Summary of Remarks at NATO Conference

Bill Fick
Program Officer
International Research and Exchanges Board (IREX) / Moscow
E-mail: fick@glas.apc.org, bill@irex.msk.su


The International Research & Exchanges Board (IREX) was created a quarter-century ago by the U.S. academic community to broaden professional access and scholarly exchange with the former Soviet region and Eastern and Central Europe. Today, through a variety of programs in the United States and abroad, such as international workshops and seminars, internship placements, and research visits, IREX develops cooperative projects to address the complex political, economic, and social issues of transition facing the states of these regions.

To establish and further strengthen long-term academic and professional ties, IREX provides consultation and assistance in the development of international networks of specialists via the Internet. In particular, IREX strives to train and support network users in the humanities and social sciences, in libraries and archives, and within related professional and non-governmental communities. IREX works by training network trainers within these fields, establishing public-access e-mail sites, and assisting individuals to use resources on the Internet and to establish contact with colleagues within the region and the West. Substantial "distance support" is provided by IREX US alumni as well as other cooperating organizations that offer specialized expertise via networks.

Thusfar, IREX's communications programs have focussed on the newly independent states of the former Soviet region, where IREX has developed a program of professional, on-site interships called "Fellowships in Communications Assistance," a kind of Internet Peace Corps. IREX has placed its first slate of volunteer American "E-mail Fellows" in Kazan', Novosibirsk, Vladivostok, and Kiev,to promote the use of networks among non- commercial civic groups and individual scholars.

As IREX's work is primarily directed toward end users--particularly those with limited computer literacy--this conference offers a unique opportunity to address instead the builders of the networks which serve these users, and raise a number of issues from the users' point of view.

My colleague, Olga Galkina, and I have traveled extensively and worked with a wide variety of networks and users in vastly different conditions from Tallinn, to Tashkent, to Vladivostok. We can say without hesitation that no network provider, commerical or academic, provides adequate user support. User support is seen as a "second order" priority and the usual comment is that "ruki do etogo ne dokhodiat" (our hands just don't get to it).

This is understandable; building an internetwork is a huge task. The insufficiency of human and financial resources addressed to user support is the reason why work exists for organizations such as IREX and Vega in the first place. It is, however, a short sighted policy; a network only has meaning--and can only attract funding--insofar as it has a large and growing base of users it can serve.

The recent appearance and development of Academic network structures with sponsored, high-bandwidth international channels offers hope that the single greatest obstacle to rapid network expansion--access cost--may become less daunting for the scholarly community.

Still, huge numbers of users today, in Moscow and other cities, continue to use Relcom and other fee-for-service structures that they can scarcely afford.

Why? There is natural inertia against change, many probably don't even know about the free international channels, but most importantly, the various sites which provide network services have very limited dial-in capability (insufficient phone lines) and thus refrain from actively advertising their availability for for fear of a flood.

Further local development is premised almost exclusively on leased lines. For organizations with LANs that can procure a line to one of the nodes, the immediate future looks bright.

However, there is a risk that small-scale users and those who lack the computer resources, funds, or technical skills to establish a leased-line IP connection will be left behind.

Thus our plea to the community of network builders and funding organizations which support this work is to include plans for large-scale dial-up capacity in your projects. Until the day when everybody enjoys live T-1 access from his or her desk, it will be a crucial bridge and link to the world for countless numbers of your colleagues.


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