Washington, 15 April 1997 (RFE/RL) -- The Baltic nations are making steady strides along the information superhighway by co-financing projects with Western nations and organizations that will help develop and build network services to dramatically increase Internet capability across the region in the coming years.
Overall, Internet connectivity in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania appears to be well ahead in terms of technology and capability of most former Soviet republics. Part of the reason for their success is that each of the Baltic countries has been strongly supported in this effort by the governments of Finland, Sweden and Norway.
In 1993, the Nordic Council of Ministers initiated a program called BALTnet which provided funding for computer network development and research in the Baltic nations. One of the most important aspects of the program was the immediate establishment of international network links between the Baltic countries and their Scandinavian neighbors.
BALTnet is still in operation today and continues to provide funds, training and equipment for improved networking capability in the Baltic nations.
But progress in each country is not equal. Estonia has made the greatest progress in restructuring its communication infrastructure and committing funds for computer hardware and software. The government of Estonia has also made Internet connectivity a national priority and has recently announced a new project to connect all secondary schools to the Internet by the year 2000.
However, the Baltic nations, like most countries in the region, are hampered by a technologically substandard telephone system. Most of the phone lines in the Baltic countries are analog (a line designed to support voice) and not digital (a line designed to quickly exchange data). As a result, those people who do have Internet access are often restricted in their online time due to frustrating delays and expensive telephone bills.
Guntis Barzdins, a professor at the Institute of Mathematics and Computer Science at the University of Latvia and a regional expert on the Internet, says the Baltic nations are working hard to improve their communication systems to make them technologically compatible with the rest of the world.
Barzdins says that although most telephone lines in the Baltics are analog, roughly 50 percent of the lines in Riga, Latvia and Tallinn, Estonia are now digital.
Barzdins says there are currently no digital lines in Lithuania, but that preparations are being made for installation in various locations in the capital city of Vilnius.
Barzdins adds, however, that it is likely that analog lines will remain the reality in areas outside large cities in the Baltics.
According to Barzdins, real progress in computer networks in the Baltic region took place from 1990-1991 when the first connections (UUCP and FIDONET) were established to the outside world.
Barzdins says the first permanent Internet connections to Estonia and Latvia were implemented in 1992. And by the end of 1993, he says, all three Baltic countries had permanent links to the Internet.
At first, says Barzdins, access to the Internet was limited to the "privileged" staff of the institutions which established the connections. But he adds that as connectivity increased -- especially to schools and universities -- the numbers and type of people going online greatly diversified.
Despite this progress, Barzdins maintains that Internet access in the Baltics is still concentrated in the large cities and at the universities. He says this is likely to remain the case until better communication lines and more funding is available.
Increased funding may soon be a reality. Worldwide, there has been a great interest in helping the Baltic regions become connected to the Internet.
There are several ongoing projects taking place in the Baltics. A program launched in May 1994 by the European Commission, called the Baltic Information Infrastructure Pilot Project (BIIP), has been helping the Baltic states develop and modernize its communications infrastructure.
The Baltic nations are also part of the Copernicus LinkGuide project, designed to create and mainitain a database of key resources in telecommunication and computer science in Central and East Europe. This project was initially sponsored by NATO International Scientific Exchange Program, but has since been taken over by the European Commission Copernicus Program.
In 1994, the Baltics also received a boost of support from the Open Society Institute (OSI), a private grantmaking foundation funded by Hungarian-American multi-millionaire George Soros.
The Soros project, called the OSI Regional Internet Program (OSI-RIP), has been instrumental in providing training, equipment, technical assistance and funds to improve Internet connectivity in the region. OSI has also been responsible for coordinating and opening several other international avenues of funding for Internet-related projects in the Baltics.
Overall, there are still several major obstacles in the way of improved Internet connectivity in the Baltic nations:
The relatively high cost of computer equipment compared to the average salaries of workers.
Poor communication infrastructure and a lack of digital lines.
The high cost of telephone lines.
A dependency on international funding that makes it difficult for long-range planning.
Following is a progress report on each Baltic state
Since establishing an Internet connection, Estonia has concentrated on networking universities, government and non-governmental organizations, commercial users, libraries and schools to the Internet. The government has played a large role in matching funds of private Western donors and making the issue a national priority.
Estonia still faces a major problem: how to expand Internet connectivity beyond its largest cities. In 1995 OSI-RIP invested in mobile radio links to extend connectivity to rural areas. An OSI-RIP task force was also formed to help these areas create home pages on the Internet to foster communication between sister sites.
Estonia seems to have been quite successful in its networking efforts. According to OSI-RIP, it is estimated that nearly 50 percent of all secondary schools in the country now have some level of connectivity.
Estonia also created EENET, the Estonian Educational and Research Network. Most of the nation's schools, cultural institutions non-governmental organizations and libraries are now connected to this network via the Internet. Government institutions also use EENET as their main network.
Other Internet projects include one set up in 1996 by OSI-RIP which allowed the Tallinn Arts University to set up an electronic media center for the arts and exchange information with universities in Austria, Great Britain and Finland.
Future Internet projects include a coordinated effort called "Tiger Leap" between OSI-RIP and the Estonian government to connect all secondary schools to the Internet by the year 2000.
The number of Internet users in Estonia is estimated at about 35,000 people.
Internet connectivity in Latvia is rapidly progressing, but is concentrated mostly in Riga. Progress is slow in expanding Internet capability outside of Riga.
Because of a lack of funds, the Latvian government has been hard-pressed to financially support technology development and infrastructure building to support Internet connectivity.
Currently there are two main networks operating in Latvia. The scientific and educational community largely use a network called LATNET which was developed by the Institutes of Mathematics and Computer Science and the Infomatics Department at the University of Latvia and the Institute of Electronics of the Academy of Sciences at Riga Technical University.
Banks and other commercial enterprises use a network called LATPAK.
Internet connectivity for schools seems not to have been vigorously pursued. Some estimates indicate that less than one-fourth of secondary schools in Latvia have Internet access. Most of the higher research and educational institutions that are connected are located primarily in Riga.
The BALTnet program is currently focusing on increased Interenet connectivity between schools and universitites. Networking equipment for several universitites and also for the LATNET Network Operations Center has already been purchased.
OSI-RIP says its 1997 projects in Latvia will include an effort to provide more regional connectivity outside the city of Riga and increase communication with libraries, cultural and arts institutions.
The number of Internet users in Latvia is estimated at 35,000 people.
Lithuania's efforts to improve Internet connectivity have been hampered by a lack of government funding, but progress is being made. The main operating network is called LITNet. It is run primarily by the Institute of Mathematics and Infomatics of the Lithuanian Academy of Sciences.
In 1995 OSI-RIP provided funds to help extend Internet connectivity across the country. The organization also purchased 100 used computers for secondary schools which were used as servers to connect to electronic mail.
In 1996, the Lithuanian Ministry of Education installed thousands of computers in secondary schools as a result of a $7 million equipment donation from the American company International Business Machines (IBM).
In 1996 OSI-RIP helped equip the International Library of Lithuania with a public access center (10-12 work stations) to provide Internet access to improve research.
Future Internet programs for 1997 include an OSI-RIP expansion of Internet services into rural areas, additional Internet training and support and the testing of new satellite technology.
The estimated number of Internet users in Lithuania is about 23,000 people.