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Central Asia: Efforts Under Way To Bring Region Up To Speed With The Internet

Central Asia lacks much of the infrastructure needed to introduce the public to the Internet. In addition to a simple lack of computers, the region suffers from a poor telecommunications system, and Internet connection costs are prohibitively expensive.

Prague, 9 April 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Efforts are under way to increase Internet usage in Central Asia.

Speaking at a conference on "Media Challenges in Central Asia" held last weekend at RFE/RL in Prague, Eric Johnson pointed out two positive trends on the development of the Internet in the region. Johnson is the executive director of Internews International, a nonprofit organization that supports open media worldwide.

First, Johnson said, Internet penetration has increased sharply in recent years. Today, some 1 percent of the population in Central Asia has access to the Internet. This rate was just 0.1 percent two or three years ago.

Secondly, Internet users in Central Asia are becoming younger and more diverse. They are now predominantly between 19 and 29 years old. A few years ago, Internet users tended to be elites with Western experience, or people who were working for Western firms or nongovernmental organizations in Central Asia.

However, Internet exposure in Central Asia still remains low compared to other Asian countries, such as Indonesia, India, and China. Johnson said this is only partly due to government efforts to restrict access to the Internet for political reasons.

"Although we hear from time to time about blocking or filtering or mirror sites, there is actually not very much of it. And it's relatively easy to get around. It's nothing compared to many other countries in the world. Saudi Arabia blocks a lot. Iraq blocks a lot. Iran blocks a lot. China works very hard to block a lot, whereas in Central Asia there is very little of that," Johnson said.

But Johnson noted that Central Asian governments are effectively reducing Internet usage by maintaining high connection costs. The costs for connection in Central Asia -- around $1 per hour -- are expensive compared to average local salaries. In comparison, a one-hour connection to the Internet costs just 10 cents in India.

Johnson explained that government utilities in Central Asia fear losing revenue to low-cost Internet telephone operators. "In many places in Western Europe now, you can buy pricing plans that are flat-rate, meaning you pay one rate for all your local calls. But in most of the post-Soviet countries, telephone companies now are trying to implement ways to squeeze money out of users for local calls. This is probably the single biggest threat to Internet use in Central Asia," he said.

David Jea works in the U.S.-funded Computers for Uzbek Schools project. The aim of the project is to deliver more than 1,000 computers to schools around Uzbekistan. He agrees that the cost of connecting to the Internet is a huge barrier to the average Uzbek citizen. "The cost of access is certainly very, very high here, compared to even its Central Asia neighbors such as Kazakhstan. In Uzbekistan, it's almost twice as much. The cost of the Internet here is not only expensive for Uzbeks, but it would be even expensive for United States. In the United States, for $15 to $20 you can get unlimited dial-up [to the Internet]. Here, the price is nearly $2 an hour," Jea said.

Critics say governments in the region have been short-sighted by not allocating funds to wire schools for the Internet and are quickly losing an opportunity to prepare the next generation for the demands of a global, information-based economy.

Uzbekistan suffers from a low level of computerization in government offices, economic organizations and schools and colleges. Only 8 percent of government offices have access to the Internet.

In Kyrgyzstan, according to the UN, there are only 70 personal computers per 1,000 people. Only one in every 100 working people uses e-mail. That compares with 350 computers per 1,000 people in France and 590 per 1,000 people in the United States.

In an effort to prevent Central Asia from falling further behind, many foreign countries and organizations are funding programs to help familiarize local populations with the Internet.

Along with the Computers for Uzbek Schools program, the U.S. funds the Internet Access and Training Program (IATP), which is providing free Internet access and training. In January, the IATP established about 50 public centers for Internet training throughout Central Asia.

The vast majority of Central Asia's Internet users live in the capitals. In an effort to combat this trend, the UN Development Program (UNDP) also has established free access points in rural areas, such as in Kyrgyzstan, where more than 70 percent of the population lives.

Olga Grebennikova is the UNDP's public affairs officer in Bishkek. She said: "Apart from getting general information, people cannot get information from [the] government -- the portal of the government or parliament -- and participate in discussions, in dialogue with [the] government [and] send them messages. [For] these purposes, these public access points were opened, including in the most remote areas of Kyrgyzstan, in Leilek district of Batken Oblast."

Jea of the Computers for Uzbek Schools project said such programs are a big step toward the development of the Internet in Central Asia by lowering what he calls the "barriers of entry."