KATHMANDU, Nepal -- Back in the dark ages -- i.e. the 1980s -- phoning home from Nepal was a major project. I had to stay up well past midnight, then ride my rented bicycle down to the Kathmandu Telecommunications Center. There were endless, baffling forms to fill out. A good read was essential; connecting to the U.S. via funky trunk lines could take over an hour. And after all that, half the time the payoff was a dreaded busy signal, and a long slide back to square one.
Today, the Kathmandu Valley, once the archetypal South Asian backwater, is wired to the gills. Satellite dishes yawn amid drying dung patties on the roofs of Himalayan lodges, the crown prince surfs the Net, and Radio Nepal -- the Hindu Kingdom's flagship AM station -- is online in real time, on RealAudio.
But the coup de grace is coming in the next couple of weeks, when Sanjib Bhandari, founder and CEO of Mercantile Office Systems (MOS), opens Nepal's first cyber cafe. Called K@mandu and situated just 50 meters from the high, spiked gates of the Royal Palace, K@mandu will be the first in a series of culturally hyper-conscious "Cybermatha teahouses."
The phrase, Bhandari explains, is a play on "Sagarmatha," the regional name for Mount Everest. "And they won't be cyber cafes," he notes, "because in the mountains you wouldn't drink coffee."
Bhandari, 37, is the dean of a new breed of Nepali techno-wizards. He has a round face, bowl haircut and easy, boyish charm. Like Bill Gates, he looks a lot younger than his age. Further comparisons between the Nepali tycoon and Microsoft's CEO are inevitable, though, by Bhandari's own admission, "I probably lack (Gates') killer instinct."
Educated by American Jesuit priests at a private school in the Kathmandu Valley, Bhandari studied accounting in Bombay before going to the U.K. for a one-year course in computer systems. "It was very, very basic," he laughs. Still, the know-how he brought home was enough to thrust Nepal -- essentially a medieval nation until the 1950s -- into the information age. He founded MOS in 1985, immediately after returning to Nepal. He now has 120 employees.
Bhandari decided to open his cyber-teahouses after visiting similar venues in Singapore and Sweden. It helped that improved telecom links have recently made such an enterprise practical in Nepal. But he faced a more intractable foe than technology: government censorship.
"The Communication Act of Nepal," Bhandari says, "flatly states that no form of communication can promote violence, sedition, treasonable acts or immorality -- i.e. sex. Right now the government is creating policy for Internet businesses and they know full well that you cannot guarantee -- no matter what technology you use -- that forbidden things will not come in. So we've had the buck very conveniently passed back to us. 'We'll allow you to run the Internet,' they say, 'but you can't do anything prohibited by the Communications Act.'"
Bhandari's stopgap solution has been to follow Singapore's example. He'll set up proxy servers, block a few hundred of the Web's most notorious sites and hope the government credits him for observing the spirit of the law. "We think that's how it will be," he says, grinning. "Of course, there could be one nasty guy who says, 'Oh, I saw a nude woman on a site through your service, and I'm going to shut you down!' That's possible.
"Of course," Bhandari adds rapidly. "You can dial up India, you can dial America, you can dial anywhere, any outside line, to get access to the Internet. And they're fully aware of that, too."
K@mandu will be launched later this month with five Internet stations. Two months later, Bhandari will open a larger teahouse with up to 20 stations. The design was inspired by the Sherpa teahouses you'd find on a trek into the Everest region. Like a Sherpa lodge, K@mandu won't have desks or office chairs. Instead there will be long tables and benches covered with traditional, loom-woven carpets.
But is there a market for a cyber-teahouse in such a remote location?
"Initially," says Bhandari, "I thought of tourists and expats -- people who've gone trekking and have lost touch with their electronic mailboxes for two or three weeks. For a cyber buff, an unthinkable situation! But I now think such people will constitute a very small part of our clientele. I'll tell you why: We had a computer show here in January, and we put about a dozen stations at that show. They were used from the moment the show opened until night time. All Nepalis. They downloaded Film Fare (an India-based "Bollywood" fanzine), universities, chat rooms, you name it. And the average age was less than 20: people who can't afford an Internet link at home."
Ever the entrepreneur, Bhandari has a number of other projects in the pipeline. One, already underway, is a "telemedical" service, a nationwide Net link that would allow doctors in far-flung health posts to communicate online with specialists at the major Kathmandu hospitals. Another -- inevitable, perhaps, though bittersweet -- is a plan to place VSAT (Very Small Aperture Terminals) links in lodges or teahouses along the major trekking routes. Such links would provide around-the-clock connectivity to the MOS server in Kathmandu, and hence to the world at large. As Nepal gets about 50,000 trekkers a year, such a service could make a bundle.
"You could take a laptop with you on the Everest trek, or into the Annapurnas, and link up from there. It's a straightforward set-up." With a sigh, Bhandari adds, "The only obstacle is the governmental permission."
And a formidable obstacle it is. Despite ever-increasing baud rates at the telecom office, Nepal's bureaucracy creeps along at a snail's pace. One example? About 10 years ago, when personal computers first arrived in the Kingdom, customs officials at the airport didn't know where to list them. New customs forms have never been printed, so motherboards, modems and microchips are still being recorded right where they were in the 1980s: under "animal husbandry."