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Armenia: On The Information Superhighway, Despite Daunting Problems

Washington, 13 June 1997 (RFE/RL) -- Armenia is making slow but consistent progress along the information superhighway, due largely to the enthusiastic efforts of Armenian scientists, researchers, and computer experts and with the technical and financial assistance of foreign organizations.

Armenia established a permanent Internet link in March 1994. The nation has had non-permanent, dial-up Internet access since 1992.

However, the country faces several daunting tasks in improving its Internet connectivity, primarily because the telecommunications infrastructure in the country is so poor.

There are currently no digital lines (designed to quickly exchange data), and all of the telephone lines are analog (designed to support voice). Moreover, many of the telephone lines currently in use are of a substandard and antiquated quality. There is also an insufficient number of telephone lines for residential use and inadequate connections to rural locations.

The situation is so dire that according to Dr. Armen Gyulkhasyan, deputy director of the Yerevan Physics Institute and an Internet expert, it is "almost impossible to call next door" in Armenia.

Recognizing the importance of improving the telecommunication infrastructure in the country, the Armenian government is taking steps to make substantial changes.

Armenia has formed a new telecommunications company called Armentel. The company is a joint venture between the Ministry of Communications of Armenia and Transworld Corporation of the U.S.

The company is installing a modern fiber optic cable and modern phone switches in Yerevan. According to Gregor Saghyan, technical director of Arminco -- a commercial Internet service provider in Armenia -- Armentel will operate as a monopoly, owning all of the long distance lines into and out from Armenia.

Armentel has announced that it expects the new system to be fully operational by September 1997.

In addition to government efforts, Armenian scientists and computer experts are also taking an aggressive role in improving Internet connectivity in the country.

For example, Dr. Gyulkhasyan played an instrumental role in bringing a NATO advanced networking conference to Yerevan this past May. The conference titled "Internet Development in Armenia and Region: Means, Aims, and Prospects" covered Internet technology, information services, network management, Internet in education and Internet security.

According to Gyulkhasyan, the purpose of the conference was to facilitate the transfer of knowledge and to exchange experience between qualified network mangers coming from different environments and backgrounds. Attendees included representatives from Armenia, Russia, Georgia, Turkey, France, Germany, the Netherlands, and the U.S.

Also playing a major role in promoting Internet use in Armenia is the Armenian Internet Users' Group (AmIUG), a public organization which unites major Internet users around the country.

With the assistance of two Internet experts -- Dr. Igor Mkrtoumian, the director of computer services at the American University of Armenia, and Edgar Der-Danieliantz, the person responsible for installing and running Armenia's first permanent Internet link -- AmIUG established the Armenian Network Information Center (AmNIC), the country's official network information center. AmNIC collects and stores all information concerning domain names, Internet addresses, name servers, contact persons and network providers in Armenia in their database.

Mkrtoumian and Der-Danieliantz have also been quite active in contributing to a greater international understanding of Internet capabilities and needs in Armenia.

In an article titled, "Internet in Armenia, 1996" and published in the AmIUG Bulletin -- a local electronic publication of the Armenian Internet Users' Group -- Mkrtoumian and Der-Danieliantz outlined the current technical capabilities and shortcomings of the Internet in Armenia. They also provided useful information on the cost of using the Internet and electronic mail in Armenia and listed Armenian Internet domain names and World Wide Web servers.

There are four major Internet providers in Armenia:

-- The Yerevan Physics Institute (YEPHI) which acts primarily as a scientific data carrier.

-- The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) which runs a scientific network connecting 42 research institutes associated with the NAS.

-- The Armenian Information Company (ARMINCO) which is a commercial service provider that not only provides Internet services but also offers financial services, computer marketing and software development. ARMINCO has its own network called the Armenian Internet Company Network (AICNET).

-- INFOCOM, another commercial service provider chosen by the Armenian Ministry of Communications as the national commercial data carrier.

Among foreign organizations providing financial assistance to Armenia to improve Internet connectivity, the Eurasia Foundation has been quite active. The Foundation is a U.S.-based, privately-managed grantmaking organization that began its activities in Armenia in 1995. Since then, the organization has made several important Internet-related grants.

Some of the more notable grants include a 23,400 dollar award to an Armenian business called the Gandzasar Center in part to support a web version of a bi-monthly informational bulletin on Armenian computer hardware and software companies; a 12,800 dollar grant to the Information-Analytical Center to support the development of a regularly updated web site which will contain information on wholesale and retail prices of foodstuffs, fuel, real estate, construction materials, hotel and tourism, taxes and custom tariffs in Armenia; and a grant of 19,500 dollars to the Armenian Internet Users' Group in support of a linkage and sustainability program involving the creation of a home page on the Internet to provide specifics on Eurasia Foundation awards and invite organizations worldwide to establish contact and pursue Internet-related collaboration with Armenia.

However, there are still several major obstacles in the way of improved Internet connectivity in Armenia:

-- Poor telecommunications infrastructure.

-- Expensive telephone lines.

-- The high cost of computer equipment in relation to an average worker's salary.

-- Political unrest in some regions of the country which impedes infrastructure reform and intimidates potential sponsors and donors.

-- A heavy dependence on international funding which makes it difficult for long-range planning.