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Economy: East Europe's Internet Needs More Competition

Prague, 13 April 1998 (RFE/RL) -- The head of a global firm specializing in Internet developments says the computer network in central and eastern Europe continues to suffer from high link-up costs and a limited choice of Internet service providers.

Alan Meckler, the founding chairman of Mecklermedia Corporation, made the remarks last week in Prague where his firm was putting on its first Internet conference in the region.

Meckler said that out of all eastern and central European states, the Internet is the most developed in the Czech Republic and Hungary.

But he said that even in Prague, the Internet is "years behind" the United States because of the advantages Americans have had with their already existing telephone system.

Since 1989, most eastern states have been working to update their antiquated telephone networks to handle an enormous increase in business and personal calls that came after the fall of communism.

In contrast, most homes in North America have been able to quickly connect to the Internet through already existing fiber optic telephone lines.

Aside from the telephone infrastructure, Meckler told RFE/RL that the biggest hurdle toward expanding the Internet further in eastern Europe is the lack of competition among the service providers who offer use of the hardware needed to tap into the Internet. He said too few service providers means that the cost of connecting remains too high for many potential Internet subscribers.

Meckler said: "The most important thing is the backbone -- having the ability for people to be able to connect as inexpensively as possible. Certainly that's going to drive use of the Internet and traffic on the Internet to higher and higher rates."

He said the next barrier in terms of cost would be to simply get computers, or at least Internet telephones, into more people's homes. He said he doesn't think people in eastern and central Europe have many doubts about the importance of the newly developing communication network. He said: "Right now it seems to me it's (a question of the) cost factor."

Last week's three-day Internet World Conference in Prague was presented by Mecklermedia Corporation together with local sponsors.

Through its global trade shows, a printed newspaper and web publishing, Mecklermedia has become a major source of information about the Internet for those working in the field -- including programmers, designers and business managers.

Meckler told RFE/RL that his company does N-O-T have firm plans about future projects in eastern Europe at the moment. But he said trade conferences similar to the Prague event are possible in St. Petersburg, Moscow or Poland in the coming months.