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Last Updated: Wednesday, 7 April, 2004, 00:17 GMT 01:17 UK
Tiny Estonia leads internet revolution

By Oana Lungescu
BBC, Estonia

Among the former communist countries set to join the European Union on 1 May, Estonia is the smallest, but the most technologically advanced.

Children use a computer to learn counting
Estonia's children become computer-literate very early
The former Soviet republic, where parliament has declared internet access a basic human right, is ahead of EU countries like France and Italy when it comes to the use of mobile phones and internet connections.

Thirteen years ago, when Estonia regained its independence from the Soviet Union, only half of the country's 1.4 million people even had a telephone line.

Rein Raamat, an academic in his 60s, comes every two months to have his blood pressure checked by his doctor at the university clinic in Tartu, Estonia's second biggest city.

But Mr Raamat also has a "doc@home."

Benefits for Europe

A hand-held electronic device that looks like a palmtop computer, it monitors his blood pressure, weight and stress level every day, sends the readings to a central data base and alerts both patient and doctor to any sudden changes.

His cardiologist, Margus Viigima, is confident that the device could take the strain off chronically underfunded healthcare systems all over Europe.

Academic Rein Raamat with his cardiologist, Margus Viigima
Traditional doctors are supplemented with high-tech devices
There is no other way, Mr Viigima says, because the need for doctors is increasing, and so is the number of patients.

Both the Estonian government and the EU have funded the development of "doc@home."

Estonia has to invest in innovative ideas such as this because it has very little else to sell but the brains of its people, says Ardu Reinsalu, the CEO of Docobo Ltd, the company that markets the device.

The fact that Estonia is such a small country means that it has to move fast, to be very active, adds Nicola Hijlkema, the British-born pro-rector of the Estonian Business School.

Soviet era

Indeed, Estonia is racing ahead to make up for the decades lost under Soviet domination.

There are wireless internet hotpoints everywhere - at petrol stations, libraries and cafes, like the Wilde Irish pub in Tartu, where I found law student Mart Urvas typing emails on his laptop before rushing to an exam.

Wireless internet point sign
Wireless internet points are everywhere
He travels all over Estonia for his construction business, and, although he has no proper office, he can work practically anywhere because wireless internet is so widespread.

We checked the map on his laptop and found around 300 hotpoints around Estonia, mostly for free.

Estonia's well-educated, wired workforce is a key asset for foreign investors, especially for its Nordic neighbours Sweden and Finland. Liberal economic policies, low taxes and low wages - only a fifth of those in Finland - are also ringing the changes.

Chances are that your mobile phone has been assembled at Elcoteq, a sprawling but unassuming plant on the outskirts of the Estonian capital Tallinn.

High-tech goods and services make up one quarter of Estonia's exports.

Entrepreneurs

Elcoteq, Estonia's biggest exporter, is in fact a leading Finnish electronics manufacturer.

Integration manager Ilmar Peterson, himself Estonian, told me Elcoteq is expanding here, a sign of confidence that new members like Estonia can bring a more entrepreneurial spirit to the rest of the European Union.

A lot depends, he says, on how much old members can learn from the new members so that together we can compete with Asia, Mexico and the Americas.

At the IT college in Tallinn, I met Linnar Viik, an intense man in his 30s who is one of the masterminds of Estonia's leap into the technological age.

Digital card which allows access to services
A simple digital ID card allows access to a huge range of services
A government adviser and professor of the theory of intellectual capital, Mr Viik proudly showed me how, by inserting his digital card into his laptop, he could gain access to a wide range of services.

He can use it to file his tax return, talk to his banker, vote online and even buy a cheaper bus ticket.

One in four Estonians already has a digital identity card.

As the old passports issued immediately after independence begin to expire, the government hopes all Estonians will eventually hold the small credit-card like ID.

But, after decades spent under the watchful eye of the Soviet secret police, aren't Estonians creating their own, internet Big Brother?

Linnar Viik admits there's a risk.

"We tried at least to make Big Brother very transparent and very vulnerable to people themselves," he says.

"If a civil servant makes an inquiry about you, you can find out their name online and then go and ask them why."

Danger lurking

But there's perhaps another danger lurking in the machine.

In the Siku Pilli kindergarten in Tallinn, five-year olds learn how to count in English by watching eight snakes or 10 octopuses on their computer screen.

As in all Estonian schools, there's a computer for every 20 children.

In a few years, there may be more computers than children.

Estonia is Europe's most rapidly ageing society and questions could soon be asked if people here shouldn't be spending less time in front of their screens and more with each other.




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