Caffeine Junkies Get Free Broadband

Back to Contents of Issue: June 2001

An oasis of free, fast Net access hopes to draw in the coffee-sipping masses -- and demo the latest in desktops, notebooks, and ISP offerings.

by Kyoko Fujimoto

yahoo cafeFOR THE AVERAGE PERSON living in Japan, becoming an Internet user is difficult and expensive. The PC penetration rate is still far less than 50 percent, so, more often than not, you first need to buy a computer. Then there's the complicated procedure of choosing an ISP and getting connected, after which you have to pay per minute charges to the phone company (unless a pricey flat-rate option happens to be available in your area). In many parts of the world, those who don't have home Net access can just visit the nearest public library, but Japan's don't have Internet-accessible computers. Your best option is to go to an Internet café but you would still have to pay about ¥500 per hour. It's no wonder, then, that the first Yahoo Café in Japan is packed with crowds: Thanks to support from sponsors, it offers Internet access for free.

Located in a small, fashionable street in Harajuku, the Café shares the premises with Starbucks, hoping to attract customers with both the Yahoo and Starbucks brands. The first floor looks like a regular Starbucks, and you might not even realize that an Internet café is upstairs. When you go up the spiral staircase in the corner in search of a relaxing space, coffee in hand, you find the Yahoo Café reception desk on the second floor. Some customers are surprised to see the different-looking reception area -- and many are curious to check out what it is.

"That's what we are hoping many Starbucks customers will do," explains Risa Nakanishi at public relations of Yahoo Japan. "Harajuku, and especially this street, is filled with young women. And Starbucks is a really popular coffee shop. We wanted people who come to Starbucks but are non-Internet users to start using the Internet." Yahoo and Starbucks are not actually partners in this operation; they've just looked together for space that they can share. The interior is unlike other Internet café, since the design of the shop is done by Starbucks and made to look just like its other coffee shops.

yahoo cafeWhy is Yahoo offering free Internet access to users? "To get the traffic to Yahoo, there need to be Internet users first. Japan's Internet [penetration is] still around 20 percent of the population, and we wanted that number up," says Nakanishi. "That's why we are hoping many women will come." Sounds like a reasonable strategy. Although there are many young people who access the Internet on cellphones, they usually just use email; they don't access Web sites or do Net searches. But if offered free Internet access to enjoy while drinking coffee, many folks could be drawn to use it.

What's most different about this Internet café is that there are two chairs for each PC. Yahoo is hoping that heavy Internet users will bring their non-wired friends along and show them why they use it. Of course there are always several staff members from Yahoo to help -- and some English-speaking staff as well, since the place is popular among people from overseas.

The cafés computers and its Internet connection are provided by sponsors. There are 10 desktop PCs and 20 notebooks, all from the sponsoring manufacturers (Sony, Compaq, IBM, and HP). The Internet connection is supported by NTT, ACCA Networks, Tokyo Metallic Communications (using ADSL), usen Corp., IP Revolution (using fiber optics), and Tokyu Cable Television (using cable). Users get a chance to experience broadband access to the Net and compare it to the slow dial-up access they're probably accustomed to if they surf at home. They can also check out the latest PC models. "This place works like a show room for sponsoring companies," says Nakanishi. The official sponsor, Mazda, is actually exhibiting its concept car (worth ¥100 million!) on the first floor. The shop also works to increase brand awareness of the "Yahoo" name.

Newcomers have to register at the counter, but registration is free. When you check in, you get a USB wireless cable that allows you to connect to the Net, and you can surf as much as you like. Yahoo will open shops in different cities in Japan if this one goes well.

The café is certainly off to a good start. In the first weekend after it opened, about a thousand people registered. If those figures are anything to go on, it looks like Yahoo is definitely helping to boost the number of Internet users in Japan. (Note: Not everyone is pleased. Our art director was searching for a favorite café only to discover that the architecturally generic Yahoo building had replaced the idiosyncratic one he was looking for -- along with the trees that had surrounded it.)

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