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E-society266

Internet Access in the Lithuanian Countryside

Laura Grineviciute, expert on establishment and administration of rural Internet access points, Lithuania

Technological progress has made it easier to develop information technologies in rural Lithuania, but it is still true that people in the countryside are less advantaged then their fellow citizens in urban areas when it comes to accessing IT. Lithuania has invested quite a bit of effort in projects which seek to support and strengthen IT in rural areas. One such project involves the creation of rural Internet access points (RIAPs), and this is now an important programme which is supported by the Lithuanian government.


LITHUANIA AND ITS RIAPS

First seedlings of RIAP movement appeared in the mid of 1990s and has been expanding considerably since the 2002d. By the end of 2008, the number of operational rural Internet access points will be more than 800.

The first public Internet access points in Lithuania were created in 1993 with the help of the Open Society Fund of Lithuania (OSFL).  It was just launching a programme of support for libraries.  The OSFL funded the first Internet reading room at the Lithuanian National Library.  In 1999 and 2001, the OSFL programme worked together with the Open Society Institute in Hungary to establish another 30 reading rooms in public libraries, 10 of them in rural areas.  In 2001, the Lithuanian Ministry of Culture launched a public information provision programme in support of Information Society development in Lithuania.  Aimed at creating 330 computerised workplaces, the project will seek to close the infrastructure gap between villages and cities.
A significant development in the creation of RIAPs occurred in May 2002, when several leading Lithuanian businesses, including the mobile telecoms company Omnitel, the fixed telecoms company TEO LT, the Hansabankas and SEB Bankas banks, and the major IT companies Alna and Sonex Group established the Window to the Future alliance, which had as its main goal an increase in the number of Internet users in Lithuania.  The creation of public Internet access points (PIAPs) was a key part of the process.  PIAPs were installed in libraries, post offices, local government offices and other places.  At the end of 2003, the Interior Ministry joined the alliance by singing a co-operation agreement and establishing a unified public Internet access point strategy for Lithuania.  This led to the fact that nearly one-half of the 175 PIAPs were located in small villages and peripheral areas.
Also in 2003, the government launched its rural Internet access points project.  Funding of EUR 3.15 million over a three year period came from the EUs PHARE Programme.  300 new RIAPs were established in rural areas where the communications infrastructure was poor.  The centres were installed at local points such as schools, libraries, community centres, cultural buildings, etc.  Each RIAP has as many as five computers with Internet access.  The facilities are open 40 hours a week and offer free access to the Internet.

THE RURAL INTERNET ACCESS POINTS NETWORK

400 new RIAPs will come on line in 2008, and 83 existing ones will be updated.  The project is being financed by the Lithuanian government and the EUs Structural Funds.  A new grant of about EUR 3 million is being administered by the Interior Ministry in co-operation with several partners.  These include a consulting firm called S4ID, the Window to the Future alliance, and the Kaunas University of Technology, which is providing public outreach and technical administration services.
An important aspect of this project is that it focuses on social groups which have little opportunity to access information technologies in rural areas.  By the time the project is completed, there will be 875 active RIAPs in Lithuania.  Each new one is installed in places where public Internet access has been unavailable before.  RIAP operators receive hardware and software, furnishings and Internet connections all at no cost to themselves.  There is also work to integrate all existing RIAPs into a common administration system.  This should lead to the more extensive and active use of RIAP infrastructure to develop electronic services for local residents and businesses.
RIAPs are installed in renovated and modernised premises with security systems in place to protect the equipment.  Local municipalities must take an active part in preparing the premises something which is incorporated in planning and budgeting processes.  Our library will have 15 new RIAPs in different villages in 2008, says Ruta Bagdoniene, director of the Panevys Library.  One of the project requirements is that facilities must be refurbished and with a security system something which village libraries have not had before, of course.  The municipality of Panevys has been very helpful in dealing with the issue.  Ten of the 15 library branches where RIAPs will be installed have already been improved to a dramatic degree.  I am very pleased that our local government understands the importance of the Information Society.

INTERNATIONAL CONFERENCE

A high-level international conference on the subject of public Internet access points as a means for the development of the Information Society was organised in Vilnius on January 18, 2008.  Participants in the Lithuanian project met with foreign representatives of similar initiatives.  Some 400 people attended in all.  They included members of the project from rural areas, local government officers, representatives of government ministries which are involved in Information Society development, private companies which participate as social partners, and foreign guests representing similar initiatives in Hungary, Bulgaria and Spain.  The conference was financed by the EUs Structural Funds, the Interior Ministry and Microsoft.
The endeavour at the conference was to share information about project implementation, to discuss E-inclusion opportunities for the local civil society, and to disseminate information about organisations which are prepared to work on such tasks.  The network of RIAPs and each facility in that network has opportunities and proper conditions to access information and useful content, said Interior Minister Regimantas Ciupaila in his welcoming address to conference participants.  Our main task is to help people who dont have access to modern technologies to get that access, and we also need to help them to satisfy the standards of E-citizens.
Delegates also talked about how to enhance connections among the relevant European organisations so as to seek out new opportunities for co-operation.  Foreign speakers emphasised the importance of RIAPs and talked about their own experience and best practice.  It is true in many European countries that rural areas are often far behind urban areas in the process of economic and social transition.  Delegates agreed that RIAPs are important in the development of the Information Society and as a symbol of a social initiative.  These centres are not only about computers, said the director of a non-profit Hungarian company called Telecottage Public Services, Peter Palovlgyj.  The point is that computers are tools for rural communities to function well.


The RIAP project manager, Gediminas Navickas, had this to say:  Once the infrastructure of the RIAPs is fully in place, the only places in Lithuania where you wont find Internet access will be in swamps and forests.
The project will be completed in the second half of 2008, and it is certain to achieve its primary goals to reduce the digital divide and to create better conditions for active E-citizenship.

 


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eBaltics
17.12.2018


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