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Georgia: Internet Making Inroads

Washington, 4 July 1997 (RFE/RL) -- Georgia is just getting on the information superhighway, but with financial assistance from some foreign organizations, and the enthusiasm and determination of Georgian scientists, scholars and computer experts, the ride should prove to be eventful and exciting.

Georgia established a permanent Internet link in the summer of 1995. The nation has had non-permanent, dial-up Internet access since 1991.

In October 1994, Georgia joined the Central and Eastern European Networking Association (CEENet), an organization formed in 1993 by representatives of seven countries in the region who wanted to establish and promote academic and research networking.

This was a significant move for Georgia, which until this time, had not been involved in many international networking programs. By joining CEENet, Georgia was able to efficiently begin sharing operational and technical information with other nations in the region, attend networking workshops, and be a part of CEENet's proposals to international organizations for funding to promote network developments within CEENet.

In 1995, around the time Georgia established permanent Internet access, many foreign organizations began programs in the country to help improve connectivity and train people on how to use the Internet.

Perhaps the most significant project came in the form of a grant from the United States Agency for International Development through their "Rule of Law Program" and administered by the Parliamentary Human Rights Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to strengthening the rule of law around the world.

The Foundation's project called "Supporting the Rule of Law in Georgia through Internet Connectivity" successfully linked the Georgian parliament and other government organizations in Tbilisi to the Internet via a sophisticated satellite line.

The Open Society Institute (OSI), a New York-based, private grant-making foundation funded by Hungarian-American financier George Soros, has also provided significant technical and financial support toward improving Internet connectivity in Georgia.

In 1995 OSI provided funds to create the Open Society Georgia Foundation (OSGF), an independent Georgian non-governmental organization.

OSGF, working in coordination with a sister Soros organization called the Open Society Institute-Regional Internet Program (OSI-RIP), began installing computer equipment, providing technical training and establishing Internet connections among many schools, government agencies and private organizations throughout Georgia.

Also in 1995, OSI-RIP and OSGF set up an electronic-mail (e-mail) connectivity program. The program distributed 50 e-mail starter kits containing a personal computer, a modem and access to e-mail to a broad segment of the population, including universities, secondary schools, independent media, non-governmental agencies and libraries.

Another important project began in 1995 when NATO and INTAS -- a program sponsored by the European Union, OSI and OSGF -- provided funding to help the Georgian Academy of Sciences establish a permanent link to the Internet.

That link was finally established in 1996 when a satellite earth station was installed at the High Energy Physics Institute.

Also in 1996, OSI-RIP provided more e-mail kits to secondary schools, non-governmental organizations, the media, and cultural institutions and provided Internet training and connections. NATO sponsored the training of the network administrators to the Internet.

In early 1997 the OSGF opened the Internet Center for Wide Open World.

Sandro Karumidze, Director of Wide Open World and the Internet Program Coordinator for the Open Society Georgia Foundation, says the main purpose of the center is to provide Internet grants to organizations across Georgia, especially to those organizations working on the promotion of the Internet in Georgia.

Karumidze says that he hopes Wide Open World grants and those awarded by the OSGF will also help to create and popularize a Georgian character-coding standard for the alphabet -- a main impediment on making Georgian information available through computer networks.

Another Western organization helping to improve Internet connectivity in Georgia is the Eurasia Foundation, a U.S-based, privately-managed grantmaking organization.

Eurasia has provided several important Internet-related grants to Georgian organizations.

Among the more notable grants:

A $13,000 grant to the International Telecommunication and Information Center to support the development of e-mail and Internet training programs for Georgian non-governmental agencies, media and financial firms, and to expand library and resource center services.

$18,000 to the Club of Young Scientists to establish an electronic communications and information center to serve the region of Guria in western Georgia and provide e-mail and Internet access and training courses for local government officials, businessmen, bank employees, non-governmental agencies and the media.

$21,000 to the Georgian Youth International Foundation to create a web site called "Info Web" which will provide organizations and individuals with information on law, communications, economics, business and education topics, and will link data bases with each other.

Recently joining the Internet effort in Georgia is the International Research and Exchanges Board (IREX), a U.S.-based non-profit organization.

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.

Maura Harrington, IATP's program director for Georgia, says the organization's activities in Georgia are just beginning. Harrington arrived in Georgia in late April 1997 with instructions to help set up Internet access sites which will be available for use by the general public for free.

"I'm setting up between four to six centers, and they will be operated and run by an all-Georgian staff," says Harrington.

She adds that she will also provide e-mail and Internet training, a task she is looking forward to doing.

"In terms of enthusiasm, there are no obstacles. People are really excited and there is a lot of talent here," says Harrington.

One of IATP's main goals, says Harrington, is to teach people in different fields how to best find the information they need from the Internet. She also wants to help organizations set up web pages about Georgia to help outsiders learn more about the country.

However, Georgia, like most of the countries of the former Soviet Union, is seriously hampered in its connectivity efforts because of the poor state of its telecommunications infrastructure.

Most of the telephone lines in Georgia are analog (designed to support voice) with few, if any, digital lines (intended to quickly exchange data).

According to Valeri Nanobashvili, Executive Director of the International Telecommunications and Information Center in Tbilisi, the Georgian Ministry of Communications is working hard in conjunction with several South Korean, Japanese, Turkish and Greek telecommunication firms to modernize telephone stations and the entire telecommunications infrastructure in Georgia.

Nanobashvili says that until this major problem is solved, faster and improved Internet connectivity in Georgia will not become a reality. He adds, however, that the issue is an important one to the government and part of the nation's long-term strategy to develop a viable market economy.

Regardless, Georgia still faces several additional problems to Internet connectivity beyond the substandard condition of its telecommunications infrastructure.

Perhaps the most pressing one is the collapse of several higher-level education programs for computer programmers, technicians and engineers at Georgian universities.

According to Karumidze, a lack of proper training and education in these fields has caused a severe deficiency of computer experts at all levels, especially specialists who can work with local area and wide area networks. Karumidze adds that unless this problem is addressed immediately, it will greatly impede the development of the Internet in Georgia.

Further compounding this problem, says Karumidze, is a severe deficit of educational materials about the Internet in the Georgian language, and a significant shortage of trainers qualified to instruct, develop and adopt a suitable curriculum on the topic.

Nevertheless, despite these difficulties, remarkable progress is being made in terms of Internet connectivity.

There are currently several Internet providers in Georgia, with two new ones coming on board in just the past few months and another one scheduled to be operational by the end of the summer. They are:

The High Energy Physics Institute -- a non-commercial provider that permits Internet access for scientific organizations and universities;

The Institute of Computational Mathematics at the Georgian Academy of Sciences -- a non-commercial provider for all of the institutions within the Academy.

Sanet -- a commercial provider which reportedly has the most advanced Internet equipment in Georgia, including a satellite link to the U.S., and plans to open its own satellite station by the end of this summer. It counts among its customers the Georgian parliament, the American Embassy in Georgia, the United Nations World Food Programmes, the International Red Cross Committee in Tbilisi and the Georgian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Infocom -- a commercial provider with a link to Moscow's Sovam Teleport. Infocom has a network called Iberiapac which provides information exchange service to most banks in Georgia. Infocom was a former part of the Ministry of Telecommunications of Georgia before it was decentralized in 1995.

ICN Caucaus Press -- a commercial news agency formed in a joint venture with Georgia Telecom. The service began in June 1997 and has satellite access to Sprint Network in the U.S.

GlobalErti -- a commercial provider operating since April 1997 that has a satellite link to Moscow.

Good Will Communications -- a joint U.S.-Georgian satellite communication company that will reportedly begin providing commercial service by the end of the summer.

According to Oleg Shatberashvili, Director of the Georgian Research Institute for Scientific and Technical Information, although the cost of using the Internet in Georgia remains high, the prices are fast becoming competitive.

Shatberashvili says that for a long time Sanet was the only reliable commercial Internet provider and was able to charge $150 per month for just two hours a day of Internet access. But after the appearance of new commercial providers this year, Shatberashvili says that Sanet quickly reduced its fees to $15.38 per month for eight hours of Internet access -- in line with the rates of the new providers.

Karumidze says it is a good thing that competition has driven down Internet prices and adds that if companies consider this a long-term marketing strategy, it will definitely increase the number of Internet users.

However, there is a dark spot on the horizon.

Karumidze says that next year the Georgian Ministry of Communications is expected to introduce a per minute fee for local telephone calls -- a move that he believes will have a "negative impact" on the development of the Internet in Georgia.

Following is a summary of the obstacles facing Georgia in improving its Internet connectivity:

A poor telecommunications infrastructure.

Low awareness among the population of modern information systems.

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

Lack of system administrators and qualified engineers competent on the Internet and similar technologies.

A breakdown of training and preparation at the university level.

A deficit of educational materials in the Georgian language about the Internet, computers, and related technology.

No Georgian standards for information exchange, meaning the coding for Georgian characters.

The refusal of the government of the Abkhazia region to have a telecommunication connection to Tbilisi, interfering with plans to form a telecommunication backbone across Georgia. In return, the Georgian government will not permit the installation of a satellite earth station in Abkhazia.

The high cost of using the Internet.

Problems with the nation's electrical supply, including erratic interruptions and blackouts.

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