While in Manila last month, I had the opportunity to help friends set up an internet cafe business of their own. It was a new business venture and a specially stressful process for them since none in the family, except for a son who is an IT graduate, was in any way familiar with the cafe business or particularly computer savvy.
I, myself, am no computer geek but I have a basic working knowledge of computer hardware and software which came in handy when I found myself immersed, for the first time, in the onerous task of getting a bunch of newly assembled PC's loaded with the proper software and making sure that they were ready to hum and communicate faultlessly together as a network. The work became a unique learning process for me.
The whole experience also taught me a lot of the minutiae and details that go into putting up a new computer rental and internet cafe business and has made me appreciate the difficulties and obstacles inherent in starting a enterprise of that nature. I emphasize this point because the internet cafe is a hideously complex undertaking for someone who may not be knowledgeable or familiar with the workings of modern information technology.
Woe, therefore, to the unfortunate individual who jumps into that kind of business undertaking without doing the proper research or getting the necessary necessary advice from experts. Such an ill-advised move can quickly end up a very costly mistake.
In Lianga, internet cafes have been part of the landscape since access to the internet was made possible in late 2006 with the entry of SMART Communications' Smart Bro wireless broadband internet access service. Even today that company remains the community sole ISP provider for both home and commercial computer systems since no telephone and data landlines exist in the general area.
Computer use and ownership in the town has been growing at a steady rate with the more affordable prices of computer components in the domestic Philippine market in recent years. But the high cost of getting hooked up to an ISP and thus the internet has kept the number of home computers with Web surfing capability low. This has made internet cafes a more than viable business locally in a population that is growing more and more computer and Web literate every year.
For 20 pesos or less than 50 cents in U.S. currency, one can have access to a computer with an internet connection for an hour. For most local Web surfers, that small indulgence is considered money well spent even in an economy where frugality is becoming more and more of a necessity rather than merely a virtue to emulate.
Local internet cafe owners tell me that approximately 60 to 70 percent of their customers are young students and minors who play computer games particularly of the network, online or MMORPG (massively multiplayer online role-playing game) kind. Most of them also indulge in social networking websites like Friendster and Facebook or engage in online chats with contacts all over the world via Yahoo Messenger or Skype.
Most of adult customers use the cafes to view, check and send e-mails. Text, voice or video chatting are also popular pastimes for many in this part of the world where few families don't have members are working or living abroad. In many ways, the internet cafes have become virtual bridges, closing the gaps between the vast physical distances that separate people.
Despite their complaints about falling revenues as as result of the economic crises and higher operating costs, I have no doubt that the internet cafe business is here to stay in Lianga. In most cases, local cyber-hangouts like Angel's, Wilabs or Jag's will continue to do well as long as they continue to innovate and keep up with the latest advances in IT technology.
Lianga may be for some a town in the boondocks but even here computers and the internet, like the ubiquitous cellular phones, have become part of the tapestry of everyday life. Life is no longer the same without these electronic and digital gateways, "stargates" if you will, to cyberspace.
I should know that for a fact. Without them I would be at a great loss. A great loss, indeed.