With most homes in Japan not yet ready for high-speed access to the Internet, more and more “broadband cafes” are sprouting up to offer firsthand experience with the latest Internet services.
Download Station K.K. plans to open its second broadband cafe in Osaka’s Chuo Ward next month, following its first outlet launched in Tokyo’s Chiyoda Ward in October.
“We are operating spaces in which people can experience the information technology that will be spreading six months from now, and now it’s broadband,” said Chiaki Tanabe, marketing director of the company.
Equipped with a wireless high-speed local area network, the Osaka outlet will allow customers to edit their own videotapes — such as those taken while traveling or at sporting events — using movie scenes retrieved from video libraries on the Internet, she said.
Broadband technology is capable of delivering large-volume content, including music and movies, online at a high speed. The presence of broadband cafes — cybercafes offering broadband Internet communications — has been growing in Japan since the government in January set a goal to have about 10 million households hooked to high-speed, large-volume Internet networks by 2005.
Broadband in Japan, however, has been slow to spread, lagging way behind the United States and South Korea.
As of the end of 2000, only 4.6 percent of some 47 million Internet users were connected with broadband lines, including digital subscriber lines, cable television lines and fiber-optics, according to the Ministry of Public Management, Home Affairs, Posts and Telecommunications.
Japan’s high telecommunication costs and the slow pace of advanced infrastructure reaching households are two major obstacles for the broadband proliferation, according to experts.
In a bid to attract more people to broadband technology, Download Station is offering special content at its Tokyo outlet.
For instance, it is offering free rental of portable personal computers through which customers can access broadband contents such as audible newspapers and digitized TV programs like cooking shows.
Every day, some 50 Net surfers visit the outlet, which occupies 660 sq. meters of the sixth floor of the Tokyo Sankei Building. They can try out the wireless high-speed Internet connection anywhere on the floor, including the Town Cryer British pub.
While being an ideal experiment space for those curious about spearhead Internet technology, the outlet also serves as a research lab for its operator as well as hardware makers and content providers.
Tanabe said her company researches how people approach digital content for broadband and what types of programs are preferred.
“We make and deliver content based on requests from our customers and do marketing for their new products and services (through the Internet),” she said.
Predicting big potential for Japan’s broadband services, South Korean eSamsung Japan Co., a subsidiary of the Seoul-based conglomerate Samsung Group, is also trying to cash in with its broadband cafe Necca, using its expertise learned from its Net cafes in South Korea, called “PC bangs.”
Since its first broadband cafe opened in Tokyo’s Shibuya Ward in December, about 11,000 people have become member users of the outlet, which has about 100 desktop PCs connected with high-speed cables.
Its second Necca outlet, a franchise operated by amusement service firm Taito Corp., opened in Tokyo’s Akihabara electric town in June. Customers can use PCs there for 500 yen an hour.
The South Korean firm plans to open 500 Necca outlets across Japan over the next three years, said Kim Jong-Shin, who heads eSamsung Japan’s Internet Business Division.
In South Korea, the broadband cafe boom broke out a few years ago, with 20,000 PC bangs operating currently. While about 70 percent of visitors to the Net cafes play online games in South Korea, only 20 percent or so do so at its Shibuya Net cafe, Kim said.
“In Japan, people play games through i-mode (mobile phones) and game consoles like PlayStation. So it’s difficult to draw game players to Net cafes like Necca,” Kim said.
Therefore, eSamsung Japan is trying to introduce Necca not only as an entertainment space but also as an Internet network station, which can be operated, for example, as a learning center, he said.
“We are going to create a business model on broadband services in Japan,” Kim said. “Necca is an infrastructure we are building to provide our own broadband content.”
On the other hand, Dellgamadas Co., which opened a broadband cafe called Cafe J Net New New in April in Tokyo’s Shibuya Ward, seems to perceive a broadband cafe as a replacement of game centers.
Hiroko Okada, a spokeswoman for the company, said the number of online game players in Japan will increase as major Japanese game software makers plan to make popular game software such as Final Fantasy available online.
Its Net cafe, with 146 desktop PCs, draws more than 300 people daily — more than the firm had expected, Okada said. Admission is 500 yen an hour.
Although the competition in the broadband cafe businesses is intensifying, she said, her firm’s broadband cafe has some unique points of appeal, such as PCs with video chat functions and pair seats. Dellgamadas plans to open nine more outlets in the Kanto region this year.
The broadband cafe business is booming now, but its future remains uncertain. Cybercafes with narrowband networks mushroomed between 1995 and 1997, but quickly waned on the spread of Internet access in homes.
Aiming to avoid a similar fate, eSamsung Japan’s Kim said providing unique broadband content is key to the survival of Necca outlets.
Tanabe of Download Station said their outlets can become community spaces in which people stop by anytime just to relax and experience new Internet services.
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