Bulgaria's Internet: Nonprofit Organizations are at the Forefront EconomicReformToday - 1998/11/2

Dinka Dinkova is Program Director of Applied Research and Communications Fund in Sofia, Bulgaria


After a slow start, the Internet is finally gaining popularity in Bulgaria. While the level of Internet access is far below that in Western Europe, it compares favorably to average figures for the region. A survey by Vitosha Research in May 1998 put the access rate at 1.1% in Bulgaria. According to a 1997 report published by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), 2% of the population in Hungary, 1.9% in the Czech Republic, and 1.8% in Poland now have access to the Internet. Estonia (12.3%) and Slovakia (5%) are enjoying much greater access.

Despite the current low penetration in Bulgaria, the number of Internet Service Providers (ISPs) has tripled since early 1997. With no special regulations and license procedures, many companies are entering this highly competitive market. More than 100 ISPs are operating at the moment, and the largest has less than 10% market share. Current projections indicate that the size of the Web population in Bulgaria will double each year until 2001.

Grass-roots organizations and nonprofit organizations are providing most of the impetus for current and future growth. The current low Internet access rate can be attributed to regional political instabilities and Bulgaria's underdeveloped telecommunications infrastructure.

Underdeveloped telecom infrastructure

The war in former Yugoslavia and the international embargo on the warring countries has practically paralyzed all infrastructure projects in the region. In addition, Bulgaria's relatively small market and the delayed liberalization of the telecom industry has reduced its attractiveness for large international providers. Furthermore, Bulgaria has suffered from a volatile domestic situation. For instance, in 1996 when the growth of Internet access was at its peak worldwide, Bulgaria was in the midst of the worst economic and political crisis since the onset of its transition.

As a result of its specialization under COMECON, Bulgaria now has the highest telephone density among Central and East European countries--32 telephone lines per 100 inhabitants (see chart). 1998 saw the completion of a Digital Overlay Network (DON) project which entailed the installation of 1,700 km of fiber optic cable, 900 km of digital microwave links based on SDH technology, 12 digital trunk exchanges, and digital subscriber capacities in the country's main administrative and business centers. Further upgrading and expansion of the network is expected with the forthcoming sale of the national telecom operator, Bulgarian Telecommunications Company, by early 1999.

Hardware and people

The Bulgarian computer market experienced a dramatic downfall of nearly 40% in 1996 but it is currently rapidly recovering. Indeed, the first quarter of 1998 may see a 75% growth. Bulgaria currently has 250,000-280,000 computers that are capable of supporting basic Internet functions. The more optimistic interpretations of these figures have suggested that Bulgaria ranks among the top countries in the world in terms of the number of computers as compared to GDP per capita.

Obstacles to widespread computer access are not of a technical nature alone. The lack of knowledge and experience in using technology is equally crucial. Relatively few secondary schools are connected at present and less than 17% of university students have Internet access. Signs that this gap will be overcome in the academic realm during the next three or four years are not encouraging.

Nonprofit organizations as catalysts

Given this situation, it important to understand how nonprofit organizations have furthered the development of Internet access in Bulgaria. In the early 1990s, connecting to the Internet was only possible by going through the national academic network, which owed much of its support to the Open Society Foundation (OSF). OSF operates a special program to develop Internet access for universities and secondary schools in the country. Its National Internet Initiative program connected more than 100 Bulgarian nonprofit organizations to the Internet in 1997 alone. Another program supports the access of Bulgarian primary and secondary schools to the International Communications Network of I EARN Schools. Donations are made in the form of computers, modems, other communications equipment, as well as grants covering installation and connectivity costs.

In general, "third sector" organizations have quickly recognized the inherent value of Internet technology and moved quickly to exploit its advantages. Email--by far the most popular Internet feature--has provided local nonprofit organizations with a relatively inexpensive way to communicate with colleagues and counterparts around the world. Some organizations have gone even further. With low production costs and practically no distribution costs, the Internet has become the preferred medium for organizations to disseminate information. Almost half of all current periodicals in Bulgaria are only available online.

Major policy research institutes like the Center for the Study of Democracy (CSD) in Sofia have revised their entire communications strategies based on Internet technology. Over the past two years, CSD has developed a comprehensive Web site that disseminates survey data and policy analysis on major aspects of Bulgaria's transition.

Another example is the Applied Research and Communications Fund (ARC Fund). ARC Fund is a specialized nonprofit organization established in late 1991 to deal with media and telecommunications projects. Since 1995, its activities have focused on disseminating information within the country. The first Internet project began in mid-1995 with financial assistance from the Center for International Private Enterprise (CIPE). The project was a pioneering effort to create an electronic catalogue of Web pages of major nonprofit organizations, economic policy institutes and business associations. The support provided by CIPE was used to build the technical and managerial groundwork of what is now a modern communications facility that provides Internet access and services to local users.

Since 1997 the project has evolved into a self-sustaining venture called Bulgaria Online. This public Internet service offers one of the richest collections of national content on the Web, including such features as a searchable digest of multilingual media sources about Bulgaria (Bulgarian Index), a Bulgarian Statistics database and a Who's Who in Bulgarian Politics. The site also hosts Web pages of the National Statistical Institute, the Bulgarian stock exchange, the Bulgarian privatization agency, and the Ministry of Industry, as well as online editions of several local newspapers and magazines.

To facilitate overseas access to these pages, the site is mirrored on CIPE's servers in Washington, DC (not actually on CIPE's Web site, but using CIPE's computer hardware in the United States). At the moment, Bulgaria Online registers over 700,000 hits per month from people and organizations around the world. Business Central Europe magazine recently gave special recognition for its content and "value for those who need to keep up on Bulgaria."

An interesting example of how the Internet promotes free speech is provided by a group of Bulgarian journalists and lawyers who have established a "virtual" society on the Web. This initiative, called Bulgarian Media Watch Society, has responded to a growing need among the two communities to find a new, more open and democratic channel of communication. When the project was conceived in 1995, there were serious concerns about maintaining the freedom and impartiality of Bulgaria's media, which was becoming increasingly dependent upon economic and political group interests.

The Internet thus expanded the space available to free speech in the country. It has become a medium for professional exchanges on issues relating to media legislation, rights and responsibilities of journalists, and relations between journalists and the judiciary. Every week designated moderators put forward topics for discussion which attract diverse and sometimes conflicting opinions. The issues debated have ranged from commentaries on the electronic media bill (recently passed by Parliament) to the prerogatives of the judiciary. Since the goal is to involve as wide an audience as possible, summaries of the most interesting discussions appear regularly in Kultura, the weekly newspaper.

The government plays catch up

The government, unlike universities and nonprofit organizations, has been slower in catching up to such developments. The Internet was initially considered an exotic invention for scientists. However, since 1997 many prominent young politicians have tried to emulate Western communication strategies, further enhancing the popularity of the Internet. The president, the parliament, ministries, many bureaucracies, and even small municipalities are now publishing information on the Web.

A number of projects have also appeared at local and central government levels that use the Internet to enhance the transparency of public administration. The city of Sofia started an initiative recently to establish a Municipal Government Management Information System, to help increase the efficiency and accountability of the local administration, improve the quality of public service, and encourage citizen participation in municipal policy development.

The importance of these developments might not be obvious to someone brought up under Western democratic traditions where citizens are entitled to fundamental rights as freedom of speech and information or a high quality of public service. However, in Bulgaria, which was dominated by the Soviet totalitarian model for nearly 50 years, the changes brought by the Internet have significant and far-reaching consequences.

The role of the Internet in Bulgarian society will increase with the expansion of its potential worldwide. In just a few years, knowledge of the Internet will be as essential as the ability to write and read, and if Bulgaria is to take full advantage of the new opportunities, its citizens should embrace the technology and learn to use it with confidence. The real challenge for the future is thus not so much developing the physical infrastructure because this will occur when conditions become favorable for private initiatives to secure the necessary investments and services. The more important task is to change the mentality of the people and to educate them to empower themselves by using the new technology. This is where Bulgarian nonprofit organizations will continue to play a major role as facilitators of the process of transition.

Author: Dinka Dinkova



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