Paula UIMONEN <email@example.com>
The development of the Internet in Laos exemplifies many of the issues faced by relatively isolated countries in establishing access to the transnational worlds of cyberspace. Classified as one of the world's poorest countries, Laos has very limited financial, technical, and human resources. The country's recent history and political structure further compound problems of poverty and underdevelopment. Like many other communist bloc countries, Laos has long been isolated from the international arena, with limited ties to the rest of the world. This is gradually changing as the country is undertaking economic reforms and slowly opening its doors to the outside world.
Attempts to connect Laos have been going on for the past few years, involving a broad range of individuals and organizations. The process has been cumbersome, wrought with numerous difficulties and complications. Nonetheless, since the autumn of 1998, Laos has been connected to the Internet. This paper will assess some of the activities leading up to the establishment of full Internet connectivity in Laos, with a particular emphasis on the obstacles encountered. The paper is based on ethnographic research carried out in Laos in November 1998, forming part of the author's doctoral research on the expansion of the Internet in developing countries. The fieldwork was sponsored by the Department of Social Anthropology, Stockholm University.
Laos has been one of the last countries in the Asian region to establish full Internet connectivity. While Internet usage in the region has mushroomed over the past few years, Laos has largely remained disconnected from the transnational world of cyberspace. In Laos, the lack of connectivity has, however, become an obstacle to the country's development, and over the years measures have been taken toward establishing full Internet connectivity among selected users. A variety of internal and external players have been involved in this process.
The initial steps taken to establish Internet connectivity in Laos involved Lao expatriates and their non-Lao collaborators. This involvement commenced in early 1994 when a group of users of the electronic bulletin board Soc.Culture.Laos, an electronic forum in which various Lao affairs were discussed, started discussing the potential benefits of the Internet for Laos. It was held that "politically, economically and socially Laos and Lao people will benefit from the Internet cost-effective intercommunication for the masses" (Thongvilu 1996: 9) . It was felt that by drawing together Lao people from inside Laos with expatriate communities and foreigners, the Internet could not only promote, preserve and share Lao culture but also provide an invaluable resource for the development of Laos and its people (Ibid.). Acknowledging the lack of Internet connectivity in Laos, Soc.Culture.Laos users formed a group called LaoNet to pursue a "Lao Internet node" project with the objective of connecting Laos to the global Internet (see http://www.global.lao.net). The group consisted of Lao expatriates from different parts of the world using e-mail as the main means of communication.
The first e-mail service in Laos was set up at the Lao National Polytechnic Institute (NPI) in December 1994. This service was initiated by a visiting member of the LaoNet group, who was working as an Internet consultant in Bangkok (Ibid.). He set up an e-mail service based on Fidonet technology that dialed into a Permanet.org host in the United States. Some 5 to 6 users sharing one account, all of whom were working at the Institute, initially used this experimental service, which allowed them to get hands-on experience with networking technology. Services were also sold to some users from international nongovernmental organizations. Nonetheless, financial problems and lack of support from higher authorities remained an obstacle and the service was eventually discontinued. Although this initial e-mail service was limited in scope it did allow NPI staff to retrieve information about the Internet and partake in the transnational networks of Internet developers. For instance, having access to e-mail enabled some of the users to learn about the activities of the Internet Society and participate in their developing-country workshops.
Subsequent to the experimental service at NPI, a more concerted effort to bring the Internet to Laos was pursued by LaoNet in collaboration with the Lao government agency Science Technology and Environment Organization (STENO) and the Pan Asia Networking program (PAN) of the Canadian International Development Research Centre (IDRC). In joint collaboration, the project PAN-Laos was conceived, the aim of which was to bring Internet access to Laos, one of the few remaining unconnected countries in Asia (see http://www.panasia.org.sg). The PAN-Laos project planned to use a two-pronged approach in establishing Internet access in Laos. The first step was to provide e-mail access to individuals and groups within the country. Once a critical mass of users had been reached the project was to move into phase two; the establishment of full Internet access. In the end, only the first phase was pursued.
In 1996, an e-mail service was set up in the STENO offices, with the sponsorship of IDRC and the collaboration of LaoNet. A grant from IDRC/PAN allowed STENO to purchase the required equipment, including a UNIX server and modems. It was decided that STENO was to connect to the IDRC/PAN server at PAN's regional office in Singapore, dialing in twice daily using a UNIX-to-UNIX copy (UUCP)-based store-and-forward e-mail relay service. At the outset 35 to 50 users subscribed to STENO's services, but the number quickly grew to 200, which overloaded the server. This was soon remedied, but technical shortcomings continued to hamper the service. During fieldwork in November 1998, a STENO representative reported having 386 users at the time. Clients included representatives from the government and international organizations, diplomats, businesses, hotels, airlines, and private users. Users were, however, complaining about the slowness of the service. Sometimes it took several days before e-mails went through, and messages were at times even lost.
In addition to the services offered by STENO, many individuals and organizations also used the services of other less formal service providers that offered full Internet services. The most popular alternative to the e-mail services offered by STENO was a Thai service provider, Loxinfo. Although the services of Loxinfo were more costly and users had to dial-up a server in Bangkok at regional telephone rates, the full Internet services offered by Loxinfo and its generally faster services made it a worthwhile alternative to many users. Most Internet users outside Vientiane, often representatives of different international organizations working on projects in the field, relied on the services of Thai service providers as well. In addition, some organizations used the services of SITA, the international airline telecommunications and information services provider.
It was only in August 1998 that a local Internet service provider (ISP) was established in Vientiane, offering full Internet services, including access to the World Wide Web. This commercial ISP is an undertaking by Globenet, a local company run by an American expatriate, in collaboration with KPL, the government news agency that falls under the Ministry of Information and Culture. Globenet's offices are strategically situated in the recently constructed exclusive Lao Plaza Hotel, located on one of the main commercial streets in central Vientiane (see http://www.laonet.net). Globenet uses high-speed satellite links to Subic Bay in the Philippines, and from Subic Bay to San Francisco. The operation uses both UNIX and NT servers with 32 online modems.
From the outset, the services of Globenet became very popular among users in Vientiane. Within a couple of months in operation, Globenet had 438 users, with 116 more on a waiting list, pending the installation of additional modems to keep up with the high demand. The quality of the services, their reliability, and the affordable rates at which they were offered made Globenet's services an attractive alternative to many users. In addition, the fact that Globenet offered full Internet access at local phone costs made it more appealing than either STENO or Loxinfo.
In conjunction with the establishment of the local ISP, cybercafés also started to emerge in Vientiane. In November 1998 two Internet cafes existed within close proximity in central Vientiane. One of the cybercafés was run by Planet Computers, a local computer hardware and software retailer. Most customers at Planet Computers Internet cafe, numbering 20-30/day, were foreign backpackers who used the services to check their e-mail and look up information on the World Wide Web. Planet Computers operated by connecting through Globenet; the two companies had strong collaborative ties and offered their services at the same prices. The other cybercafé was located in Globenet's offices at Lao Plaza Hotel, catering mainly to guests at the hotel.
In an underdeveloped country such as Laos, with so many pressing basic development needs, it is not surprising that attempts at establishing Internet connectivity have been hampered by a general lack of skills and resources. Low levels of PC penetration, combined with a poor telecommunications network, indicate that the establishment of Internet connectivity in Laos is a slow process. The process is further impeded by a general lack of awareness among users, developers, and decision-makers.
Among the technical factors impeding Internet access in Laos is the relatively underdeveloped telephone infrastructure. In March 1998 the national telephone network covered 39 towns, with 23,000 subscribers (Bangkok Post, 2 March 1998). While this network of telephone lines covers most larger towns, much of the traffic outside urban areas is relayed over radio waves at 34 Mbit/s. Although major towns are connected, placing a call between towns is often difficult. Moreover, existing telephone lines tend to be overextended, resulting in slow connections for Internet usage. Resources permitting, plans are in place to extend services to 58 towns by 2001 through the installation of 50,000 additional lines, at a total cost of 60 million (U.S. dollars). Private users are mainly businessmen and rich families, the only ones who can afford telephones. Nonetheless, public access, including international direct dialing (IDD), is provided in urban areas through about 150 public telephone booths. The telecommunications network in Laos is managed by Lao Telecommunications Co. Ltd., a Thai/Lao joint venture established a few years ago.
Although the number of computers has mushroomed in Laos over the past few years, total numbers still remain low. In 1996 the LaoNet group estimated the number of PCs in the country to be around 1,000, most of which were found in government departments and educational institutes in Vientiane (Thongvilu 1996: 17). This number has grown drastically over the past few years. A computer retailer I spoke with in Vientiane in November 1998 estimated the number to be around 10,000 machines, possibly as high as 15,000, as compared with the 8,000 to 10,000 computers estimated a year earlier. Numerous computer retailers and wholesalers in Vientiane offer state-of-the-art equipment. Nonetheless, the prices, which by international standards are quite reasonable, are beyond the reach of most Lao. Training material, manuals, and specialized journals are, like most written materials, sparse. Although much of this material is available in neighboring Thailand, it is only within reach for those who have the means and reason to travel.
While the number of PCs has grown remarkably over the past few years, there is still a considerable lack of computer skills in Laos. The fact that computers are a relatively new phenomenon in Laos is one of the main reasons for the low level of computer proficiency, further compounded by the fact that little emphasis has been placed on training. The National University has no computer division, although some computer programming is taught through the Mathematics Department. Instead, most local computer professionals have received their training overseas, especially at the Asian Institute of Technology in Bangkok. Over the years 70 Lao students have participated in their programs. Although Lao students have thus been able to receive training in the latest in technological development, these skills have often been underutilized upon their return to Laos. In some cases computer skills acquired abroad have even been completely discarded upon return, as the students choose a profession in a different field altogether. Those who choose to apply their skills professionally risk falling behind in a field of rapid technological development.
A further obstacle to computer usage in general, and Internet usage in particular, is the lack of English skills. Most interfaces are in English, although Thai versions exist. There is, however, no software developed with a Lao interface. This presents a substantial problem to Lao users, who have to acquire their technical skills through the mediation of a foreign, and not very well known, language. These problems are further compounded when it comes to Internet usage. Most online material, approximately 80 percent, is in English. Lacking the required language skills, Lao users cannot fully comprehend much of the information available. Moreover, the advantages of publishing and disseminating information about Laos over the Internet are impeded by the lack of English skills which makes the production of relevant material a tedious process.
The lack of Internet connectivity within Laos is in turn hampering the development of local technical expertise. Not having access to online resources presents a considerable problem to Lao computer wizards, especially in light of the lack of local resources. Lack of connectivity is problematic in the field of networking technology in particular, exemplifying the paradox that everything you need to know about the Internet is on the Internet. Not having access to the Internet presents a considerable obstacle to the Lao computer professionals who have been trained in networking technology. While they could enhance their skills at a very low cost, they are unable to do so. This poses problems for networking activities within organizations as well as within the nation at large, thus impeding efforts to make optimal use of information technologies in different institutional contexts.
This paradox of the Internet is visible at the level of policy-making as well, where lack of connectivity has slowed the process of policy formulation. Many people pointed out to me that the general lack of awareness among government representatives was one of the main obstacles to the Internet's development in Laos. Given the lack of connectivity it was, however, difficult for government representatives to develop a better understanding of the Internet. Instead they had to rely on secondary sources about its nature and possible impact. Many of those who were involved in awareness-raising and lobbying activities were quite honest about the different characteristics of the Internet, some of which they knew would not necessarily sound good to the government. Nonetheless, since the government was set on formulating policies before allowing access it was unable to find out for itself what the Internet had to offer. The fear of the Internet's impact, which is detectable in the government's hesitancy, was undoubtedly enforced through this lack of exposure, turning the policy-making process into something of a catch-22.
Although the factors elaborated above have presented considerable obstacles to connectivity in Laos, they have been compounded by broader social issues. The slowness with which Internet connectivity has been established in Laos is, in many respects, a result of the hesitancy of the Lao government in allowing access to this new global medium. The government has remained very cautious in its approach to the Internet and slow in formulating the required policies. At the same time the government recognizes the benefits to be gained for the country's socioeconomic development, it is concerned with how to maintain control over the information flowing into the country and the risk of cultural pollution this entails. Over the years, the government's stance has loosened up somewhat, as reflected in the history of Internet development discussed above. Nonetheless, social and cultural concerns continue to influence access to the Internet.
It was clear from the very beginning that the main obstacles to establishing Internet connectivity in Laos were political and economic rather than technical. For instance, at the outset of its activities the LaoNet group emphasized that "It is acknowledged that Internet availability to the public and business is a political issue rather than a technical problem. Lack of finance to build the needed infrastructure complicates the matter. The need and the desire are real but are somewhat of a lower priority on the national agenda" (Thongvilu 1996:6, emphasis in original). These political concerns need to be appreciated within the broader context of the political culture of Laos, especially with regard to the government's stance on information flows in general.
While the resources available on the Internet provide tremendous advantages in a country lacking informational resources, they also pose enormous problems. Unlike the informational resources available within Laos, online material is uncontrolled. Not having gone through the careful screening that all written material produced in Laos is subjected to, the material available on the Internet raises critical issues. For instance, several people I interviewed recounted that when they showed Lao government representatives some of the material available on the Internet about Laos, the spontaneous reaction was "Who authorized this material?" It was inconceivable to the representatives that anyone could publish information about Laos without the consent of the authorities.
As in many other communist countries, the policies of the Lao government regarding media as well as information and communications technologies have in general been highly restrictive. In the early 1990s fax machines and satellites were not allowed and IDD was nonexistent. Over the years these restrictive policies have loosened up somewhat, especially with regard to access to information from the outside world. Faxes are now readily available, in both private and public sectors. IDD is widespread and is even available from public telephone booths throughout the country. And satellite dishes abound in the country. Foreign newspapers and journals are still illegal, although certain journals and newspapers such as Businessweek and Bangkok Post can be bought in select shops in Vientiane. Nonetheless, the local media continue to be tightly controlled.
In light of these restrictions on media in general, it is not surprising that the government has been hesitant about the Internet, the unrestricted nature of which goes against the government's regulatory approach toward media and communications. A worldwide medium, controlled by no one, with a vastness of information published by people from all walks of life is undoubtedly a discomforting concept, considering the tightly controlled information flows familiar to the Lao government. As a consequence the government has been extremely hesitant about allowing access to the Internet, allowing only experimental services on a trial basis, while paying close attention to the impact of the Internet.
The fear of uncontrolled information flows has been further hampered by a lack of understanding of what the Internet is all about. Few representatives in the Lao government have been able to try the Internet so as to gain a better understanding of its nature. And those who have been able to do so, have not been altogether convinced by its benefits. One government representative I interviewed was using the Internet while studying abroad. Although he found it useful for his research, he also became aware of the fact that much of the information available online was unsuited to Laos. In particular, he was perturbed by the wide availability of pornographic material. Thus having used the Internet himself, this government representative was aware not only of the benefits of the Internet but also its drawbacks in the Lao context. While recognizing the benefits of the Internet for the country's socioeconomic development, he emphasized the need to preserve Laos' cultural traditions and avoid the influx of destabilizing elements.
Attempts at connecting Laos to the Internet intensified considerably in conjunction with Laos' entry into the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), an event that came to represent a hallmark in the history of Internet development in Laos. From the outset, it became clear to the decision-makers in the ASEAN Department of the Lao government that Internet access was required for its communications with ASEAN and its member countries, following the Association's decision that member countries were to communicate over the Internet. After this decision, most communications within ASEAN were conducted electronically, including the distribution of documents related to the hundreds of meetings carried out each year. The ASEAN Department thus required access to the World Wide Web to allow staff members to retrieve information posted on the main ASEAN website hosted in Jakarta (http://www.asean.or.id/).
At a time when full Internet access was not yet available in Laos and when Internet policies still needed to be formulated, the ASEAN Department played an important role in promoting full Internet access in Laos. The ASEAN Department collaborated with various organizations to receive more information about the possibilities of getting full Internet access within Laos. While awaiting the establishment of a local ISP, the ASEAN Department tried alternative means of connecting to the Internet, alternatives that turned out to be less than adequate. In the spring of 1998 the Department received permission to set up Internet access in its offices. With the assistance of the regional United Nations Development Program (UNDP)/United Nations Office for Project Services (UNOPS) program Asia Pacific Development Information Programme (APDIP, http://www.apdip.net) and UNDP Vientiane, the ASEAN Department managed to get Internet access in August 1998. In the absence of a local ISP it was linked up through the Thai service provider Loxinfo. This arrangement turned out to be more costly than expected and made it clear that the nonexistence of a local service provider was a serious impediment to Internet access.
As time went by, the Lao government recognized that policies needed to be formulated to establish full Internet connectivity within the country. The pressing needs of the ASEAN Department were but an indicator of the need to use the new medium in communications with the outside world. The loss of control was weighed against the many benefits to be drawn from rapid and cost-efficient communications so widespread in most other countries. The government was also aware of the fact that many users were relying on outside services instead, such as those of Loxinfo, leaving the government with no control over the Internet. The fact that Vietnam allowed ISPs to operate provided an incentive for the government, while the use of proxy users by neighboring Singapore gave the government some ideas on how to control content.
In November 1997 the Lao government finally formulated policies on the provision of Internet services within Laos, policies that came to be known as the Internet Decree. The objectives of the Internet Decree, issued by the prime minister on 28 November 1997, were to set out rules regarding the control and organization of the Internet system in Laos; to provide for productive communication and exchange of information domestically and abroad; and to contribute to national socioeconomic development (Vientiane Times, 7-10 February 1998: 5). Defining the Internet as "the use of computers to swiftly connect to the most up-to-date information and data systems throughout the world without regard to territory or boundaries" (Ibid.), the decree reasserted that only the government of Lao People's Democratic Republic could approve the establishment of such a system.
An important and overriding aspect of the Internet Decree was the maintenance of government control over what it called the Internet system. In order to ensure control of the Internet system, that is, "to effectively control the use of the Internet, to ensure peace and safety and to protect Lao culture, society and economy from destructive elements" (Ibid.), the government decided to draw on the resources of four different ministries. The Ministry of Communication, Transportation, Posts and Construction was identified as the administrative center for the international Internet network and for domestic Internet services. The Ministry of Information and Culture was entrusted with approval of contents available to Internet subscribers, while the Science, Technology and Environment Organization (STENO) was charged with approving equipment and computer networks connected to the Internet system. Last, the Ministry of Interior was appointed to control content relating to national peace and public order, and the coordination thereof with relevant ministries and organizations.
The contradictory nature of the Internet Decree exemplifies the hesitancy on behalf of the government in allowing full Internet access within Laos. While the Decree represents a milestone in allowing full Internet access, it is riddled with restrictions aimed at curtailing the free flow of information available online. Involving four different ministries is a comprehensive attempt at controlling various aspects of the Internet. Moreover, the responsibilities placed on ISPs to control content forces ISPs to censor online content. In reality there is a limit to how much censorship can be exercised. Nonetheless, the first ISP, Globenet, cooperates with this requirement and filters out sites deemed undesirable by the government. The fact that users must register with the authorities further curtails widespread usage of the Internet, particularly for local users, many of whom are bound to hesitate about entering their names into records pertaining to such politically sensitive matters.
The caution of the Lao government has not subsided, and access to the Internet is still in an experimental stage. Just as STENO's e-mail services were allowed as an experiment to measure impact, so are Globenet's services. The government will be closely monitoring the impact of this operation to assess whether the advantages outweigh expected negative outcomes. Moreover, while the Internet Decree has allowed for the establishment of the country's first ISP, the steps taken so far have not been aimed at providing public access to the Internet. The cumbersome process that has taken place over the past few years has mainly focused on whether or not select individuals and organizations, not the general public, are to be allowed access to the Internet. The Internet is thus at a critical stage in Laos, as part of a precarious balancing act between government control and openness to the outside world, the outcome of which will largely depend on what the Internet is used for. The extent to which undesirable external elements seep into the country by way of the Internet will clearly influence the outcome of this experiment. Should such information start circulating in the country, channeled through the Internet, there is a great chance that the government will reconsider its position and return to its ban on Internet access. On the other hand, if such negative elements have minimal impact, the government will in all likelihood allow the Internet to grow in Laos.
The backdrop framing the hesitancy of the Lao government is one of a country in transition from a planned to a market economy, from relative isolation to active participation in a global capitalist economy, without reducing its tight political control. This transition is wrought with internal contradictions, the outcome of which remains to be seen. Nonetheless, few countries can afford not to connect to the outside world if they wish to become active participants of the global economy, a fact that the government of Laos has become painstakingly aware of. Such economic prerequisites are bound to force even the staunchest governments to reduce their level of political control by allowing a less restrictive flow of information over the networks of the Internet.
The author would like to acknowledge the kind assistance of the numerous individuals (the identities of whom will remain anonymous, for ethical reasons) who contributed to this study by sharing their experiences of connecting Laos. Their frank and generous replies to the many queries posed to them have helped clarify not only the process of Internet development in Laos, but also the particularities of contemporary Lao society. While the author drew from the experiences of various individuals, the responsibility for the accuracy of the data presented in this paper, not to mention the overall analysis, lies solely with the author.
 Thongvilu, Houmphanh, 1996. "Information Technology in Laos," workshop report prepared for the International Development Research Centre (mimeo).