IT'S not exactly ``Dial-a-Soviet,'' but at least it's one step closer to direct communication between American citizens and their Soviet counterparts. For the first time, computer users in the United States can now communicate directly with computer users in the Soviet Union. Thanks to a new agreement between a San Francisco telecommunications firm and a Soviet research institute, electronic messages - also known as E-mail - will no longer have to be sent via a circuitous and expensive route through Europe.
The hope is that this cheaper form of ``electronic glasnost'' will spark an explosion in communication between US and Soviet business people, scientists, students, and journalists, says Joel Schatz, president of San Francisco/Moscow Teleport, Inc. (SFMT).
This agreement, which establishes the first permanent satellite link between the two superpowers, is part of a much larger US-Soviet communications revolution - including teleconferencing and cultural exchanges - that has burst into life since the advent of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's glasnost.
While SFMT has been sending E-mail to the Soviet Union for almost four years, until now it has had to route messages through Vienna. Americans have been willing to pay tariffs for this access, but the Soviets have been concerned about shelling out their much-coveted hard currency to get access to the US.
``It was obvious there was tremendous opportunity for a high volume of communication, but only if it could be made affordable for the Soviets,'' Mr. Schatz says. Under the agreement between SFMT and the Soviet Institute for Automated Systems, the Soviets can pay in rubles rather than hard currency - with the going rate about the equivalent of 42 cents per minute of connect time, plus 72 cents for every 1,000 characters of text.
Among the 180 clients is the Armenian Relief Society, which hopes to use the service to help earthquake-stricken cities in Soviet Armenia to rebuild, as well as McGraw-Hill Inc., and an ice creamery, Ben & Jerry's Homemade Inc. Direct computer connections also exist between the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center and the Soviet Institute for Nuclear Physics; the Planetary Society in Pasadena, Calif., and the Space Research Institute in Moscow; and schoolchildren in Oakland, Calif., and schoolchildren in Troitsk, Soviet Union.
SFMT had to win not only Soviet approval of the project, but it also had to convince the US Commerce Department the venture did not violate US export laws regarding technology transfers. After leaping technical hurdles to establish the permanent link, SFMT now hopes Soviet plans to boost the number of its computers will improve communication even more.
``We don't say that anybody can dial a Russian,'' Schatz says. ``The Soviet Union doesn't have enough computer receivers for that.'' The Soviets, he says, expect the communications to bring ``some tangible results,'' such as acid rain studies or student exchanges.