Last week, I attended the Nigeria Broadband Forum organised by the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC). The event, themed ‘Demand as Catalyst for Broadband Services in Nigeria’, was attended by key stakeholders in the Information and Communications Technology sector. During the event, the NCC revealed that though mobile penetration was now well over 70%, broadband was still below 2%, and the world, according to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) Secretary General, looks on at Nigeria to repeat the mobile miracle with broadband.
In response to this situation, the Minister of Communications Technology, Omobola Johnson, announced that the Federal Government will soon put in place a Presidential Committee on broadband that will function in ensuring that Nigeria has ubiquitous internet capacity and a national backbone, while the NCC works to deploy the planned open access model that will guide the delivery of reliable and affordable broadband to end users.
As discussions progressed at the event, with stakeholders making contributions and highlighting grey areas in the NCC’s plans, I couldn’t help but reflect on the role — which is often taken for granted — that one entity which is fast disappearing played in introducing my generation to the internet and, by extension, connecting us to the rest of the world at a time communication was quite a challenge for us here. This entity is the Cyber Café.
Long before the BlackBerry and its cousin smartphones, indeed long before GSM phones became a common place gadget, there was the cyber café. This was a time when there were less than five hundred thousand phone lines in the country. A time when ownership of a NITEL line was a status symbol, one that ensured your house was a centre of convergence of friends and relatives waiting to receive a call. Then, to communicate, you went out and queued at a public phone booth with its attendant inconveniences. The advent of e-mails or, better put, the adoption of e-mails here therefore was like a huge miracle exerting an effect similar to the soothing feel of cold water on a parched throat. Emails became the fashionable alternative for communicating with friends and family. Ownership of an e-mail account gave one perhaps the same status as owning a BlackBerry phone had two/three years ago.
The only way to access these almighty e-mails were the cybercafé. For a generation of Nigerians, their first contact with the internet was through these cafes’ that sprang up rapidly around our streets and neighbourhoods. I recall with nostalgia my first e-mail — the excitement of it, like Neil Armstrong on the Moon. Back then, we paid ridiculous amounts to send a paragraph of e-mail. Indeed, as an undergraduate in Nsukka, I took trips to Enugu just to send e-mails in Cyber Cafes.
The cafes were usually stuffy rooms with no air-condition — some barely had fans — holding half a dozen PC’s that were all engaged, and another dozen users patiently waiting for their turn. Most times, users came in pairs or groups and huddled around a PC — usually, only one of them knew how to use the internet, and helped all the others. Boy, were the connections slow and frustrating! But they were fascinating too. With E-mails came messenger chats, sending of greeting cards, search and, later, social media through Hi5, Myspace and then Facebook. Because users couldn’t get enough, cafes introduced overnight browsing, which was very popular for allowing faster speed and a conducive atmosphere to achieve more.
But then, the cafés also became a home for other vices. Teenagers watching porn, scammers hoodwinking unsuspecting foreigners, youngsters sending out the now world renowned Nigeria scam e-mails. I once read a quote which stated that anyone yet to receive an e-mail from Nigeria is yet to own an e-mail address.
Today, the cafes are no longer as important as they used to be; indeed, they are now unpopular as they fast lose the battle against 3G enabled phones, internet services for homes, V-sat, Wimax, etc. which have enabled users own their own internet service (as inadequate and as unreliable as it currently is).
I need not restate here how important broadband is to any people, especially in this age. As the ITU will say, broadband should be considered a basic amenity like electricity, roads and water supply, and governments have a responsibility to provide their citizens with access to it. Currently, we are way behind in this regard. One hopes that now that the government, through the Ministry of Communications Technology and the NCC, seem to have finally woken up to their responsibility, we can gradually evolve an era when Nigerians can enjoy affordable and reliable broadband service.
Until that day comes however, I find it appropriate to reminisce and pay tribute to cyber cafes. They met a need, the value of which we can’t ever quantify.