The age of Internet browsing centres is over. But, Chennai’s Net World disagrees

Browsing centres, popular in the late Nineties, are practically a relic of the past now. So how does Chennai’s Net World stay relevant?

Browsing centres, popular in the late Nineties, are practically a relic of the past now. So how does Chennai’s Net World stay relevant?

Four computers and a dial-up connection that would take ages to connect. That’s what Jagadeesh Ramsingh invested in in 1998, way back when he was fresh out of college and harboured entrepreneurial dreams.

Jagadeesh set up Net World on St. Mary’s Road, Mandaveli, for people “who wanted to check Hotmail… because, that was the only mail service provider at that time”.

“I remember visiting Net Cafe near Music Academy, one of the first Internet browsing centres in the city, and observing how things were set up there. For ₹ 80, they offered browsing for an hour, plus a cup of coffee,” recalls Jagadeesh, who was among the earliest in the city to set up such a centre.

An hour of Internet browsing here was priced at a competitive ₹ 40. “My expenditure was high. We had to purchase a connection, costing about ₹ 10,000, apart from the investment on the landline. As it was a luxury, we used to switch it on only after a customer walks in, wait for it to connect, and let him/her use it. After they were done, we would switch off the connection, and wait till the next customer came,” he reminisces.

A browsing centre in Chennai

A browsing centre in Chennai
| Photo Credit: SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Initially, users would come by to check and send mail. “Subsequently, online chatting came into vogue, and youngsters started thronging our place,” he beams. Yahoo chatrooms were a big hit till Orkut, and later Facebook, took over.

Since then, Jagadeesh and Net World have seen sweeping changes in technology and giant leaps in Internet speeds. Yet they continue to stay relevant, albeit in a slightly different avatar. The physical set-up largely remains the same, but the services offered there have branched out to include printer servicing, photostat, , lamination, spiral binding and DTP work (English and Tamil).

There are multiple options for users today: high-speed broadband connections at home, apart from mobile data and WiFi options on mobile phones. But that still doesn’t signal the death of browsing centres, stresses the 47-year-old.

With many college and Government applications going online, Net World, currently housing eight computers, is as busy as before. “A lot of people still don’t know how to go about using the Internet,” he says. “Even if they do, they are scared that they might make mistakes while, say, filling a ration card or a driving license application.”

When Jagadeesh and his manager at the centre filled out these applications for the first time, even they were a little lost, but as they started to do it repeatedly, it became easy. “As we are now experienced, it is easy for us to navigate websites and fill in customer details.” For a service charge of ₹100, patrons will now get an expert who will sit alongside them and get the work done.

Patrons come from not just from his neighbourhood but also from Royapettah, Teynampet and West Mambalam. “They come to us because we are probably one the few browsing centres still functioning. They tell us, ‘Earlier, we had such centres in our area but they’ve all shut stop’,” says Jagadeesh, who also runs a tours and travels business.

So, what gives him the energy to continue? “I’m happy, because I have two businesses at hand. In future, considering our experience with the Internet, we can explore other online job opportunities as well.”

A recent incident gives him hope. “Some information needed to be added to the ration card online process for many users, and it was announced that it had to be done in a day’s time.” That day, Jagadeesh saw a queue waiting outside his centre, something he has not witnessed since the Yahoo chat days. “Hopefully, we will see more such days.”

Graphic: Albert Francis

Graphic: Albert Francis

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