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Friday, 21 July, 2000, 08:23 GMT 09:23 UK
Internet in the Amazon
Man online in a cabina
Opening up a cheap way to contact the United States
By Claire Marshall in Lima

People in Peru are getting online fast, and it is all thanks to the internet 'cabinas' or café.

In a country where only 2% of people can afford either a computer or a telephone, these centres are not just glossy places to pop into at lunchtime for a quick cappuccino.

phoning a relative in the US via the internet
The internet "cabinas" are very basic
For hundreds of thousands of Peruvians, they are rapidly becoming a vital link to the outside world.

Two years ago there were only a handful of cabinas, and about 15,000 users.

Today, there are nearly 700 cabinas all over Peru, with an estimated 800,000 users.

Low cost

The extraordinary growth in their popularity is put down to the low cost, with customers only having to pay 3 soles - or $1 - per hour.

The company given most of the credit for the 'cabina' phenomenon, was started up nine years ago with just one computer and three modems.

The internet service provider, Red Cientifica Peruana, is now growing at a rate of 300% a year, and is valued at around $100m.

Its founder, José Soriano, says that, "In Peru, the internet needs to be seen in a different way."

"These community centres help dissolve the barriers which stop ordinary people from getting online."

Part of life

They are just simple, basic rooms with 10 to 12 computer terminals, and usually one or two telephone booths.

People come to them to keep in contact with friends and relatives, play games, or carry out business.

"It's part of my life", says Marie Elena, a photographer who uses cabinas every day as a research tool to find material, and to communicate with colleagues.

The majority of surfers use Internet Explorer or Netscape Navigator, and visit sites which are in Spanish; popular pages are, and the homepage of one of the national newspapers, El Comercio.

The manager of one of Lima's first internet cabinas, 'Dragon Fans' is Julio Mont.

He says that around 250 people come to his cabina each day - with most of those coming in the middle of the night to make long distance telephone calls.

Many Peruvians have relatives in the United States, and can call them over the internet for less than half the normal telephone tariff.

With many independent companies taking the initiative and copying the public rental idea, cabinas are even spreading to the most inaccessible parts of Peru.

A tourist can now visit the remotest reaches of the Amazon Basin, and still find a place to check their e-mail.

Poor and illiterate still excluded

However the cabina phenomenon in Peru isn't bringing in the internet to every sector of society.

A dollar an hour is still a lot to pay when the average wage is just $2,000 a year.

In addition, people who can't read are being excluded from the internet revolution, and there is 8% illiteracy rate amongst Peruvian adults.

But despite this, in a country where computers cost 30 to 50% more than in the United States, they are undoubtedly helping a wider section of society to access the latest information technology.

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