Asia's On Ramps To The Information Superhighway

Noriaki Takahashi, a 26-year-old worker in a Tokyo glass factory, doesn't even own a personal computer. But on a recent Sunday night, he crowded into a small auditorium along with over 100 other Japanese youths at an IBM-sponsored "Internet Cafe." While the crowd watched a fluffy Japanese pop singer named Reiko Chiba gush about her home page on the World Wide Web, Takahashi was pondering his own digital future: "My friend tells me he knows a guy who sends his music as data through the Internet. That's got me interested."

Takahashi and others like him are helping launch Asia into cyberspace. Estimates of Japanese Internet users run up to 3 million, with another 2 million in the rest of Asia, including hundreds of students at China's technical schools, who can contact dissidents through "soc.culture.china." Commercial access providers are springing up fast as well, with over 40 in Australia, 8 in Hong Kong, and 5 in Korea.

FREE PASS. No place is catching up faster than Japan. From a few dozen Web sites a year ago, there are now over 300. One of the best deals for heavy Internet users comes from PSI Japan, which launched a service last October offering 30 hours a month for $260 up front, plus a monthly fee of $100 (table).

IBM Japan, meanwhile, charges $40 for up to 3 hours after a $45 initiation fee. Both IBM and PSI supply direct "PPP" access, which makes the subscriber's computer a temporary part of the Net. But the fastest such connections will run is 14,400 bits per second. That can be a slow grind when bringing in graphics-heavy pages from the World Wide Web. For pure zip, the best bet is Global Online, the only provider now running at 28,800 bps.

First-time Net surfers just look-ing for an E-mail service can get online for free at Information Access Center Inc. When you log on, your screen fills with a bright red Coca-Cola Co. ad. Coke pays for the English-language service, along with 11 other advertisers. One drawback: The service doesn't handle Japanese. IAC also sells direct PPP Web access for a $55 signup fee and a $55 monthly charge for the first 10 hours.

To make the Internet connection in Japan, some providers require a Japanese-language communications package. But there is reliable freeware in Japanese such as Wterm, which comes with many modems. And once you are online, providers will often give you software to navigate the Internet. PSI, for example, passes out software including a Web browser and mail reader. Netscape Navigator in Japanese is free for the downloading, although commercial users must eventually buy a license.

EASY ACCESS. Hong Kong's estimated 20,000 Net denizens get off cheaper than Japan's. Fees average $20 to $40 per month. Few providers use their own leased lines, so prices tend to vary with the time of day. Asia On-Line, for example, charges a flat 77 cents a minute, but the rate drops to 30 cents during off-peak hours. Freeware in Chinese is still scarce, but Taipei-based SeedNet has put out a net-navigation package in Chinese called "Success," which costs around $50.

In Korea, the most popular commercial provider is DACOM, which charges 4 cents a minute, though heavy users may prefer I-Net, which charges a flat $50 per month. Users will need I-Yagi, a Korean-language communications package.

From Japanese pop singers to Chinese dissidents, Asians are discovering that getting on the Net isn't much harder than buying their first PC. The Far East has never been so near.

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