Look closely at the few people using laptops and you'll see that they are accessing the Internet without a cord. The connection is just in the air, and for now, it's free.
Referred to as "hotspots," these areas of online access are created by beaming a signal from a box connected to the Internet by a DSL or cable modem. The first one in Estonia popped up in May in the Town Hall Square. Now there are more than 40 in the country.
"I can't say it's widely used here," said Kersti Vaina, director of sales at the Radisson SAS Hotel, which has offered the wireless service in both its lobbies since the end of May. "But we have it because many hotels do, and we just wanted to be prepared."
Most businesses rent the connections for 1,200 kroons (80 euros) a month, said Hardi Kinnas, marketing director for Uninet, which runs 10 of Tallinn's 26 hotspots. All hotspots in Estonia are free for users. They just bring their laptops, sit down and browse the Web.
Kinnas said they would probably remain free of charge for the next year to let them gain popularity. But eventually, venues will start charging people to sit in hotspots, he said.
"If we look to the United States or other places in Europe," Kinnas said, "there are very few hotspots for free."
Vaina said the Radisson would probably start charging a fee next year for the service.
A special card must be inserted into a laptop's modem port to allow the computer to get online in a hotspot. These cards, manufactured by companies including Intel and Nokia, cost about 2,000 kroons ( 133 euros). A few months ago the cards sold for 2,500 kroons ( 167 euros), but the price has come down as they have grown in popularity, Kinnas said.
Cards are available at most computer stores and hotel representatives said they would begin selling these cards soon.
Users said they liked the hotspots because they were cheaper than accessing the Internet with a mobile phone or paying for each minute of use at an Internet café. "And it's blindingly fast," said Graham Kelly, an Australian who runs an online bank, when he was using the wireless Internet in the lobby of the Reval Hotel Olumpia in Tallinn. "It's a surprise to me how prevalent it is here in Estonia. A big difference from Latvia and a very big difference from the United States."
Most of the hotspots in the United States are within office complexes rather than in open areas like hotel lobbies and cafés, said Brian Grimm, a spokesman for the Wireless Ethernet Compatibility Alliance, composed of a group of companies around the world dedicated to providing wireless Internet access. But projections show that by 2005, 49 percent of hotpsots in the world will be in cafes and 45 percent will be in hotels. The remainder will be at airports, offices and other places, according to the Wireless Ethernet Compatibility Alliance.
That group also predicts that by 2005 there will be 2,800 hotspots in Europe, 3,330 in the United States and 5,000 in Asia. Currently there are about 700 hotspots in Europe, 700 in Asia and 1,500 in America. The number of hotspots has doubled since last year, Grimm said.
"I think, in fact, that it will be embedded into most DSL and cable modems at some point," he said.