Actions to bridge the digital divide on the ground


Overview of the situation

As Estonia is not a well-known nation, I thought it might be helpful to give a little overview of the latest development of the country. To begin, it is important to remember where Estonia is coming from. Ten years ago, the country became independent again after almost fifty years of Soviet occupation. As it will be shown, progress made by Estonia to develop the Information Society in the country is impressive if one considers the lack of resources and the poor communications’ infrastructures they had not so long ago. Estonia has about 1.5 million inhabitants, 28 % of them are Russian speakers. About 400 000 live in the capital city Tallinn. The smallness of the country is for most of the people I met an advantage that permits adopting measures for the whole country easily. In addition, the infrastructures networks were in such bad conditions that in a way it made it easier to embrace new technologies because there were no old systems to get rid of. Estonia has chosen to embrace the Information technologies to assure its development. Thanks to its closeness to Scandinavian countries and its well-qualified labour force with low costs, the country has seen a tremendous development. The human development report published every year by the UNESCO also shows this progress (UNDP, 2001). This report classifies all countries in a human development index, which considers various factors, economic of course, but also on health education, etc. While Estonia was number 68 on the list in 1996, it jumped to 42 in 2000, joining for the first time the top group of this classification. Interesting point to notice UNDP called its report "Making new technologies work for human development" which shows clearly the importance it thinks NT have on human lives and why it financed projects related to that issue, such as the ones in Estonia (see below).

It might also be interesting to give a short review of the development of the Information Society. Of course, this will focus mainly on initiatives directed at bringing the IS to all and will leave aside many interesting initiatives in this field but not relevant for this work. The public sector has clearly decided to push forward the information Society as a way to develop the country. UNDP helped developing Estonia’s information technology and as explained by Robert Juhkam, the program advisor it was the only choice because "This is a small country, with limited natural resources that is suffering a negative population growth". Consequently, according to him to embrace the knowledge based society was the answer since "Human capital is their greatest strength." (Meier 2001, p10-12)

Of course, the first task was to develop the communication network across the country, which was done through a national program called KülaTee (village road). The program aimed at developing the communication infrastructures and to link all county governments with Internet connections (KülaTee, 2000). In 1997, one of the major programs was the Tiger leap national program whose aim is to adapt the school system to the information Society. Based on other European countries’ experiences, such as Finland or Ireland, it was highly successful (UNDP, 1999). The next year, the parliament voted on the principles of Estonian Information Policy, which set the support for all new legislation and actions related to the Information Society (Estonian government, 1998). All other main projects related to the Information Society will be introduced along the explanation of my research. Just to give an idea of the fast development of Internet use in Estonia, It was estimated that in February 1997 only 6% of the population used Internet (BMF Gallup Media, 2001). The latest figures I could find show that today this number is up to around 33% (TNS Interactive Report, 2001). An interesting point from these statistics is that in Estonia, there is almost no gender gap in this Internet use, 35% for men, 31% for women, contrary to most countries.

On the other hand, the age gap is even higher here since less than 2% of people aged more than 60 used internet to be compared with 73% for the under 20 population. When comparing with other Baltic states in the same report, one can see that the spread has been much more rapid in Estonia, (Lithuania 9% and Latvia 13%). Going even further in its Transformation into an Information Society, Estonia was the first country in the world to have voted as a right for its citizens to access Internet (Meier, 2001). Another proof of this transformation is that in 2003 for the general elections, it is going to be possible to vote on line (Left, 2001).

The Public Internet Access Points

The Estonian part of this research will focus principally on one initiative, the establishment of Public Internet Access Points (PIAP) because it is directed at bringing the IS to all. There were also many other interesting initiatives in this field but not relevant for this work. A PIAP is a place equipped with computers connected to the Internet and where the use of computers is free of charge. It is therefore very distinct from an Internet café where the user has to pay for the service. It all started in the spring of 1997 with the establishment of four Public Internet Access Points. These projects were financed by the UNDP help program and were installed in public libraries. The Open Estonian Foundation (OEF) followed the UNDP initiative by financing the establishment of 30 more PIAPs the same year. For them the goal was to "help to prevent and reduce the inequality in the society based on access to information by creating Public Internet Access Points, especially in rural regions." (Kalvet 1999, p2). The objectives were to:

  • Offer an opportunity to use Internet services free of charge,
  • Provide necessary training,
  • Encourage the publishing of local information on the Internet.

Another important point, besides offering free Internet access was the sustainability of the program. It means that the project must have the necessary funds and support to stay open after the foundation would withdraw. In most cases, the local authorities were part of the project. In 1999, feeling the need for more access points in Estonia; the OEF financed the establishment of 70 more PIAPs. At the end of 1999, the Estonian Open foundation stopped the financing of the PIAPs. The Government who saw the benefits of this idea decided to carry on the project on an even larger scale. The program called "Internetisation of Estonian Public libraries" has for main goal to connect all libraries in the country.

In 2000, fifty-three new libraries were equipped with a Public Internet Access Points. Learning from the previous experience, librarians are now going through a training period to cope with their new responsibilities. In addition, a new point was to have free printing available. Finally, in March this year ten big Estonian companies started a new private initiative the Look@World project. This project aims at continuing the establishment of new PIAPs and to provide computer and Internet training to current non-Internet users. These two projects will also be explored because they bring an interesting complement to the existing PIAPs.

The research period in Estonia

As soon as I arrived in Estonia, I realized that I would be confronted with a problem I was not expecting, the language barrier. Most people could speak only Estonian or some Russian, especially in rural areas. I made a mistake in imagining that in Estonia, like in Scandinavian countries, English would be largely widespread and that I would find easily people to interview. This impression was reinforced by the fact that all Estonian people I contacted before leaving France were all good English speakers. I then decided to change the methodology of my research. I would focus much more on in-depth interviews of key people of the PIAPs and would not include participants’ interviews.

I realized that would be a weakness in my research not to include the participants views, but it seems more reasonable than to include only one or two random participants. Doing a research project means to adapt to the conditions you find on the field, and that seemed like the appropriate solution. If more time were available for this research, I would have then made a closed questionnaire, translated into Estonian, which would have helped me to incorporate the users’ opinions.

Nevertheless, I still wanted to visit some different PIAPs to be able to make my own impressions and to know what I am talking about in my interviews. In the end, I learned a lot during my visits and they proved to be quite useful, even with the language problem. The first one was in Ülle-Nurme, a tiny village in southern Estonia, and the other one in Haapsalu in the western part of the country. They were both located in the local public library.

The first interesting point to notice is that they were both well indicated with a sign like the following:

The signs were visible from the roads and were helpful because it is not obvious to find them otherwise. They are also necessary because one might not even be aware of the possibility to find Public Internet Access Points in such remote areas. I also noticed the same signs in the capital city Tallinn but they indicate any Internet access points, unstaffed kiosks, Internet cafés, or PIAPs. In my opinion, those signs are a good idea, but should may be have a difference between them to acknowledge that you have to pay or not, such as a different colour for example. While in Haapsalu, the setting was modern; six new computers were installed with separation from each other and in a more remote space of the library, in Ülle-Nurme the access point was really basic; only  three old computers in the unique room of the library, itself situated in an old building where all local authorities and services were concentrated.

According to Tarmo Kalvet (writer of the evaluation report on the PIAPs), the latest is typical of most PIAPs. He was with me for one visit and translated some of my questions to the librarian. She said that they receive about ten people a day and an average of a hundred a week. A one-day advance reservation was required to use the access point. Most people are regular users of the service, even if from time to time new people show up. Young people are the main users, however middle aged people also use the access. One interesting point is that the number of people coming to the PIAP decreased after the arrival of optical fibre in the village. It means that more people got an individual access, but also that the PIAP is still useful for many people. Besides the visits, I had four in depth interviews with people involved at one point or another with the Public internet Access points (name and position in Annex I). These interviews enabled me to have a good overview of the project, its strengths and weaknesses but also on others initiatives.

Kristjan Rebane, who was in charge of the PIAPs for the OEF, gave me precious insight on the beginning of the project. According to him, the choice of the libraries was made naturally because there were already well developed in Estonia and it was not necessary to recruit more people to take care of the PIAPs and consequently easier to make them sustainable. Another advantage is that they are also a central point in villages and small cities and are well known to the public. I also asked him why they decide to develop the information Society through such a project. For him, this communitarian approach was the right one at this point of history of Estonia; it enabled the country to gain more than 15 years by speeding up the development and the spread of Internet. In Estonia, most people are still poor, the average salary is about 300 euros compared to 1000 euros to get a computer, not to mention the cost of connections. This is why Mr. Kalvet totally agreed with Mr Rebane on the necessary passage by a community approach to bring new technologies, especially in rural areas.

For both men, there is no doubt that this approach permitted a lot of new users to access the Web but also for people who already had the knowledge to have permanent access near where they live. According to the evaluation Report on the PIAPs (Kalvet 1999), some difficulties exist. First, the transformation of the librarians into support person was not easy. A lot of them lacked the necessary skills to be able to properly teach some users. In addition, in some access points, there were huge waiting lists, from days up to several weeks, which ruins the purpose of using emailing to transmit the information fast. Another weak point was that most of the effort has been made on creating the physical access, but the training was lacking. It also showed that most users were young people. This was not surprising for the author of the report because another national program (tiger leap) is promoting the training and the equipment of schools in Estonia. Consequently, many young people got the training but not the physical access to Internet.

For M. Rebane the public Internet Access Points will still be necessary for the next 10/15 years before becoming part of libraries services (with a fee to pay). For him, the next step is to promote the Internet penetration in private households. If the market will cover one part of the population, a country like Estonia with huge income differences will need strong public incentives to help this development.

Learning from this previous experience, the new initiatives try to establish new access points without the past weaknesses. For example, the governmental program of Internetisation on public libraries (also called KülaTee II) provides training to librarians for their new role of support person at the same time that they establish new PIAPs. Ms. Veskus who is in charge of this program, met me at the Ministry of Culture. For her this program is the natural complement to the first national program KülaTee. The government decided to choose this program because it permits to equip all part of the country equally.

I finally finished my research by meeting Mr. Ehandi who is the project manager of the Look@World project. All the people I met were talking about this new private initiative and this is why I decided to meet him. The project only started in March this year and is still in its beginning phase, but it seemed interesting to present it. The first point it is a totally private initiative. I actually met Mr. Ehandi at the national headquarters of Hansapank, the biggest bank in Estonia. With nine other companies, they decided to create a program for the development of the Information Society. The companies are banks, phones, mobile phones, and computer industry companies. The first question I asked him was what the point was for big companies to create such program. I must admit I was a little suspicious since companies are driven by profits.

His answer was rational and logical. For him, there is a commercial aspect because it is in those companies’ interest to develop the use of new technologies, which leads to better-trained workers and more users of their services and material. Hansapank for example would gain a lot if it could develop e-banking instead of installing new banks in remote areas. The government also influenced it by changing the taxation of companies’ profits. By reinvesting the money in the country, a company could hugely lower its income taxation. Consequently, the ten companies have decided to invest 60 millions dollars over a three years period. This sum is equivalent to what the State invests in one year for the whole IT sector. Sponsorship of such a project is also good for companies’ images. My interlocutor was also personally enthusiastic about the project, because for him Internet is a great opportunity to develop the country. In order to distinguish the project from the bank, a non-profit foundation is being set up to clarify the situation. What is so interesting about this project is that it is going to complement really well, what already exists and could hurry the spread of the Information Society immensely. The money available will be first used to help and accelerate existing programs by establishing new PIAPS and help the internetisation of Public libraries to achieve the program faster. It will also give faster and up to date material to existing access points. They also want to establish PIAPs in new settings such as hospitals or industries, in any case with longer opening hours. They are currently lobbying big companies to install PIAP in their premises and they would assure the training. For Mr. Ehandi, most people in Estonia use Internet from work; but for blue-collar workers, they do not have access to a computer, and therefore this is needed. Moreover, it would not be expensive for companies to install since they are most of the time already connected to Internet for the management and white-collar workers.

Nevertheless, it is on the training side that this project is innovative. Since the beginning of my research, I could not find much about training and it did not seem like a problem to my interlocutors, the focus was mostly on access. This project wants to work on access but at the same time on training and contents. For the training the goal is impressive, to train 100 000 people who never used Internet before. One must remember the small size of Estonia, such a number would represent one out of six non-users of Internet in the country according to the latest figures. They are currently looking for enough teachers and for spaces where they are going to do the training and this should start as early as this fall. Anyone who wants would be allowed to sign up, but they are also planning these training sessions for targeted groups. Blue-collar workers are one group they would like to reach, and the other one is old people. In my point of view, these two groups are naturally good targets to reach for this program but I think they should also make the Russian minority a target group. They represent almost 30% but they are not integrated at all in the country. They do not speak Estonian and they almost all live in the north east of the country near the Russian border. If every Estonian acknowledged the problem, it seemed to me that not much is done to encourage them to be part of the Information Society. When asked the question Mr. Ehandi answered that indeed they are planning to establish more PIAPs where they live and may be have special training sessions for them.