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Last Updated: Wednesday, 5 May, 2004, 08:31 GMT 09:31 UK
Estonia embraces web without wires
By Clark Boyd
Technology correspondent in Estonia

There is a new revolution brewing along Tallinn's ancient stone streets and inside its charming Gothic buildings.

Wi-fi sign in Estonia
Wi-fi hotspots are clearly marked by orange and black signs
But it is not political, it is technological.

Wireless net access, or wi-fi, is quickly becoming the rule, not exception, in the Estonian capital.

That is due largely to the hard work of Veljo Haamer, editor of the wifi.ee website.

Mr Haamer, a former computer science student and tutor, got turned on to wireless internet access a few years ago, after reading about projects in America.

He visited friends in the United States, learned more about wi-fi, and then decided to start his own project in Estonia.

Working with local net providers, Mr Haamer started pushing wi-fi as a cheap, effective way for Estonians to get online.

Electronic evangelism

"Wi-fi is such a wonderful technology," says Mr Haamer, as he types away on his laptop in one of Tallinn's swanky new cafes. "My job is simply to explain to people how easy it is to use."

The first wi-fi hotspots launched in the spring of 2001. Today, there are more than 280 throughout the country.

You can find access points in many of Estonia's cafes and pubs and two-thirds of them are free to use. Those that charge usually offer slightly faster connection speeds.

Children in Estonia using the net
It's a social and political project. People need to see how comfortable it is to use the internet
Veljo Haamer
And more importantly, he says, the hotspots are clearly marked with orange and black signs and stickers.

Haamer says that in the US, many people did not know wireless access was available, because the hotspots were unmarked.

He was determined that would not happen in Estonia.

Even local petrol stations offer access, ensuring that Estonians car owners can check their e-mail on the road.

Mr Haamer convinced the major oil companies here, Neste and Statoil, to put in free hotspots. Wi-fi web access may add a bit to the price of the petrol being sold but the companies think of it as an add-on service.

The project has proven so successful, says Mr Haamer, that Statoil is thinking of expanding it to Latvia and Lithuania.

"I heard also that maybe Texaco will start this in Great Britain," he says with a bit of pride. "That means Estonia is like a starter for this idea."

Mr Haamer says he spends about half his time "wardriving", buzzing along Estonia's roads, trying to find out where wireless access is limited or non-existent.

He believes that about one-third of the country is still without wireless access and it is a problem that he wants to fix.

"We have so many people outside of towns who do not have internet connections," he says, "and wi-fi is a cheap possibility to give them the internet."

Rural retreat

The surge in wireless access hardly seems strange in a country that some have dubbed "E-stonia" for its hi-tech prowess.

After all, in Estonia the vast majority of the population does its banking online.

Drivers in Tallinn can pay for parking by simply sending a text message from their mobile phones.

Statoil petrol station in Estonia, AP
Fill up and surf the web on the forecourt
Even the Estonian government has gone hi-tech. Cabinet ministers meet weekly in a room fitted with more than a dozen high-end computers, complete with flat screen monitors and broadband connections.

Linnar Viik, an adviser to the Estonian government and a lecturer at Estonia's technology college, has pushed hard over the years for the adoption of such technologies.

"It's not the technology that's so important," says Mr Viik.

"More important than putting a new piece of technology on a shelf and hitting the button is how people start to use it, and whether they embrace the change which is causing new processes, or new services [to be] available to people."

Many Estonians, especially the younger ones, are embracing wireless internet access wholeheartedly. That is especially true now that the economy is starting to improve, and more can afford laptops.

Cafes that offer free internet access are filled with young professionals checking email, surfing the web, and designing PowerPoint presentations.

This, Mr Haamer points out, is exactly what wi-fi is all about.

"You don't need to invest in an office anymore," he says Haamer. "You have an idea, a computer with a wireless card, and a space to work. You can use your time more efficiently."

If Mr Haamer has his way, you will not be able to take a walk in the park here without finding a wireless access point as his next project is to get free wi-fi in some of Tallinn's green spaces.

"It's a social and political project," Mr Haamer says. "People need to see how comfortable it is to use the internet."

Clark Boyd is technology correspondent for The World, a BBC World Service and WGBH-Boston co-production

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