Do cyber cafés still have a place in the Caribbean?

In this day and age when everyone aspires to have their own personal computing device, Internet/cyber cafés might still be necessary in the Caribbean.

Over the past few years there has been an increasing focus on ensuring individual (and household) take-up of Internet services, both fixed-line and mobile/cellular based. As a result, it may seem strange that there still is a market for Internet/cyber cafés, and that they might not yet be diminishing in popularity.

Internet cafés have been around since the early 1990s, and in addition to providing Internet access to the public, usually on a time-based fee, they would also serve snacks and light beverages. While the standalone model is still widely employed, many businesses, especially those in food and beverage industry, see the cyber café concept as a complement to their core purpose. Hence they either have at hand computers that their customers can use to go online, or they make available wireless Internet (e.g. via Wi-Fi) which their customers can access using their own devices.

Notwithstanding the still growing trend of businesses offering public Wi-Fi to their customers, there may still be a need for cyber cafés. Below we highlight a few of the reasons.

Personal device a barrier to access

Across the region, and thanks to competition in particular, countries have experienced drastic reductions in Internet rates – both for domestic and business customers. Although this development might bode well for subscriber growth, it is just one contributor. Another critical and often overlooked element is the computing device through which Internet access is being facilitated.

Although many of us might be excited by the latest smartphones, tablets and laptops, in particular, there tends to be a significant portion of the population who are not able to afford even the most modest versions of those devices. More importantly, if they are able to afford such devices, generally they have limited Internet-related functionality and performance. A cyber café increases consumers’ options.

Better price-to-performance comparison

With regard to Internet pricing, and as mentioned earlier, they have decreased considerably over the past few years. However, as we highlighted in our May 2014 Snapshot on Internet affordability, for almost half of the countries examined, an fixed-line broadband internet plan with a download speed of up to 2 Mbps, and excluding line rental, if applicable, would cost the average consumer over 5% of his/her monthly income.

With regard to mobile/cellular data plans, although the percentage of monthly income expended might be less than 5% of a persons average monthly income, the transmission speeds can be quite slow, which can again affect the overall utility of those mediums. Cyber cafés can again be an alternative by offering faster speeds and/or more attractive prices in comparison to that of Internet Service Providers.

A case for telecentres?

Years ago when access to and the availability of the Internet was concentrated primarily to urban areas, telecentres were widely promoted as a possible solution. According to the Telecentre Foundation,

A telecentre is a public place where people can find information, create, learn, and communicate with others while developing digital skills through access to information and communication technology.

Essentially a telecentre is more than just a cyber café. Frequently, they tend to be in multi-functional/multipurpose spaces, such as public libraries, post offices, education or community centres, and seek to contribute to the development of communities.

While without a doubt cyber cafés have their place for the reasons outlined above, there may still also be a place for telecentres, especially for persons who might not yet fully appreciate how computers and the Internet can their improve livelihoods and lives, and perhaps more importantly, are not yet proficient in using those tools. Hence although there have been an emphasis on computer literacy in schools and on increasing access to telecoms, and specifically Internet services, there are still likely to pockets – small communities – across the region that are not as connected and versed in some of the newer technologies we take for granted.

 

Image credit:  Shinya ICHINOHE (flickr)

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1 Comment

  • Thanks for raising this issue Michele! I’m glad that you’ve addressed the digital exclusion aspect of the value of cyber cafes.
    At the other end of the spectrum though do you feel that there’s a market for more public spaces – bars, hotels, coffee shops etc that encourage people to use their wifi as a way of attracting business?
    Having spent two months working remotely from Grenada this summer I was amazed at the number of occasions on which, when asking for the WiFi password, I was met with a look I would have expected to receive if asking for the code to their safe.
    Caribbean governments are all talking big about entrepreneurship yet for many micro-entrepreneurs an office space is not a sensible investment of resources.
    As such, encouraging the growth of wifi-enabled spaces where co-working can occur might be another direction for the cybercafe… or maybe I’ve just spent too long in Europe!

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