Saturday, October 06, 2007

Dragging Armenia into the 21-st century.

In my opinion, Armenia has two major priorities - education and military - at this point in history. I will address the military needs in a future post. This post is about education.

There was a post on the Blogrel blog some time ago where there was a proposal to provide free wi-fi service in Armenia. I was against it. After all, there is no free lunch in this world. I was an outcast in the comments area and Rick at TourArmenia portrayed me as a heartless capitalist. I still think that there is no free lunch. Just one look at what is happening with the free wi-fi in the US - most of the initiatives have fizzled as the municipalities fail to come up with a way to generate revenues in order to pay for it.

How can Armenia do something about the mediocre internet access in the country, especially the regions beyond Yerevan? My idea is two pronged - help build the internet infrastructure and give the population the tools to use it.

The wi-fi does not need to be free. Free products make people feel entitled and make them lazy (it's a general view held by the conservatives and I agree with it). A small chunk of the Armenian vochinch mentality comes from the feeling of entitlement during the Soviet times and the period following the Earthquake when the humanitarian aid arrived. In order to appreciate the product/service, people need to pay for it.

That said, the internet prices are outrageously high in Armenia due to the stupidity of the Armenian government in giving Armentel a telecommunications monopoly in the late 90-s. Because of that, people cannot afford to have proper service. Go outside Yerevan and it gets worse. The rural areas don't have any service at all. Some people have not touched a computer in their lives! In a typical free market fashion the government has let the telco do whatever it wants. So far it has not worked well and something needs to be done.

Why not the Armenian government become an ISP itself? One of the ministries, let's say education ministry, purchases internet service from Armentel. The deal would be that there would be wi-fi networks in the rural areas and small towns in the regions. Then the ministry would sell this service to the population at discounted prices. In order to be able to use it, someone signs up for the service (say 5000 drams a month) and specifies a MAC address. That way, the ministry would have control on who can use the service, collect usage patterns, etc. The backbone could be the same as the cellular network since land lines are not very well developed in the country.

The other portion of this would be to give people the tools to use the wi-fi service. With the availability of the XO computers, there is a cheap and durable alternative to your typical desktop or laptop computer. These could be purchased by the ministry, or charitable organizations, and sold to people with favorable financing options like low or no interest payment plans. This would provide two benefits: 1. gives the people the tools to be a part of the modern age, and 2. teaches them credit management.

I do not have any hopes that the current administration will do anything about this. If Serzh Sargsyan comes to power next year, nothing will happen again. I hope that if a new force wins next year's elections and manages to enforce the results of the vote, the new administration will concern itself with this issue. Instead of wasting so much money on low value added road construction projects in Yerevan, some of the money can be allocated to making sure that Armenia has an educated population in a couple of decades instead of turning into an underdeveloped third world country.


Onnik Krikorian said...

I can't even remember making such a post. Can you post a link?

Anyway, the internet is lousy here, I also don't believe in free services as there is no incentive to maintain let alone improve them.

As for DSL, it's still expensive here by regional standards even with the recent price cuts. Anyway.

nazarian said...

Onnik, apparently it was on Blogrel not Oneworld in 2005. Some of my words in the comments are harsh but generally true if you sugarcoat them a little.

I have fixed the post and placed a link to the original discussion on Blogrel as well.