Britain's pubs are looking for ways to boost income. And now some novel ventures are giving landlords the chance to offer customers the Net – on tap

The traditional pub – probably the oldest networking venue in Britain – has become the latest Internet battleground. Thousands of pubs around the country are struggling to survive as 21st century social habits take people away from their local boozer. So big breweries are understandably keen to maximise income from their outlets, and are seeking to exploit new moves to plug pubs into the Net.

The hope is that many pub-goers have yet to acquire access to the Net and therefore represent an untapped market for Net services.

David Montgomery – chairman of Yava, which produces online kiosks and content for public venues – sees pub access as a way of making the Net available to the masses. "The Internet is just not consumable for the popular market and it's not usually comprehensible to people like me," he says.

Montgomery, former head of Mirror Group Newspapers, is being aided by two former national newspaper editors, Bridget Rowe and David Banks. Montgomery has brought his newspaper experience to bear on the online process, and has employed wordsmiths to make the content as fresh and readable as possible. "People want information they can consume. We do the job for them by introducing an old-fashioned component called the sub-editor," he says.

Yava delivers popular news, sport, shopping, betting and entertainment facilities via kiosks which can be installed in pubs and which can also offer browsing, chat-room and e-mail services.

Montgomery sees Yava as chiefly a content company. Its content can also be delivered to other platforms, such as interactive television and mobile phones. But the big investment at present is in the terminals that have been undergoing trials in pubs and clubs across Britain.

"At the last count we had 115 screens installed," he says. "In the next few months we will test various revenue elements, coin-drop usage, advertising and sponsorship, and betting revenues."

Yava attracted some eye-catching new investment this month – £20 million (33 million euros) from the likes of 3i, Deutsche Private Equity, e-Capital and Carphone Warehouse. It has ambitious plans to install 10,000 screens by early 2002, making it one of the biggest Internet providers in the UK. The company is following in the footsteps of Webzone, a smaller, family firm established in East Sussex in 1997 by David Wicks. His touch-screen, coin-operated terminals are in 110 venues, in direct competition with Yava.

"There's no exclusivity here – all the big brewers are trying out terminals," Wicks says. "Fruit-machine revenues are going down. There are 60,000 pubs out there and 15,000 of them are going to be skint."
His terminals are networked together, and include features that enable pub-goers in Scotland, for instance, to watch what is going on in another pub in southern England. There is a video dating service, quizzes, a lottery and a photo e-mail facility provided, along with Net access. Webzone says it is looking to expand into Canada and Belgium.

A third player in the pub and club stakes is Pubnet, with around 120 terminals to date and an agreement with Microsoft's MSN to provide a dozen traditional board games and puzzles over its coin-operated kiosks. Its plans also envisage pub landlords serving as delivery drop-off points for goods ordered by drinkers.

One of the oddest schemes to have emerged so far comes from the appropriately named Captive View, a joint venture between a liquid crystal display manufacturer and a plastic-urinal supplier. It has developed LCD monitors for lavatories. Video adverts are beamed over the Net to eye-level screens above urinals. The system keeps a tally of captive viewers, and a similar device can be installed in ladies' sit-down toilets. The venture has just launched and plans to roll out 700 screens in 70 locations in its first year – mainly in nightclubs, cinemas and airports.