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Friday, 2 November, 2001, 08:41 GMT
Networking Central Asia's Silk Road
Orphanage in northern Kazakhstan, BBC
An orphanage has appealed for help over the internet
Dr David Mikosz, regional director of a US Government internet project in Central Asia, talks about the problems of bringing the net to remote areas.

In the Fergana Valley of Uzbekistan, one landlord refused to allow an internet centre on her property because "it was the work of the devil".

In Kyrgyzstan, one ageing academic suggested that we download the internet on to a disk so that we could avoid monthly access charges.

Despite these misunderstandings, the internet is slowly reaching the former Soviet republics of Central Asia and is changing lives as it does so.

Websites are popular and have proved useful for people, often beyond their expectations.

Reaching out to the world

One group of orphanages in northern Kazakhstan has used the internet to find and receive assistance for their children. One individual from Hong Kong donated several hundred sports shoes.

Local handicraft show, BBC
Looking to sell handicrafts over the web
One online market in Kyrgyzstan has been able to sell its beautiful local crafts all over the world.

But probably the most important use of the internet is for e-mail. Post offices are slow and inefficient.

In Dushanbe in Tajikistan, Dr Kamoludin Abdullaev used the internet to publish a book on the post-civil war peace process in Tajikistan, the first such book by a local author.

"The internet allowed me to send and receive various drafts of entries and an entire book manuscript from my co-author and the editor," said Dr Abdullaev.

"Certainly this work could not be done if we use normal mail between Dushanbe-Melbourne-Paris and Washington DC," he said.

Dr Abdullaev is set to publish a second book on the history of Tajikistan, again using e-mail.

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An important contributor to the internet's growth in Central Asia has been the US State Department's Internet Access and Training Program (IATP).

The IATP operates 25 sites in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.

Each month more than 8,000 unique users get their first taste of the internet though IATP centres. Another 500 each month receive training on how to use the web and other technologies.

Challenges ahead

But the development of the internet in Central Asia is not without its physical and social challenges.

Uzbek family discovers the internet, BBC
People are increasingly welcoming the internet
The crumbling infrastructure means that "the last mile" (linking homes to national telephone networks) is a real concern.

In such a situation, dealing with the all powerful telephone technicians is a task requiring enormous patience and tact. In some places we have to use expensive wireless technology to connect our centres to the internet because of the lack of available telephone lines.

In remote areas, the installation of equipment has to be done before the treacherous mountains become impassable.

Then there are social obstacles to overcome. Since independence 10 years ago, all the governments have become increasingly authoritarian as they try to deal with the perceived threat of Islamic extremism in Afghanistan, or with vast amounts of money flowing in from national resource exploitation.

The economic situation is grim for many. The average monthly wages in most countries of the region do not get above $30.

Language barriers

An additional challenge has been the re-creation of national identities and languages after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Now, all of the region's presidents speak their native language fluently and expect others to do the same.

Sometimes this involved changing alphabets and, until recently, there was a lack of local language computer fonts. All this made developing local webpages a challenge.

Despite these obstacles the internet is growing in the region and is showing healthy growth.

In Kazakhstan, Tashkent, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan there are many popular internet cafes.

As IATP centres open in smaller cities, the wait for free access has almost always spurred the creation of internet cafes and led to a fall in the cost of getting online.

Soon, the Silk Road will not trade just goods but also ideas.


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