With a growing network of wireless Internet access points across a small country with 1.4 million inhabitants, Estonia could be the most "wirelessly wired" country in the world, according to Ivar Tallo, head of the Estonian e-Governance Academy. Tallo is one of the figures behind the country's rapid move to the forefront of Internet and e-government use in Europe and among the new European Union member states.
The former Estonian parliamentarian and academic is more often seen outside Estonia as an international spokesman arguing that countries don't have to be large, wealthy, or have a long history of freedom and stability to move to the higher ranks of Internet and IT usage. The IDG News Service recently met Tallo on the sidelines of a series of round-table discussions in Brussels to mark
the re-launch of the European Parliament's Web site.
IDGNS: Is e-government a technology issue or a social and political issue that involves convincing the public to use the available technology and services? What came first in Estonia, the technology or the awareness?
Tallo: The technology came first, people concentrated on technology. But the solutions are more in people's heads, to change the way we actually operate the government. A top-down approach may be necessary. You have to start from the Prime Minister's office and the Cabinet, which the government in Estonia did. We also had the information society aspect. Estonia started the Tiger Leap project in the mid-90s to connect all schools to the Internet and finished it by 2000. Big countries like the U.K. haven't started it yet from the government side.
IDGNS: Did the Cabinet being the first to use technology help market it to other government institutions and the public?
Tallo: It certainly made headlines around the world. In Estonia itself, there are other solutions that are more important. Nobody cares how the ministers meet, people care about filling in their income tax declaration in two or three minutes. Such positive examples popularize e-government. We have had these electronic ID cards and for a long time and people were just using them as identity cards. Then someone came along with the idea of using them as bus tickets. The bus companies offered a monthly ticket at a discounted price; so then all of the pensioners started using their cards as tickets and were proud of it.
IDGNS: A speaker from Britain said during the discussion in Brussels that you can make an e-government and then not enough people come to use it. What are things like in Estonia?
Tallo: It is also a problem in Estonia. For example, applying for parental leave benefit, which makes life comfortable if you do it on the Internet. But I just looked at the statistics, and out of 10,000 births registered in Estonia this year, only some 1,000 or maybe 1,300 parents were using it, 90 percent weren’t.
IDGNS: Why is that?
Tallo: It is because the Estonian government isn't doing now what it was doing back in the 1990s, which was to actively promote such a service. People just don't know. I think you should incorporate knowing about such services in school curricula. In order to prepare someone to function as a citizen, he or she should know how to use the services of the government.
IDGNS: How did you solve the problem of getting Internet access to households and ordinary citizens? In neighboring Latvia people often have Internet access at work, but few do at home.
Tallo: If you drive through Estonia, there are roadside signs with the @ sign, pointing to one of the more than 700 free public Internet access points we have around the country. The government had a program to give free Internet access to all public libraries, which in turn give it to the public for free. We now also have wireless Internet almost everywhere. Virtually all pubs, restaurants, hotels in Tallinn and elsewhere have wireless access. Many pubs provide this as a free service, or you have places where the mobile operators provide a wireless service, and a 24-hour-use ticket costs 10 Estonian kroons, or less than €1 ($1.22). Here in Brussels, you can pay €20, so the difference is staggering.
IDGNS: Do you consider yourselves the most wirelessly wired country in Europe?
In Europe? In the world! But to be honest, wireless data is not my strong side. There is a Fulbright scholar doing research on the "wireless miracle" in Estonia and there should be figures out soon, although, since we are a small country, the absolute number of sites isn't that large.
IDGNS: What about the discussion in the U.S. and some European countries about the role of municipalities in promoting wireless versus the private sector, which sees state-backed competition in these schemes?
We have municipalities that have decided to make hotspots in their territory for public use. We have municipal elections coming up and people are debating whether Tallinn should be getting wireless coverage. But we will probably wait for WiMax. But usually the idea is that free access is provided at a lower speed and the companies make their money on the high-speed wireless.