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Transylvania Goes On-Line With Internet

By Colin WoodardSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / April 27, 1995



CLUJ, ROMANIA

IN Transylvania, where most homes do not have phones and most office workers still use manual typewriters, teenagers are taking a surfboard to the Internet.

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Victor Moldovan, a student at Tiberiu Popoviciu Technical High School in this region of northern Romania, so far has used the world's biggest information network to get the latest results of the Grammy Awards, Top 10 song lists from the United States and Britain, and the invaluable lyric sheets for rock group Nirvana's ''Smells Like Teen Spirit.''

The late dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu, would be gnashing his teeth. But in post-Orwellian Romania, students at Victor's school, and at 80 others, are barely testing the Net's potential: uncontrolled, affordable access to millions of users worldwide. ''We're still figuring out what we can do,'' Victor says.

Students and staff at the the school, 180 miles north of the capital, Bucharest, know they may be grabbing more gigabytes than they can handle. ''We were teaching computer science here for years, but without computers,'' says computer-science teacher Gabriella Balan. ''Now we have computers and e-mail, and we're still learning what we can do with them.''

Projects like this one, backed by the New York-based Soros Foundation, have helped fuel an explosive expansion of the Internet in the formerly communist countries of Central Europe. In the first six months of last year, the number of ''hosts'' connected to the Internet -- the basic measurement of Internet size -- grew by 81 percent worldwide, according to the Internet Society. But over the same six month period, the Internet Society registered an increase of 122 percent in Hungary, 169 percent in the Czech Republic, 466 percent in Romania, and by nearly 1,000 percent in the Russian Federation.

''We knew it would grow, but nobody knew it would grow so quickly,'' says Janos Bajza, who maintains the backbone of the Hungarian national network from the offices of the Hungarian Computer and Automation Research Institute. ''With the traffic constantly increasing it's been a real race to increase the capacity of the system to meet demand.''

The expansion of Internet access has particularly dramatic implications in this part of the world, where communist regimes long discouraged access to even basic information. ''The old system trained people to restrict access to information, to disclose as little as possible,'' says Matt Lyon of the University of Pittsburgh, who is coordinating a project in Budapest to connect diplomacy schools in eight East European countries. ''The Internet is the antithesis of this. Some people find it really threatening,'' he adds, explaining that many people who grew up under orthodox Communist regimes still cherish control of information.

''E-mail is already the preferred method of communication here,'' says computer science professor Peter Hanak of the Budapest Technical University. ''Because of the shortcomings in our [telecommunications systems], the Internet is probably even more important here than in the West.'' E-mail is cheaper too. Hungary's state-supported network provides full access for 25,000 university professors, students, museum curators, and researchers at an annual cost of less than $100 per user.

''For the price of a single textbook we can provide access to all the possibilities of the Internet,'' says Lajos Balint, a senior official at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. Faculty members say the Internet lets them become involved in the international academic community despite limited budgets and a poor communications infrastructure.

Commercial providers like CompuServe have recently begun to offer e-mail and Internet services to private citizens and enterprises, and demand is expected to continue to increase dramatically across the region. Those involved say the poor quality and quantity of phone lines make it difficult to keep ahead of the tidal wave of demand.

At the technical high school in Cluj, bad lines and high phone charges are discouraging expanded use of the school's e-mail resources. The Soros Foundation donated computers, software, and modems, and also maintains a free-of-charge international gateway in Bucharest.

But dialing in to Bucharest each day to transfer data represents a burden for the school. Administrators at the high school have set limits on e-mail traffic for students after a student sent an enormous file that took over an hour to transmit. ''It turned out to be a photograph of himself,'' says Ms. Balan, the computer science teacher. ''I never found out if he was sending it to a girl or not.''

* The Internet address for Tiberiu Popoviciu Technical High School is POSTMASTER@LICJ.SFOS.RO.