RIGA - What a difference a few years can make. Not too long ago, most people probably thought a laptop was a certain kind of dance, but now Riga is full of them 's the portable computer that is. If you go into any of the sleek downtown cafes you'll invariably see several people casually reading the news online or taking care of those overdue spread sheets while sipping a cappuccino.
Lattelekom, Latvia's dominating telecommunications company, is leading the charge to fit the country out with Wi-Fi access points. In a few years it might be as common a sight to see someone whisk out their laptop in public as it is now to see people reading their daily newspaper.
Tomass Tikmers, wireless Internet service manager for Lattelekom, says, "At the moment, Lattelekom is the only company developing what we call hotspots, which are public Internet access points. Right now we have 150 hotspots in Latvia, some 75 percent of which are in Riga."
Tikmers is enthusiastic about the vast potential for growth in this area. "We've installed hotspots in restaurants, hotels, cafes and exhibition halls. We've also launched a partnership with Statoil gas stations. By the end of 2005 every Statoil will have Wi-Fi coverage."
According to industry research, there are currently about 45,000 laptop owners in Latvia, with some 3,500 new laptops being sold on average each month. Tikmers says that local retailers anticipate a sharp rise in the sale of laptops, and Lattelekom plans to tap into this potentially lucrative new market.
"By the end of this year we plan to have opened 200 hotspots, while we plan to create 350 in 2006. We want to provide Wi-Fi, data and voice services for all those many new laptop owners," Tikmers says.
Lattelekom currently runs and manages 100 of the hotspots it has established, while another 50 are rented on a monthly basis to a range of retail and corporate clients.
The company has created a pre-paid Wi-Fi card to make wireless Internet access as simple as possible. People can either buy a 0.95 lat card for one hour's worth of access, or a 9.95-lat card for 24-hour access. There is also a much more economical option for regular Wi-Fi users. "Our clients can sign a monthly agreement which is a very good value. For just 2.95 lats per month, you pay 0.005 santims for the traffic you use, or the other option is you pay 10.95 lats per month for unlimited Internet access," Tikmers explains.
Most of the people who have signed up for this service are, as you'd expect, businessmen. But students are increasingly using Wi-Fi points, as are a wide range of other social groups. As laptops become ever more affordable, they are no longer the exclusive plaything of the business elite.
For now, Lattelekom is the only company with the technology and resources to work in this area, but there are some major changes lurking ahead. Bite Latvija, the country's third GSM mobile operator, is planning to install its own Wi-Fi hotspots in the near future.
And a new technology called Wi-Max, which is being developed by Intel, could drastically shake up the whole industry. Although it won't be ready until 2008, Wi-Max would be able to combine Wi-Fi, data and voice services. This, in turn, could greatly affect Lattelekom and mobile phone operators. But that is still some way off for now, and the task at hand is to concentrate on maximizing the existing technology.
"Our mission is to increase Internet access," Tikmers says. "The question is will it be through Wi-Fi technology or a whole new technology. But for now at least we can provide that access in all the most popular places."