Established in the spring of 1993, the International Science Foundation (ISF) Telecommunications Program has as its goals the creation and preservation of an open society in the former Soviet Union. Full and free access to information, and to a network that will permit everyone connected to be both consumers and producers of information, will enhance democratic institutions and values and ensure their continuation in these countries. Initial funding of $10 million has been provided for the program's first phase. A Telecommunications Advisory Board reviews the program's work periodically and guides the allocation of its resources.
A fundamental goal of the program is to empower individuals in all sectors of society in these countries by providing rapid access to world-wide information, the ability to share information and ideas with colleagues on an international basis, and full participation in the global information infrastructure. These international ties will foster exchange of scientific and technical information, international understanding, and the formation and strengthening of participation by residents of the former Soviet Union in an international democratic environment. This goal has substantial long run implications for assisting political, social and economic stability in the former Soviet Union. The free flow of information contains major strategic and complementary benefits for both the West and the former Soviet Union.
Free and unimpeded flows of information are a major force in ensuring the growth and survival of democratic values. Whereas closed societies exist by suppressing flows of information, open societies prosper by encouraging the free flow of ideas. Electronic data networks strongly facilitate free and immediate interchange of information and ideas. The international Internet currently encompasses almost 100 countries, and allows information to travel between all of them without hindrance. Democratic values prosper in such a rich and unimpeded information environment, as do robust markets in information, goods, and services. Cultural changes in the direction of freedom induced by widespread network access and participation will become increasingly difficult to reverse, assisting the strengthening of the new democratic order.
The program will achieve its results by providing grants for pilot networking projects in countries in the former Soviet Union that will provide successful models for future development. These models can be adapted by other funding agencies as well as the countries themselves. In this manner, the ISF hopes to leverage substantially its own contribution to the development of a network culture within the former Soviet Union with the contributions of others.
The introduction of network technology in the target countries is a complex task, due both to the lack of adequate physical capital infrastructure and to the lack of familiarity of most residents with modern networking technology. Significant issues in any such investment project include identifying user communities, making investments in the physical infrastructure, providing wide area data connectivity to connect regions together and to the rest of the world, supporting local area network development, providing end user equipment and software, training local experts in modern network technology and management, introducing end user communities to networking and providing them with training, establishing help centers for end users, and working with specific end user communities to help them derive maximum benefit from their network connection. All of these issues are important, but each situation requires a different mix of investment to empower individuals in specific communities best.
The introduction of users to network services, and helping them to understand how the network can benefit them, is an especially important step. Use of the international Internet, with its access to world-wide electronic mail and millions of information sources, represents a cultural milieu very different from what has previously been the norm in the former Soviet Union. User communities in the former Soviet Union will benefit especially from attention to and an understanding of the cultural aspects of the international Internet and the freedom and power that it provides.
Four major pilot projects have been chosen and are now in various stages of implementation. Each of these projects focuses upon different important constituencies in the former Soviet Union. Networks have proven to be important in empowering these constituencies in other countries, and should have a similar effect here. These initial four projects each contain a balance between investment in infrastructure, expert training, and ongoing user support. Such a balance reflects the reality that balanced investment in many aspects of networking must be made in order to achieve the goal of a robust, self-sufficient, electronically networked community. As a group they typify a wide range of communities in the former Soviet Union:
The structure of each of the above projects contains a set of initial goals which should be met over the next several years. Depending upon the rate and degree of success, additional resources may be allocated to one or more of them to expand upon initial success. In addition, a few additional innovative pilot projects may be funded depending upon the ability to meet the criteria employed above as well as the availability of resources to bring them to a successful conclusion. Additional projects are likely to focus upon assisting producers of networked information, training and technical support, and the effective use of Cyrillic and mixed alphabets on the Internet.