Estonia, where being wired is a human right

In a once-crumbling former Soviet republic, even the farmers have broadband Internet access.

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The journalists covering the shipboard meeting on the environmental problems of the Baltic Sea were desperate.

They had deadlines to meet, but the ship's Internet system was slow and, at more than $6 a minute, expensive. One correspondent was forced to kill a feature story after several fruitless hours trying to send his huge sound file back to London. Online story research was costing other reporters an arm and a leg.

So as the ship steamed from Poland to Estonia last month, reporters appealed for technological help to the media officers of the conference.

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That's when Uku Kuut spoke up. "When we get to Tallinn this afternoon, just give me an hour or two and we'll fix your problem," said Mr. Kuut, a mild-mannered Estonian who'd tagged along to help with local logistics. The founder of a Tallinn-based Internet firm, Kuut's card identified him simply as "Internet mogul."

For those on board who had lived in Eastern Europe during the Soviet and post-Communist eras, Kuut sounded as if he were promising the moon.

A little more than a decade ago, Estonia was a crumbling republic of the Soviet Union, where information was tightly controlled and telephones were rotary, rare, and unreliable. Just a few days before, in the Russian port of Kaliningrad, this reporter couldn't find a functioning pay phone to make a local call.

But shortly after docking in Tallinn, Kuut, tools in hand, had set up a wireless, two-megabyte-per-second Internet node in the ship's coffee lounge. "Not a problem," he said, checking messages on his cellphone. "Estonia is a very wired place."

Indeed, 12 years after achieving independence, this tiny republic of 1.4 million has embraced the Internet age with a vengeance.

When it gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, less than half of Estonia's people had a telephone line. Monday, 800,000 Estonians own cellphones - nearly 60 percent of the population - and Internet usage and broadband access are approaching West European levels.

In 2002, almost a third of the population used the Internet, according to the Central Intelligence Agency's World Factbook. That put it ahead of not only Russia (with 12.4 percent using the Internet), but also much of the rest of Europe - impressive for a country with an average per capita income of $7,000.

And that's not all. Estonians do 80 percent of their banking on the Internet, while businessmen habitually negotiate and close deals by firing text messages to each other's cellphones. Farmers are ordering broadband lines, and motorists on rural roads frequently pass blue information signs pointing them to the nearest place to access the Web.

Inside Tallinn's medieval parliament and prime minister's offices, cabinet ministers and legislators have gone completely virtual, conducting meetings, votes, and document reviews on their networked flat-screen computers.

"We're the first paperless government," says former Prime Minister Mart Laar, from the entrance to the courtyard of his old office. "Journalists have compared [the building] to the Starship Enterprise, and it's true," he adds, beaming with pride.

In 2000, the parliament, perhaps inspired by their new gizmos, passed a law declaring Internet access a fundamental human right of its citizenry. A massive program is under way to expand access to the countryside, where economic development is hampered by lack of decent roads and other transportation links. The Internet, the government argues, is essential for life in the 21st century.

"Some people still think of Internet access as a luxury," explains Kuut, whose company, Vemis, works extensively in rural areas. "But 10 years ago, most people in Estonia looked at hot, running water as a luxury, and nobody would think that today."

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