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Bulgaria: Making Progress On The Information Superhighway

Washington, 11 June 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Bulgaria is making steady and impressive strides on its journey down the information superhighway, but it still has several daunting problems to overcome before it can shift into high gear.

Bulgaria established a permanent (non-dial up) Internet link in December 1992 in a manner quite different than most of the countries of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. Instead of the usual pattern of establishing a permanent link to the Internet via government funding to the National Academy of Science or the Ministry of Defense, Bulgaria got connected through a small, private company called Digital Systems.

Digital Systems was founded by young Bulgarian entrepreneurs in 1989 -- ancient times in terms of computer years. It was Digital Systems that then began hooking up Bulgarian universities to the Internet. It was not until 1995 that the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences and several top universities finally received enough money from the government to establish their own permanent Internet links.

Daniel Kalchev, one of the co-founders of Digital Systems, told RFE/RL in an e-mail from Bulgaria that his company, based in the city of Varna on the Black Sea, is now one of the biggest Internet service providers (ISP) in Bulgaria with local access points in more than 40 towns.

Today there are more than 100 companies in Bulgaria that provide some sort of Internet services. Some of the other major providers include: Bulgaria Telecomm (government-owned and operated), Spectrum Net, GUKIS (a joint venture between Bulgaria Telecomm and Global One Communications and Information Services), Orbitel, and ProLink.

Estimates of the number of Internet users in Bulgaria vary widely. Kalchev says he thinks the numbers are somewhere between 50,000 and 100,000 users, given the fact that there are only about 15,000 official hosts (a computer system capable of supporting more than one user) in Bulgaria.

But Volin Karagiozov, head of the Department of Computer Science at the University of Mining and Geology in Sofia, told RFE/RL also in an e-mail that he believes the numbers are much higher. He says his estimates are between 300,000 and 400,000 Internet users in Bulgaria or about 5 percent of the population, even though he agrees with Kalchev that there are only about 15,000 hosts in Bulgaria.

As far as the cost of using the Internet is concerned, Plamen Chernokojev, the head of a smaller Bulgarian Internet provider, told RFE/RL in an e-mail message that while it is expensive for ordinary Bulgarians to use the Internet, it is not completely out of reach.

He says the prices, as far as his company Vitosha Software and Communications is concerned, range from $5-30 a month for dial-up service, depending on the type of electronic mail and Internet service desired. The monthly average salary in Bulgaria is about $120.

But Karagiozov says Internet charges for dial-up users can range as high as $100 a month depending on whether users want a flat-rate or time-based rate. Even more expensive, he says, are much faster, non-dial-up, leased lines which cost about $4,000-5,000 per month.

Overall, Bulgaria faces several difficult challenges ahead in order to better improve its Internet connectivity.

One of the most pressing problems is the condition of the nation's telecommunications infrastructure. Many of the telephone lines in Bulgaria are analog (designed to support voice) with too few digital lines (intended to quickly transmit data). Telecommunications experts say other problems include telephone equipment that is technologically outdated, a lack of telephone lines for residential use, and inadequate connections to many rural locations.

But changes are under way, says Karagiozov. He says the government has taken concrete steps to improve the telecommunications infrastructure, and has almost finished installing a fiber optic ring in the country. He says there has been "real improvement," compared to the state of the telecommunications in Bulgaria just eight years ago.

Kalchev agrees, saying the government has recently built a "fairly decent" telecommunications infrastructure. But he says the development of the Internet in Bulgaria will improve only if the "questionable practices" of Bulgarian Telecomm are changed to allow real competition.

Those questionable practices, says Kalchev, are prohibitively high prices for use of the infrastructure, as well as unfair competition practices--a result of the fact that Bulgaria Telecomm has a legal monopoly on all areas of telecommunications in the country.

Kalchev also says that last year, the government tried to take the more ominous step of regulating the licensing of Bulgarian Internet service providers. He adds that the attempt failed, and is currently being challenged by different organizations in court.

But Kalchev says there is some hope for improving Internet connectivity in Bulgaria, if only the government will live up to some of its promises.

He explains: "There is a new telecommunications law that could permit the development of private networks that could be used as an alternative infrastructure for the Internet networks in Bulgaria. However, after many months, no one has received a license yet, and there are no real chances that this will happen any time soon."