Internet cafés in Slovakia are becoming a rare breed, even though they fill an educational void for students unable to afford the cost of a home computer and an Internet connection.
Peter Kurthy, owner of two Bratislava Internet cafés including "the first Internet café in Slovakia," said his business was being driven into the ground by the high connect rates charged by state telecom monopoly Slovenské Telekuminikácie (ST). Most of his customers, Kurthy said, were unable to afford to foot the entire connection bill, forcing him to subsidize the service out of his own pocket.
"My monthly expenses for Internet connections are about 60,000 Slovak crowns, while my earnings [at I Café in Dubrávka] are around 15,000 crowns," he said.
Kurthy said his cafés were supplied with free software from Microsoft and Compaq and with free hardware from Interlane. However, Kurthy charges patrons only 1.50 crowns ($.03) per minute for Internet use while he pays ST the full 2 crowns per minute. He admits that charging customers less than he himself pays the provider does not make great business sense, but added that if he increased prices even to 2 crowns per minute, customers would not be able to pay.
Martin Švikruha, owner of the Allegro Café in Poprad, said that running such a business in Slovakia did not have to be a losing proposition, but that everything depended on giving the café the right atmosphere to attract wealthier customers.
"Sure, the connect fees are heavy," he said. "But evetyhing depends on the people who come. You have to have a good atmosphere - it can't be a study hall or a pub."
Švikruha reported that "40 to 50" people use his café daily, "mostly to check their e-mail."
Kurthy said that the idea to start an Internet café was originally driven by normal business motives, but that when he realised the near impossibility of making a profit from his venture, the cafés became a crusade of sorts. His mission, Kurthy says, is to increase the level of Internet accessibility and familiarity in Slovakia. As he sees it, if Internet education is left up to the schools, few pupils will graduate with more than a dim awareness of the information technology revolution that has swept the rest of the world.
"Many young people are interested in the idea of Internet cafés and would like to start their own," said Kurthy, pointing out that along with English-speaking expats, students of all levels constitute a majority of his clientele. "But when they ask me for advice and realise how expensive it is, they say that the cost is too high."
Undeterred, Kurthy says he has borne the losses and kept his two Internet cafés afloat in part because of the experience of his 12-year-old daughter who attends a local secondary school that has no Internet access for students. Kurthy said that while the students were expected to make do with no on-line education, the director of the school had been provided with free Internet hook-up which went largely unused behind "the locked door of the director's office."
Finding this unacceptable, Kurthy worked out programmes to give students Internet access with Bratislava secondary schools. Under the arrangement, students were sent to his cafés during school hours and given IT lessons, often for no charge aside from the price of connection. He said he hopes education professionals will follow his example and improve the level of accessibility for the current young Slovak generation in order to assure that they do not miss out entirely on the Information Age. "We are supplying what libraries and schools should already be supplying," he said.
There is another internet café in Bratislava, the Klub Internet Multimedia Café, located inside the Slovak National Museum. A clerk at the café identified Kurthy as the owner of the establishment and gave out his business card. However, Kurthy denied that this was the other internet cafe he owned.