Internet cafes have played their part in popularising the Net from the very start. In one country, Cameroon, it would appear that Internet cafe owners are worried that the mobile Net will threaten their market position.
Cameroon featured in one of the first-ever reports carried by Developing Telecoms, when we looked at the construction of a fibre-optic "backbone" in that country. Well, things have moved on: a number of Internet cafe owners in Cameroon are worried about a threat they see to their businesses from the mobile Internet.
The mobile Internet, it is true, has become popular in a very short period of time. This is primarily due to the fact that every mobile network in Cameroon is offering customers an Internet facility: buy a mobile and you almost automatically have full Internet access. And hence the problems identified by the cafe owners. After all, if you go to a cyber-cafe you will have to pay "on the spot" for your surfing. Add in the strong coffee your nerves will need if you are playing the stock market online - and an energy-giving candy bar - and your bill starts to add up.
The people of Cameroon are divided. In fact, they are producing exactly the arguments for their chosen method of Internet exploitation which seasoned observers have long been hearing. One cafe-owner, who is witnessing an average drop in clientele of around 30% over pre-mobile days, is convinced that the novelty will wear off and that people will eventually come back to cafes because the quality of the mobile Internet is inferior to his Internet environment. More specifically, mobile phones are cumbersome, take time to set up, and are complicated. He is therefore optimistic that his customers will return for reasons of convenience and efficiency. More optimistic still is cafe owner Valerie Ombang, who says that he has not experienced any drop in numbers because people are not aware of the rival services in the first place and have not got used to the way the services work.
But what of the mobile Internet users themselves? Well, there is Micheal Ayuk, who believes that he can get through to the world outside Cameroon easily via the mobile product. He feels no need to visit a cafe unless the research he needs to carry out specifically requires a cafe visit. And then there is the bottom line. One lady regards the mobile Internet as a cheap option as she does not feel constrained by cafe opening hours and does not have to produce cash whenever she wants to surf. This argument is countered by a statement by a Peter Achu of Cameroon, who could almost have been one of those surfers a few years ago who described mobile Internet with the slogan WAP is crap: the mobile Internet is pointless, not least as people have to strain to read their tiny screens. It appears that the cafe versus mobile argument will never be resolved entirely in one side's favour. And yet it shows a country where Internet has a bright future in the hands of enthusiastic users.