plans to roll out thousands nationally," Towey said. "They could be paid for by those who'd pay large sums to have their logo displayed on screens just when they're not in use. This is a nascent industry."
Just as the specialty coffee industry was a few years ago.