Croatia eases into e-world despite glitches
When Koraljka Brnic applied for broadband Internet in May, she soon found out that the ambitious national "e-Croatia" project had its fair share of teething problems.
Running a small language consultancy firm, Brnic regarded a flat-rate, high-speed ADSL connection as an essential business tool which should be "standard in the modern world".
But it wasn't that straightforward.
Clerks at national phone carrier T-HT said they had been swamped with requests -- possibly due to T-HT's aggressive campaign for 'cheaper than ever' ADSL Internet -- and that she first had to cancel her old agreement with the provider.
"They cancelled my old username and password and never installed the ADSL. Meanwhile, I cannot work. E-Croatia obviously has its glitches," said the 27-year-old businesswoman.
As it pushes for membership of the European Union, Croatia's government wants to widen high-speed Internet access as well as implement its own version of the EU's "e-government" project to improve information technology in public administration.
"The aim is to extend broadband to the whole country, with co-financing from the state, connect all state administration via broadband and make all services available online," said Miroslav Kovacic, who heads the government's Central Office for e-Croatia.
"We have had a late start but we are still better than most countries that joined the EU last year. I believe we can reach the EU's level by the time we become members," he said. Zagreb hopes to start entry talks this year and join in 2009 or 2010.
EVERYTHING ONLINE IN 2010?
The idea is that by around 2010 Croats will be able to log on, fill out official forms or questionnaires and send them to state institutions online, without ever leaving their homes. Now, they often queue for hours in state institutions.
Computer education will also be introduced into primary schools from first grade.
The first concrete "e-steps" were taken in May, when Prime Minister Ivo Sanader opened a digitalised land register database and a one-stop shop for local and foreign investors aimed at cutting red tape and reducing widespread corruption.
"We want to have all the services downloadable from the Web by the end of 2006, even if the whole system will not be fully interactive," Kovacic said.
But the government's ambitions may be running ahead of its current capabilities. The day the land database was put online, the justice ministry's server crashed under the pressure of a million attempted entries.
Industry officials doubt the government has the necessary expertise to see its plans through.
"It is good to see the government started to move in the right direction but there is a lot of nice talk and only a few projects have taken off. I don't expect quick changes," said Ante Mandic, head of IN2, the country's leading software firm.
He said the government's e-office lacked the experience to implement projects in the traditionally bloated and inert state administration.
"Money is not the main issue. The government has allocated more than 800 million kuna for the project this year but little has been spent so far," Mandic said, adding the main challenge was to change the people's attitudes.
"This whole thing is about changing the way the administration works. (New technology) brings transparency and removes this frustrating element of mystery citizens often feel when dealing with state bureaucracy."
Croatia, a country of some 4.4 million people, has around 1.3 million Internet users. Only 35,000 of those use broadband.
"To extend the use of broadband, we have asked T-HT to introduce flat rates and our aim is to have 100,000 broadband users by the end of this year. That is far from enough, but it's a decent start," Kovacic said.
But not everyone is happy with this plan. Damir Hajduk, general manager of Digital City Media, the leading cable TV provider, was concerned by the government's decision to focus on ADSL at the expense of other types of broadband.
He said as connections between cities were held by T-HT, other Internet providers would find it hard to compete with the phone company on ADSL.
"Experience from Europe shows that penetration is greater where the state does not rely on one single technology," Hajduk said.
IN2's Mandic said the former Yugoslav republic had enough resources and well-educated people to get things going but the government needed to come up with a more coherent plan if it is to realise its e-ambitions.
"When you look at countries where this really worked, like Ireland, Finland or Slovenia, you see that there had been an overriding political will and national consensus," he said. "In Croatia, we don't have that. Everything is still chaotic."
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