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Rimantas Pleikys is Minister for Communications and Informatics of Lithuania, a post that he has held since the end of last year. He is also a member of the Lithuanian Parliament or the Seimas, and serves as a member of its Committee for National Security. Minister Pleikys is best known to many as the founder of one of the first independent radio stations in eastern Europe, M1, which started on December 31, 1989. He later established in 1991 the radio station "Radiocentras." First Monday caught up with Minister Pleikys recently and had a chance to ask him a few questions:
FM: Economic historian Robert Heilbroner argues that technological advances "depend in part on the rewards, inducements, and incentives offered by society [ 1 ]." Policies in part are responsible for the use or misuse of technology. Do you agree?
Pleikys: I agree. The tendency has been that it is the state which has passed laws to support and financed the discovery of new technologies and by doing so has influenced technological development. What we today call the Internet is fine but it is only an information carrier. Nevertheless new technologies bring with it some concerns but the greatest concern has been with the content being carried over these networks. It will be most interesting to see the result when the Internet is freely able to carry mass media channels. The new successful companies in this field will be measured I think by the way their products support the presentation of a new non-traditional media genre featuring a new content.
FM: A fragmented telecommunications market in the Baltic makes modernisation difficult. Could the Baltic states cooperate in collectively organising and remodelling their telecommunications systems?
Pleikys: I don't know what you mean by "fragmented telecommunications market." We are well on the way toward moving from a communications monopoly situation toward full telecommunications liberalisation. This means competition on the part of service providers. We saw this here first in the mobile phone market. We currently have three providers and we have already seen the benefits of this program in quality services at lower prices to customers. A recent statistic indicates that Lithuania has the fastest growing market in the world (percentage wise) in mobile telephones. Baltic cooperation is as difficult issue. In principle cooperation seems always preferable to going it alone separately. Each country seems to be happy however, with following their own individual course.
FM: Is there an official Lithuanian policy towards the Internet?
Pleikys: Of course this Government supports its development here. Last year the Government of the Republic of Lithuania approved an updated version of the Lithuanian State Communications and Informatics Program. It contains many provisions about the Internet. But there is a concern over balancing complete freedom with control over content. Internet as a concept is the exact opposite of radio jamming yet nevertheless there is this concern over controlling unacceptable content like pornography.
FM: Do your experiences in radio, as a founder of the first independent station in Lithuania, translate well in working with diverse communications policies?
Pleikys: Sure it has helped. Especially with the communications side of my job. On the other hand I understand that I am working in a "high level bureaucracy." Bureaucrats are constantly concerned with showing how important they are. This is measured by the amount of paperwork one produces. This makes the paper manufacturers very happy but sometimes one wonders whether this paperwork is of any use to the society or just to those who create it. I think this is a universal problem.
FM: Universal access means that there are specific policies developed to provide telephone and Internet access to those who can least afford it. Is universal access a reality in the Baltic states?
Pleikys: First of all how much of a reality is universal access in the rest of the world? The growth in the Internet is astounding but I think there are very few countries in the world that can claim universal access. Universal access to telephone service is one thing but universal access to the Internet is quite another. The Internet requires a significant investment in some high tech equipment that albeit costs a lot less than it would have five years ago but is still quite expensive for most of our people.
I think that the spread of technology is largely in the interest of manufacturers and communications service providers. On the surface they operate for the benefit of users and society. Scientists and users don't seem to have a voice in the matter, rather it is the manufacturers and Internet service providers that are driving this process.
FM: How would you improve the presence of the Baltic states on the Internet?
Pleikys: One of our Web sites here claims to provide links to 597 Web sites and links to 138 personal Web pages. We are a part of the Internet phenomenon. Anyone who has a good PC and access to the Internet can have their own Web page. There is a lot of information available. To be a presence on the Internet means I think that you have to have some information that is important and present it in an attractive way.
FM: Thanks to the Scandinavian countries, the Baltic states enjoy a relatively good connection to the Internet. What can be done to improve Internet connections in the Baltic?
Pleikys: We are all doing a pretty good job of installing a good telecommunications backbone. Each Baltic State is installing fibre optic cable. There are land and sea fibre cables linking the Baltics to Scandinavia. In Lithuania all of our major cities will be linked soon to a fibre network ring. Each city dweller will then be able to connect locally to an Internet provider. There may be even too much capability. The Latvians currently have an undersea fibre cable to Sweden. We will have our own this fall. I doubt very much if those links are being fully used. The problem is in making the Internet more available to the general public at an affordable price to those who want it. For now and for the foreseeable future it will be very expensive for most of our people to purchase a PC and pay for Internet access. There may be some hope in the Network PC and Network User Interface. If the prices of these products will be as low as is claimed then perhaps this will be the way to go.
FM: Do you see wireless telecommunications on the horizon in Lithuania and elsewhere in the Baltic?
Pleikys: Why not? We are committed to seeing an end to the large waiting lists we currently have. We also want to make telephone services more available to the rural parts of the country. If it turns out that wireless technology can provide a more affordable and cost effective solution that takes less time to implement then this should be seriously considered. This is being experimented with in our second largest city, Kaunas, and we are watching this. This is also something that may be seriously considered by the new operator that emerges after the privatisation of Lietuvos Telekomas.
FM: There are some experiments in using satellites as a means to connect to the Internet. Do you see the Baltic states taking advantage of satellite technology in the near future to improve telecommunications links?
Pleikys: I think it helps to have a mix of technologies in place. This I think is wise from the point of redundancy and for reasons of national security. If all you use are satellites what do you do when for whatever reason a problem occurs with a satellite or with a local ground station? It is good to have a good backup that can be relied upon to always guarantee a high level of service. Since the re-establishment of Lithuanian independence we have made use of satellites. On the other hand we have invested in setting up good terrestrial communications links. By next year every major Lithuanian city will be connected by fibre. This coming fall we will have an undersea cable link to Gotland, Sweden. The authors of the "Oxygen" project ,whose aim is to lay a world-wide undersea fibre optic cable network, foresee Lithuania's participation in this network. This new network would be a strong competitor against existing satellite based systems.
FM: Radio stations are using the Internet as an extension of their broadcasting range. For example, in Austria, ORF can be found at http://www.orf.at/ Will we see this sort of development with radio stations in Lithuania and elsewhere in the Baltic?
Pleikys: Earlier this year two local Internet service providers (Taide and Omnitel) experimented with transmitting Lithuania's National Radio Program One on the Internet. We received some very positive responses from Lithuanians living in Brazil, Canada, and as far away as Australia. We encouraged the management of Lithuanian National Radio to make this a permanent service. This new service could do a lot to bring together Lithuanians living all over the world. It will also be one high tech way in which we can improve the image we present. Recently Lithuanian National Radio Program One was put out on the Internet on a regular basis. You can listen to it at http://www.lrtv.lt/lr1 .ram using Real Audio software.
Note1. Robert L. Heilbroner, 1967. "Do Machines Make History?" Technology and Culture, Volume 8, pp. 335-345, and reprinted in: Robert L. Heilbroner, 1994. "Do Machines Make History?" In: Merritt R. Smith and Leo Marx (editors). Does Technology Drive History? The Dilemma of Technological Determinism. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, pp. 53-65.
Copyright © 1997, First Monday
FM Interviews: Rimantas Pleikys.
First Monday, Volume 2, Number 9 - 1 September 1997