Cybercafes try to expand on limited menu of Internet access and coffee There
are about 20 Internet cafes in Ireland, writes Eoin Licken, and many are now
turning to training to defray costs
(Irish Times; 06/12/98)
"Internet au lait, s'il vous plait!" From California to Bombay, three of the
defining symbols of the young affluent generation of the 1990s have to be
cappuccino, the Internet and independent travel. It's strange therefore that
the confluence of these three streams in an affluent society, the Internet
cafe, isn't a major money-earner.
Internet cafes, colloquially known as cybercafes, have become the post
offices, print shops and entertainment centres of the wired generation. Time
was when you wrote to friends travelling abroad by addressing your letters care
of post restante in a post office they were likely to visit; with forethought
and a little luck your friends intercepted their mail.
However the Internet has removed the uncertainty. Using free Web-based email
your friends can now receive (and send) mail messages in any one of the
approximately 2,000 cybercafes worldwide.
A friend has managed to stay in touch, for example, while wandering through
the Indian subcontinent over the last six months. Using a free email account he
receives news from home and sends weekly summaries of his adventures to all his
online colleagues from a string of cybercafes from Pakistan to Sri Lanka. It's
cheap, it's reliable and it's private.
There are an estimated 20 or so cybercafes in Ireland North and South,
stretching from Derry to Waterford. But they are more than just electronic post
offices for the cyber disenfranchised: having invested in computer equipment,
communications links and computer literate staff, they use their resources to
the full by incorporating scanners, printers, CD-Roms and games.
Mr Peter Farrelly owns and runs Cyberia, one of the handful of cybercafes in
Dublin. Opened in 1995, it was originally more cafe than cybercafe, but has
since moved across the street and dropped the food off the menu. Now it's
strictly Internet and coffee for the users of the 11 PCs ringing the walls.
Most of them are young, claiming the discounted student rate of (pounds)
1.25 per 15 minutes. Foreign students exchange email messages with friends at
home, while an American woman brings her 10-year-old son in to play Quake while
she writes letters (of the pen and paper variety). "He hasn't played it since
we got here last Thursday," she says quietly over a backdrop of soft music, key
clicks and muted conversations.
A year after opening, Cyberia linked up with an international chain of
similarly named cafes, opting not to become a franchise but to licence the
name, as Mr Farrelly puts it. The Cyberia chain, started in London in 1994 by
Ms Eva Pascoe and Ms Gene Teare, now has branches in Manchester, Edinburgh,
Bangkok, Tokyo and Manila. Mr Farrelly's background is in antiques, and he says
he got involved with the Internet while doing a BComm in UCD in 1992. "I caught
the computer bug there," he says, "and I saw the cafe as a way of getting into
the Internet business." He says the Internet is the priority, not the coffee.
Mr Farrelly says his customers are an even mix of overseas visitors,
including foreign students and tourists, and Irish people "who don't have a
computer at home or the facilities at work, or if at work want something more
private". He has had some business users plugging laptops into the cafe's
network, but says: "You could count on one hand the number of business users
per month." He says 80 per cent of customers just use email, half of these
using free, Web-based services such as Microsoft's Hotmail, the rest being
members of the cafe and using its email accounts.
The remaining 20 per cent use word processing typically printing CVs or play
games. Virtually nobody browses the Web, save the odd person looking up sports
Besides owning his own cybercafe, Mr Farrelly is also the chairman of the
Irish Internet Cafe Association (IICA). He says there are about 16 cybercafes
in the Republic, with lots of new ones starting up in the last three months. He
estimates the industry to be worth (pounds) 2 million to (pounds) 3 million. It
is not too competitive though, he says, because "even in Dublin there seems to
be enough business out there". He says the number of "off-the-street users" at
Cyberia has doubled since last year.
Machine costs can be low email doesn't require high-spec equipment but Mr
Farrelly says expenses can be high. A permanent Internet connection via a
leased line costs him (pounds) 5,000 annually, while other cafes find staff
costs high too. (Mr Farrelly generally staffs the cafe alone). For this reason
many cybercafes are turning to computer and Internet training, which command
much higher hourly rates than just Internet access.
One such cafe is the Internet Exchange on Dublin's Drury Street, which now
trades under the name Premier Computer Training. Founder Mr Barry Breslin says
it had been busy as a cybercafe, but that "wasn't an activity that ever made
much money at all". Now offering European Computer Driving Licence (ECDL)
training modules it has much higher returns than when it was an Internet cafe
and only covering overheads.
Despite such views, Cyberia's Peter Farrelly is planning to offer more
Internet access, not less. He plans to install more machines as customers often
queue in the early afternoons, and his newly formed company Interpoint is
planning to install coin and credit card Internet kiosks in public places such
as tourist hostels, airports and train stations. If Internet au lait was the
1990s, the coming decade may be more a case of Internet al fresco.
Eoin Licken is at elicken(at)irish-times.ie