Private sector boosts "E-stonia" image

  • 2001-03-15
  • Aleksei Gunter
TALLINN - Seven major companies intend to invest 250 million kroons ($14.7 million) over the next three years in an effort to make Estonia the world's Internet leader and to outdo Finland in Internet penetration. New Internet cafes, the favorable leasing of PCs and discounts on hardware and software are all part of this unprecedented project.

The Look@world project, launched on March 7, unites Hansabank, Uhisbank, Estonian Mobile Telephone, Estonian Telephone, IBM, Oracle, Microlink and a number of minor sponsors.

The initiator, Hansabank, claims the project is unique. While similar projects have been carried out before in certain cities abroad, none can be compared to Look@World, which covers an entire country.

Peep Aaviksoo, CEO at the communications giant Estonian Mobile Telephone, admitted that Finland will not, of course, be slowing down its own high standards of IT development in the next three years. The amount of Internet users will probably reach 90 percent of the population in 2004.

"We will have to work hard to beat them," said Aaviksoo.

According to the latest figures, over a third of Estonian residents regularly use the Internet. In Finland, the statistics are even more impressive. There, 57 percent of the population regularly uses the Net.

However, beating Finland is not an end in itself. The main goal of the project is to make the Estonian economy more effective and to boost GDP by approximately 2 percent.

Alar Ehandi, Look@World's project manager, who is currently working in Hansabank, said that ongoing administrative reforms sometimes move people away from their local government.

"Our chance now is to bring the people and municipalities closer via the Internet," said Ehandi.

Planned administrative reforms will cut the number of local governments in Estonia, so some people will find themselves at a greater distance from their municipalities, where free Internet usage is often available. Raul Parusk, general director of Hansabank, put the 250 million-kroon project into context by making some comparisons to typical infrastructure projects.

"For example, extensive renovation of Tammsaare Road in a Tallinn suburb two years ago cost the same amount as this project," said Parusk. However, he admitted that subsequent investments are inevitable in Look@World.

According to Parusk, the idea of the project is simple: "In order to achieve a situation where as many Estonian residents as possible will want to and will be able to use the Internet, we will have to develop an information society - an "e-state" environment. The fastest and the most efficient method is cooperation between the public and private sectors."

Everything starts from simple ideas, according to Valdo Randpere, the president of IBM's Estonian division. At first a target group will be outlined taking into account geographical details such as the location of residential areas. Then a special institution, most probably a foundation, will be created to distribute the funds.

As the main backer of the project, with 100 million kroons set aside on its part, Hansabank will coordinate the project.

Uhisbank, Estonian Mobile Telephone, Estonian Telephone and IBM have put forward 30 million kroons each, and Oracle and Microlink are each giving 15 million kroons. The remaining four investors are contributing a total of 30 million kroons. The project is open for further sponsors to take part, and all companies are being welcomed to contribute to promoting the country's much-hyped "E-stonia" image.

Hansabank's initiative has received the critical acclaim of Prime Minister Mart Laar, who said he was glad that representatives from the private sector could think up such a project.

"However, the initiative can be successful only if it is developed with efficient cooperation between the state, the private sector and non-profit organizations," said Laar, "while focusing not so much on the technical side of the project but on the Estonian people with their dreams and expectations."