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Azerbaijan: Internet Progress Slow But Steady

Washington, 28 August 1997 (RFE/RL) - Azerbaijan is experiencing a bumpy ride on its journey down the information superhighway, but it is making progress.

Azerbaijan established a permanent Internet link in 1995 through its Academy of Science. The nation has had dial-up Internet access since 1991.

In 1995 Azerbaijan applied for and was accepted into 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 an academic and research network.

By joining CEENet, Azerbaijan has been able to begin a serious effort to coordinate computer and Internet-related activities with other nations in the area and, perhaps more importantly, become part of CEENet's proposals to international organizations for funding and support.

However, Azerbaijan still has many difficulties to overcome in improving its Internet connectivity.

The most daunting problem is the poor condition of the nation's telecommunications infrastructure.

Most of the telephone lines in Azerbaijan are analog (designed to support voice) with few, if any, digital lines (intended to quickly transmit data). Telecommunications experts say other problems include telephone lines that are technologically outdated, a severe lack of telephone lines for residential use, and inadequate connections to many rural locations.

The Azerbaijani government is taking some steps to improve the condition of the nation's telecommunication structure, but the progress has been slow.

According to Teymur Aliyev, a computer assistant at the American Embassy in Baku, the government has been modernizing some phone systems with refurbished Turkish equipment. However, the work appears to be largely limited to the capital city, Baku.

As a result, the burden of improving Internet connectivity seems to be falling on a handful of Azerbaijani scientists and computer experts with the help of a few Western organizations.

According to Aliyev, there are currently three major Internet providers in Azerbaijan:

Sinam-Invest -- a commercial provider which Aliyev says has the best connectivity, but is also the most expensive.

InTrans -- a commercial provider that has a large number of clients, many whom use the company's e-mail system.

AzerIn -- a commercial provider which Aliyev says has the most inexpensive prices, but also the lowest quality connection via Turkey.

All three providers have satellite connections. Aliyev says the Azerbaijan Academy of Sciences uses a system separate from the local commerical providers and has a satellite connection with two channels -- one via Turkey and the other via Russia.

Aliyev says the cost of using the Internet in Azerbaijan has dropped from a high of $12 an hour last year to $3 to $8 an hour this year (it varies slightly with each provider). He says he expects the prices to fall even further this year.

In regards to Western Internet-related projects currently underway in Azerbaijan -- one of the largest is being run by the Azerbaijan Internet Industrial Associates (AIIA).

The AIIA is a group of Western companies who have donated funds for the purpose of assisting the Azerbaijan Academy of Sciences in upgrading and maintaining an Internet center in Baku.

The members of AIIA are Chevron Overseas Exploration Limited, Amoco Caspian Sea Petroleum Limited, Baker Hughes Incorporated, Dresser Industries Incorporated, Exxon Ventures, Mobil New Business Development, Pennzoil, Spearhead Publications, and Inocal Corporation.

Joseph Lorenz, a representative of external affairs at Chevron, told RFE/RL that since the project started just over a year ago, AIIA has been working closely with Faik Farmanov of the Azerbaijan Academy of Sciences who is considered to be one of the country's leading Internet experts.

Lorenz says funds have already been spent on training, computer equipment and six months worth of Internet connection for the Academy of Sciences.

However, Lorenz says the project has currently stalled. He says Chevron has received no recent reports on the status of the project and doesn't know how much progress has been made on the public access center.

Lorenz says Chevron donated $10,000 to the project, but did not know how much AIIA has given to Azerbaijan.

The Open Society Institute (OSI), a New York-based, private grantmaking foundation funded by Hungarian-born American financier George Soros, has also provided some assistance to help Internet connectivity in Azerbaijan.

In 1996, OSI funded some computer training in Azerbaijan and paid for the shipment of workstations for the AIIA public access facility. But OSI has not undertaken any major Internet-related projects there this year.

Jonathan Peizer, Chief Information Officer at OSI, told RFE/RL his organization's activities have been quite limited in Azerbaijan in comparison to other countries in the former Soviet Union.

"I don't know why, but it has been difficult to get things underway in Azerbaijan," says Peizer.

NATO is another Western organization conducting some Internet-related activity in Azerbaijan. According to the organization's web site, NATO's Scientific and Environmental Affairs division has been working with Azerbaijan to provide some Internet infrastructure with a focus on academic and research training.

Also active in Azerbaijan is a non-profit, U.S.-based organization called ISAR (formerly known as the Institute for Soviet-American Relations).

Gabriela Schwarz, a program manager at ISAR, told RFE/RL her organization is operating out of Azerbaijan, but on a limited basis.

According to Schwarz, ISAR's activities in Azerbaijan began in December 1995 with the establishment of a training and grants program designed to assist in the development of the nation's non-governmental sector.

Schwarz says that e-mail access and computer training is a part of ISAR's regular programs of support for social and environmental organizations.

However, Schwarz adds that in Azerbaijan no "significant amount" of money has gone to supporting e-mail or Internet connections because the cost of establishing connections and accounts is "prohibitive" and because the telephone lines are so "poor."

Overall, Azerbaijan is making progress on the information superhighway, but still faces several complex problems:

A poor telecommunications infrastructure.

Low public awareness and understanding of computer technology.

The high cost of computer equipment in comparison to the average worker's salary.

Very high prices for satellite connections due to a monopoly held by the Azerbaijan Ministry of Communication.

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