• A local, slice-of-life story from a Monitor correspondent.
There’s something you can get in Estonia, the post-Soviet Baltic country and one of Europe’s poorest, that you can’t get anywhere on the continent: free wireless Web access (Wi-Fi) everywhere – even in the depth of the country’s forest.
This tiny northern outpost of 1.4 million people turned the tide of its 50-year Soviet occupation fast, thanks in part to its quick embrace of the Internet. Estonians file taxes and vote online, and their government officials meet online in videoconferences. And now, Europe’s most wired country also leads the way in offering free and public Wi-Fi access.
Orange and black “Area of Wireless Connection” signs have sprouted like mushrooms in recent years. There was only one in 2001, 280 three years later, and 1,600 today. They pop up in the most unexpected nooks – the depth of the forest, on the old market square, on restaurant windows, on bus schedules at the Tallinn Airport, and in police cars.
The network is mostly the result of the drive of a former computer science student. In the early 2000s, Veljo Hammer toured the country, going to restaurants, gas stations, and shops to persuade owners to install free Wi-Fi.
Being quick to embrace high technology is one positive result of having had to rebuild Estonia after communism collapsed.
“If you start a new country, you have the advantage of using the latest that’s out there,” says Jaan Tallinn, who was one of the software engineers behind Skype, the free phone Internet service that turned Estonia into a Silicon Valley of the Baltics.
He and other energetic young pioneers have nurtured Estonia’s high-tech revolution.