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Estonia sets shining Wi-Fi example

CNET's John Borland found wireless access across the tiny Baltic country that puts the U.S. to shame.

At an outdoor cafe across the cobblestoned street from a 13th century church in Estonia's capital of Tallinn, Veljo Haamer explains why his small country is so much ahead of so much of the world in wireless Internet access.

Haamer, one of Estonia's unofficial chief geeks, is largely responsible for a level of Wi-Fi connectivity-?even in remote areas-? that puts the biggest cities in America to shame. For the last three years, he and a handful of volunteer evangelists with the organization have successfully lobbied Estonian cafes, hotels, hospitals, city parks, local governments and even major gas stations to start offering Net access, helping to design and set up the networks.

The results have been nothing short of astounding. I recently spent nearly three weeks traveling around the small Baltic country, and found that in small-town cafes, city parks--even in a remote national park in a town without so much as a bar or restaurant-?I was able to turn on my laptop and go online at the touch of a button. But Haamer wants even more.

"It is time to say that electricity and the Internet are very similar in end users' eyes."
--Veljo Haamer, Estonian Wi-Fi advocate

"It is time to say that electricity and the Internet are very similar in end users' eyes," the sandy-haired Haamer said over a cup of smoky black tea. "This is serious work."

The Internet as a whole is an extraordinarily serious topic in Estonia. The country's policy-makers have dedicated substantial resources to modernizing Estonia's technological infrastructure over the last decade, and have been widely applauded by international economic groups for their efforts.

For a country that's far from wealthy by American standards-?according to the CIA's World Fact Book, it ranks just after Martinique, with a GDP per capita of just $14,300 a year-?the Baltic nation has come a long way since winning its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.

All but a tiny handful of schools are now connected to the Net. The government works heavily online, with cabinet meetings run using a paperless Web-based system, and draft bills posted online for comment by citizens. More than 70 percent of Estonians now conduct their banking online, with many of them using a mobile phone service instead of a PC connection, according to a recent survey.

For all this top-down attention, it may be grassroots efforts like Haamer's that show the most promise for the country's future. Indeed, localities around the United States-?even tech-friendly places like San Francisco, which may draw on Google's largesse to provide un-wired access to its citizens-?may want to pay attention.

A vibrant technology economy ultimately requires ideas and energy bubbling up from the private sector, not just a tech-enlightened government. And that's where Haamer and people like him come in, exhibiting the same passionate geekdom that has helped drive much of the technological revolution in Silicon Valley and elsewhere in the United States.

Haamer is the only person drawing a salary from his organization, which works with everyone from cafe owners to local governments to European Union officials to set up networks around Estonia. His strategy has been to find people like himself on the ground who are believers in the technology and are familiar with local geography and economic issues, to help create the networks.

That local involvement is critical, particularly in large-scale projects, he said. Outsiders coming in might not understand quirks that can affect wireless transmission, such as hills, medieval ruins or local politics. (Outside companies such as Google or EarthLink building municipal networks in the United States should take particular heed of this insight.)

Much of the wireless connectivity in Estonia, particularly in the capital of Tallinn, is maintained by private businesses like the cafe where we met. Cafe owners in particular have come to see Net access like "fresh papers," Haamer said. Customers now expect a newspaper and Net access, and will go elsewhere if a coffee house doesn't offer either one.

Haamer's group is now working to create municipal networks aimed at making Net access as ubiquitous as electricity, however. He's worked with the European Union to win funds to help one local government set up a broad local access network as an example project, hoping that others will follow that town's lead. Ultimately, he hopes to replace today's Wi-Fi services with the more powerful WiMax technology now nearing market.

In the meantime, he and others are using the connectivity to build businesses and help others create products. His group has already built a tool that lets people sign up for Wi-Fi service at some cafes by sending an SMS message on their cell phone, and getting the password and a bill through the phone service.

He's also planning to set up Skype pay phones in Wi-Fi cafes, which will let customers call other countries in Europe more cheaply using an Internet voice connection than they can by using their own mobile phones.

Technology history shows that passion can be more important than pure business sense. Many of the most influential technology companies in America-?think Steve Wozniak and Apple Computer-?were formed by people whose imaginations were fired more by the technology itself than by the money it might bring in.

Count Haamer in this camp for now. The techie lives in a small apartment and drives an old car, he said, even while fortunes are being made in the fast-growing country around him. Wi-Fi evangelism doesn't necessarily pay the bills in style. But it's a good sign for his country's future that he and others like him are at work.

"Right now, we have young people moving to the cities, because there it's possible to work with the Net," he said. "We want to show that it is possible to do this in every part of the country."