While many large U.S. cities stumble in creating free, city-wide Wi-Fi networks, the entire country of Estonia has managed virtually universal wireless Internet access through community participation.
Walk down the miles of cobblestone streets with medieval houses that look straight out of storybooks, and it is hard to believe that Tallinn, a city that has been sacked, pillaged and bombed so many times over the centuries, still retains much of its past. But while this capital city of Estonia -- a North-European country along the south-eastern coast of the Baltic Sea -- remains a living museum, it is also a hi-tech hotbed as well. For instance, the technologies for Skype and Baidu were developed in this country. And recently, with the latest group of Wi-Fi access points installed, this 45,000 square-kilometer former Soviet nation is now also completely covered with wireless Internet access, setting an example for many more-developed and richer states that have been trying to achieve this feat for years.
Often called E-stonia by geeks, every one of its 1.4 million residents, half of which live in the suburban and rural areas, are connected by wireless Internet. More than two-thirds of the population conduct their personal banking transactions and file their taxes online. And school children access the school's servers and connect to national libraries from home -- or anywhere for that matter. In Estonia it is even possible to travel between cities by trains and busses and maintain Wi-Fi Internet access.
Above all, much of this access comes virtually free. Users do not pay any access charges directly in most locations. And interestingly, this wireless deployment through the whole country has been achieved with almost no government support. Barring a few schools and libraries that have been set up by the Estonian government, the 1100-plus Wi-Fi hotspots that span the country, covering every nook and corner, have been set up by local small businesses, such as hotels, cafes, groceries and gas stations, along with the four national telecom companies. And the whole effort has been and still is driven largely by just one man: Veljo Haamer, a technology geek who conceived this dream of wiring - or rather unwiring -- his country about 6 years ago.
"I realized way back in 2002 that, for Estonia, the Internet could be just like electricity," says Haamer, who along with a group of volunteers, created a non-profit association WiFi.ee, in which he is an editor and incidentally the only one drawing a salary. "And just as it happened 100 years back when initially people did not care about electricity, Estonians too were not bothered about the Internet."
That is when, says Hammer, he started being a technology evangelist and started promoting free access to the Internet as a human right. "I took upon myself the task of convincing everyone I could that the benefits of Internet are enormous," he says. Through newspapers articles and visual signs, and the first step of setting up around 100-odd free Wi-Fi hotspots, Haamer with Wifi.ee demonstrated the power of Internet on life.
It took us a while to drive the concept home but having achieved that, the rest wasn't very difficult, says Hammer. "We were able to create a competitive environment between businesses, like competition between different cafes or hotels and soon the numbers (of Wi-Fi hotspots) started growing rapidly. That's how the concept caught on and eventually almost every school, household and businesses, big and small, joined the movement."
The most interesting aspect about the Estonia's public web access business model is that a user doesn't pay separately for the access and so it feels as if it comes free. "The price of the access is actually built into the cup of coffee you buy at the café, or in the bus and train fare, or the meal, or anything that you pay for," says Haamer. "Moreover, the price that one pays extra is miniscule so it doesn't pinch." That's one way of paying for the access. The other one
is even simpler; one pays with just eyeballs. For connecting to the Internet where there's no sales outlet, for instance in a park or a government building or a public library, one can gain access just by clicking on an advertisement.
There is of course paid-for access as well where a "ticket" could be bought simply through an SMS over a mobile phone.
Haamer says that his idea of wiring up his country wirelessly was actually borrowed from the Wi-Fi deployments in the US. "I was fascinated when I visited Bryant Park in New York [city] and saw people communicate with newyorkwireless.net. I decided that I must roll out a similar network in my country," he says. Decision made, it took Haamer several more trips to US to study the "problems of setting up city-nets" faced by cities like Seattle, Boston, and Portland before Haamer could zero-in on his business model for Estonia.
The result of that research is that there is not one technology that blankets Estonia. A mix of technologies -- like Wi-Fi, WiMax and CDMA 450v -- has been used. "Technology is not an issue with me. I favor anything that works," says Haamer. "What is important is a trouble-free Internet access."
"Initially, when I embarked on this mission (of wiring Estonia) many said that if citywide public access had not proved successful in rich countries, it can't work in Estonia either. But now, Estonia has set an example," said Haamer.
So what is next? "I believe that broadband is not just a technology-enabler but it should be considered as an essential service just like electricity or health services," says Hammer. This is why WiFi.ee is now actively working to involve the central as well as the local government to open limited speed broadband absolutely free to be supported by the government. Haamer and his small group of volunteers have already done that, he claims, on some small groups of society that involved both the local governments and local ISPs and soon that roll-out would achieve a much bigger scale.
"I am confident that by 2010, Estonia would again be another 'first' by achieving the feat of offering a nation-wide (limited-speed) broadband service that's free in the real sense," he said.
Meanwhile having established itself as one of the most wired countries in Europe, Estonia is emerging as an important destination for global e-commerce ventures as well, according to E-Commerce News. It reports that the surging growth of Internet has made Estonia one of the world's largest per-capita users of online banking, and impressively, it now ranks seventh in the 25-member European Union in terms of broadband Internet penetration.
Indrajit Basu is the international correspondent for Government Technology's Digital Communities.