Washington, 21 May 1997 (RFE/RL) -- The five nations of Central Asia are only just getting on the information superhighway, but progress is being made largely with the help of Western nations and organizations.
At the present time, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan have limited computer networking capabilities. However, three of the five countries have established permanent Internet access and all have electronic mail (email) capability.
Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan were the first of the Central Asian nations to make permanent Internet connections in 1994. Kyrgyzstan followed in 1995.
Tajikistan and Turkmenistan have not yet established permanent Internet access. However, foreign companies operating out of these countries can access the Internet via small portable satellite dishes. Moreover, the two nations, like all the countries of the former Soviet Union since about the early 1990's, do have dial-up, non-permanent access to the Internet via several providers, including Relcom, Sovam and Glasnet, all Russian-managed.
For many years, several organizations, both in and outside Central Asia, have been involved in building computer networks, establishing email servers and working toward faster and more efficient Internet connections.
One Western organization that has been actively involved in the process is the Eurasia Foundation, a U.S.-based, privately-managed grantmaking organization. Established in 1993 with a grant from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the Foundation has since awarded more than 70 grants totaling $1.7 million to help establish or improve Internet capability across the former Soviet Union.
The project for helping to establishing an efficient networking capability in the region got under way in 1994 when the Foundation provided a substantial grant of $85,000 to the Project for Economic Reform and Development in Central Asia (PERDCA). PERDCA is a non-profit organization dedicated to facilitating and supporting technical assistance efforts in Central Asia.
PERDCA used the money to establish the Silknet network which has since provided electronic mail service to subscribers in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.
The Eurasia Foundation gave PERDCA four additional grants, including one totaling $148,000 in 1995-1996 to improve email capability and networking throughout Central Asia.
Another organization called the Open Society Institute (OSI), a private grantmaking foundation funded by Hungarian-American multi-millionaire George Soros, has also provided significant technical and financial support in improving the networking capabilities and Internet connectivity in the region.
The Soros project, called the OSI Regional Internet Program (OSI-RIP), has been involved with many organizations in the region in developing email capability, network infrastructure building, training programs, and Internet access.
The International Research and Exchanges Board (IREX), a U.S.-based non-profit organization, is also supporting Internet connectivity in Central Asia.
Through a program called the U.S.-Eurasia Internet Access and Training Program (IATP), the organization is working to provide Internet access and training to thousands of users across the former Soviet Union. Currently IREX has experts in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan to help improve Internet access and email capability.
According to Christopher Parker, IREX's representative in Uzbekistan, one of the goals of IATP is to create a non-profit consortium of organizations in the region that will maintain and support a large network known as the FreeNET.
Parker says that FreeNET currently has about 400 users who access the system through a dial-in modem at three public access nodes in Tashkent. He says FreeNET will soon be opening additional nodes in Tajikistan.
Another organization, Chemonics International, a U.S.-based consulting firm that provides business and technical expertise to developing and emerging-market countries, has also been active in Central Asia.
In 1993, Chemonics received a grant from USAID which it used to establish a project called "The Rule of Law" that ran from 1993-1996. Operating under the name American Legal Consortium, the program awarded grants to legal institutions Central Asia to develop the capacity to participate in democratic systems. Part of their strategy was information resources development which included establishing or improving email capability and providing computer training among the non-governmental agencies participating in the project.
According to Hester Obohi of Chemonics, the project resulted in 11 grants totaling $374,000 to local non-governmental agencies in Central Asia, part of which was used for improving networking capabilities and email.
Another organization called ISAR (formerly known as the Institute on Soviet-American Relations), is also participating in the region, helping the Central Asian nations along the information superhighway.
In 1993, ISAR opened an office in Almaty, Kazakhstan, to support the growth of the environmental movement in Central Asia. Funded by USAID and other philanthropic organizations, ISAR awards grants mostly to environmental groups in the region.
According to Megan Falvey, Central Asia Program Director for ISAR, the organization currently has a USAID-funded project underway to do a series of email and computer training classes in Kazakhstan, Kyrgysztan and Turkmenistan. Falvey says ISAR expects to train around 45 participants at a cost of about $6,000.
Falvey says that ISAR has given out, in the form of grants, dozens of modems and computers to local environmental groups in all five Central Asian countries. Overall, Falvey estimates that ISAR has awarded grants totaling around $50,000 for computer and modem equipment over the past four years.
Interest in computer technology, networking and the Internet in Central Asia remains high. Just this week in Washington, representatives from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan attended an International Internet Summit sponsored by INTELSAT, a U.S.-based company and one of the largest providers of satellite communications services.
However, there are still several major obstacles in the way of improved Internet connectivity in Central Asia:
Poor telecommunication infrastructure. There are currently no digital lines (designed to quickly exchange data) in Central Asia, all of the telephone lines are analog (designed to support voice).
A severe lack of telephone lines for residential use even in the big cities, and insufficient communication links with rural areas.
Civil and political unrest in many regions which impedes infrastructure reform and intimidates potential sponsors and donors.
The high cost of telephone lines.
The inability of Central Asian governments to match funds with Western donors or contribute much help to improve communications infrastructure within their own countries.
A complete dependence on international funding which makes it difficult for long-range planning.
Here is a progress report on each of the Central Asian nations.
In 1995, the Soros project OSI-RIP provided 30 secondary schools that already had computers with the means to use email and the Internet as a learning tool. The organization also purchased additional computer equipment and modems for the schools and paid for registration and user fees, provided introductory training for teachers and students, and supplemented the wages of local teachers participating in the project.
In 1996 OSI-RIP sponsored an independent non-profit server with an outlet to the Internet dedicated to providing Kazakh educational institutions with low-cost services.
IREX, with the aid of their Internet expert in Kazakhstan, Stephen McHale, has set up four public access sites in Almaty, developed a strong user base and trained local staff.
Experts estimate Internet users in Kazakhstan to be about 500; email users around 25,000.
In 1995, OSI-RIP provided Kyrgyzstan with email starter kits, personal computers and access to email for 25 secondary schools, a radio station, four medical facilities, two research institutes and one unidentified user.
In 1996, OSI-RIP connected three medical institutions, one university and 25 additional secondary schools to the Internet.
Also in 1996, Eurasia Foundation awarded grants -- intended mostly for information networking purposes and totaling nearly $61,000 -- to the Kyrgyzstan Union of Journalists, the Commercial Information Agency, the Kyrgyz-German Society and three independent newspapers.
Experts estimate Internet users in Kyrgyzstan to be about 500; email users around 5,000.
Beginning in 1995, OSI-RIP, in coordination with PERDCA and the Eurasia Foundation, installed the first email system in Tajikistan and provided logistical and training support for operators. By July 1995, the system was fully operational with about 60 users. In 1996 OSI-RIP expanded the project to about 700 users.
The Central Asia Development Agency (CADA), a U.S.-based charitable organization has also been active in helping expand e-mail capability across Tajikistan.
According to David Brooks, the Deputy Director of CADA, the organization is presently running a public access email node for Tajikistan using the Silnet network as a service provider. Brooks explains that this means any citizen in the area with a computer and modem can send and receive a limited amount of email at CADA's expense. Those who want more than the limited amount offered can visit a public node set up in CADA's office in Dushanbe.
Brooks adds that CADA has also hooked up email to local universities, hospitals and government institutions. Last month, Brooks said CADA opened a subnode in the city of Khojand in northern Tajikistan and plans to open nodes in two more cities over the next few months.
The government of Tajikistan has become somewhat involved in the effort by identifying telecommunications development as vital to the operation of the economy as a whole.
However, the telecommunications situation in Tajikistan is uncertain, and the potential for immediate infrastructure improvement is not likely considering the political and civil unrest in the country.
According to figures published by an American firm, International Technology Consultants (ITC), there are currently only 3.2 lines per 100 inhabitants in Tajikistan. ITC adds that the waiting list for new telephone service in Tajikistan by the end of 1996 was approximately 80,000 people.
Experts estimate the number of e-mail users in Tajikistan to be around 800-1,000.
A success story in Turkmenistan is the Ashgabad-based Catena Ecological Club. Beginning in 1995, Catena established a network called CAT-Net in cooperation with the Sacred Earth Network (SEN), a U.S.-based non-profit environmental organization, and with the support of a cooperative grant from ISAR.
According to Bill Pfeiffer, Executive Director of SEN, the goal behind the establishment of CAT-Net was to develop an independent ecological and democratic email network across Turkmenistan.
The effort appears to have been quite successful. The network currently serves several environmental groups, individuals, scientists and journalists in Turkmenistan -- all of whom use the network free of charge.
Moreover, in addition to acting as an email server, CAT-Net provides dial-up access to the Internet. An important aspect of the service is that CAT-Net was designed not only to provide dial-up access to users in Ashgabad, but also in some outlying areas such as Dashhowuz, Gari-gala, Seidi and Turkmenbashi. This is especially important because there are no other providers with this capability currently in Turkmenistan.
CAT-Net also serves about 40 commercial businesses in Turkmenistan. Because these businesses are charged a fee for use of the network, CAT-Net has managed to become self-sufficient. Moreover, any profits they are able to generate go to a grant pool established by Catena that is used to provide modems and equipment to organizations throughout Central Asia.
In February 1997, SEN, Catena and Green Salvation, an environmental group located in Almaty, held a conference to teach other groups in the region about the technical and legal aspects of setting up a server system in Central Asia.
Pfeiffer says that, SEN, which has spent roughly $60,000 in Central Asia on equipment and technical assistance, plans to organize and sponsor similar conferences in the near future.
On another front, in 1996, the Eurasia Foundation awarded a grant totaling approximately $12,500 to the Institute of Seismology of the Turkmen Academy of Sciences to support a training program for e-mail users and conduct seminars on using computer networks.
Experts estimate the number of e-mail users in Turkmenistan to be around 200-500.
The government of Uzbekistan is playing somewhat of an active role in promoting Internet access and improving telecommunications infrastructure by permitting the state-owned telecommunication company Uztelekom to enter into a number of foreign joint ventures to work toward the completion of an ambitious program called "Program for the Modernization and Development of the Telecommunications Networks by the Year 2010."
The goal of the program is to increase the number of installed telephone lines in the country and reach complete digitalization of all lines by the year 2010.
Some progress has been made on this front. Last year Daewoo Telecom, a South Korean firm, was selected to replace 260,00 analog lines with digital ones throughout Uzbekistan.
In November, the Uzbek Ministry of Communications named Daewoo and Korea Telecom as partners in the establishment of a $105 million joint venture to modernize Tashkent's telecommunication network. Under this project, the foreign investors are expected to replace 350,000 analog telephone lines and add approximately 100,000 digital lines within three years.
The Eurasia Foundation has also been active in Uzbekistan. Since 1996, the Foundation has awarded communication-related grants to several organizations and universities in the country estimated at $123,000.
Experts estimate the number of Internet users to be at 250-1,000; email users around 5,000.