Estonia last week marked the 10th anniversary of its first permanent Internet connections by announcing an Internet schooling project for 100,000 "e-illiterate" adults.
According to a recent survey by the polling firm Emor, 39 percent of all Estonians aged 15-74 had accessed the Internet during a polling period last winter.
Compared with the previous survey period, some 80.000 users have been added, securing Estonia's position in the Internet avant-garde of the former Eastern bloc.
Although Estonia's gross domestic product is several times lower than that of the EU, the Internet usage figures have reached the EU average of about 40 percent.
Now Estonia wants to catch up with world leaders Sweden and Finland, where Internet usage hovers at about 70 percent. The government and a handful of telecom and IT companies have launched an ambitious plan to provide free basic Internet education to 100,000 adults, most of whom live in rural areas.
The action plan was presented April 24 by the Look@World Foundation, which is financed by leading telecom companies, the country's largest banks as well as the local subsidiary of IBM, among others. The goal is to soon surpass Finland in Internet usage terms, says Alar Ehandi, manager of the foundation.
The basic eight-hour course will be taught in some 200 local Internet points, which have been another priority since the foundation's establishment last March.
The first permanent Internet connections in Estonia were established in late April 1992, when scientists in Tartu and Tallinn linked up via a Swedish satellite. The initiative came from genetics and molecular biologists who needed to access large databases and calculating centers located in foreign research institutions.
Since then growth has been massive. In 1996, only 2 percent of Estonians were regular users. By 1998 it was 10 percent and by 2000 the number had climbed to 26 percent. The online boom of 1999-2000 was largely due to the introduction of free dial-up services.
"What's even better is that the intensity of use has grown even faster than the number of users," said Ehandi. "By 2004, the number of Internet users should reach at least 60 percent, hopefully even 70 percent of the population."
Now the state and others, he added, should strive to provide better services and more information via the Web.
With the IT race led by government institutions and large companies, computer sales have almost doubled each year and about a third of all Estonians now have computers at home.
Home Internet usage has also been boosted by introduction of fast, cheap cable connections.
Fresh schooling projects are aimed mostly at rural populations who have so far trailed far behind the IT-savvy Tallinners.
Last year the state sponsored a successful project to provide hundreds of farmers with discounted PCs, and banks are now offering computer loans, and off-price deals are available for teachers and students.
Estonia's Internet-related campaigns are already something of a tradition.
President Lennart Meri personally publicized the 1997-99 "Tiger's Leap" program aimed at supplying computers and Web connections to all public schools. Today President Arnold Ruutel is the patron of the Look@World educational program.
In 2000, the Estonian government began a drive toward e-bureaucracy, establishing an electronic Cabinet session system. Designed to rid government ministers of paperwork, the network has also proven an excellent public relations move – seldom have foreign visitors left without hailing the idea.
Banks have also helped lead the e-revolution.
Since Internet banking was launched in 1997, half of all transactions have moved into the virtual world.
The virtual Tax Department and other state institutions' online services have proven a huge success. The government is currently debating the idea of online voting, with a pilot project set for next year's parliamentary elections.