Leapfrogging Transition

Technology and Development in Post-Communist Europe

By: Sam Vaknin, Ph.D.

Also published by United Press International (UPI)

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In many countries in transition cellular phones are more ubiquitous than the fixed-line kind. Teledensity is vanishingly low throughout swathes of Central and Eastern Europe (CEE). Broadband and e-commerce are distant rumors (ISDN is available in theory but not so in practice - DSL and ADSL are not available at all). Rare phone lines - especially in urban centers - are still being multiplexed and shared by 4-8 subscribers, greatly reducing both quality and usability. Terrestrial television competes ferociously with satellite TV, though cable penetration is low. Internet access is prohibitively expensive and intermittent. Many technologies rely on network effects (i.e., a critical mass of users). CEE is far from reaching this elusive point.

When communism imploded in 1989, pundits were quick to spot the silver lining. The countries in transition, they said, could now leapfrog whole stages of development by adopting novel technologies and through them the expensive Western research they embody. The East can learn from the West's mistakes and, by avoiding them, achieve a competitive edge.

In his seminal book, "Leapfrogging Development - The Political Economy of Telecommunications Restructuring", J.P. Singh, examined the acceleration of development through the adoption of ready-made, off the shelf, technologies. His melancholy conclusion was that development preferences are the outcomes of an intricate inter-play between sectoral pressure groups and coalitions of interest groups - and not the result of progress ex machina. He distinguished three types of states - catalytic, near-catalytic, and dysfunctional. Though he deals exclusively with Asia and Latin America, his typology is applicable to post-Communist Europe.

I. An Overview

The Central and East European market will double itself (to $17 billion) by 2003, says IDC. Pyramid Research predicts a $60 billion communications market by 2005. "Information Society", ICT (Information and Communication Technologies), "leapfrogging", and "better online than in line" are buzzwords and slogans oft-used throughout the region. A horde of NGO's - local and international - collaborate with domestic government and local authorities, with foreign governments, multinationals, and international organizations to make the dream of a digital Europe come true.

Russia pledged to attract $33 billion in investments in its telecommunications infrastructure and services by the year 2010 (the "Electronic Russia" initiative). The US Commercial Service, in the American Embassy in Moscow, predicts an annual growth rate of the Russian ICT sector of 15-20 percent through 2003. Conferences abound (an important one regarding municipal collaboration in constructing an information highway is to be held in the Czech Republic on March 26-27).

Even devastated Armenia succeeded to export $20 million worth of IT goods in 2001 (its IT sector has grown by 30% last year). It hosts branches of Silicon Valley household names such as Credence, HPL, and Virage Logic. More than 4000 professionals are employed in 200 companies. Of 60 software development outfits - 26 were founded with American capital. LEDA, a prominent local IT firm, finances IT programs at the Armenian State Engineering University.

All EU candidates strive to get incorporated in existing European networks (such as ELANET, Telecities, IDA, and ERISA) and new, candidate-only, initiatives (such as eEurope+). The EU has applied its "universal (i.e., also affordable) service" rule to Internet access. EU members adopted a variety of measures to increase Internet awareness and usage. Portugal, for instance, granted individuals with tax incentives coupled with free e-mail accounts and Web hosting services to encourage them to purchase PC's. The Dutch established public computer literacy centers for the disenfranchised (e.g., the unemployed) and provided them with discounted and subsidized hardware and connection time.

In one of its more grandiose moments, the heads of governments of the EU countries have decided in Lisbon (2000) that "each citizen should have access to the Internet and the whole European Union should become computer-literate", in the words of the Czech conference organizers.

This is an ambitious undertaking not only because Europe in general is behind the USA where Internet matters (with the exception of wireless Internet) are concerned - but because the countries which used to be behind the Iron Curtain, now lurch in the Digital Divide.

According to Vasile Baltac from the Information Technology and Communications Association of Romania ("The Balkan and Eastern Europe - Digital Divide or Digital Opportunity"), Romania has invested $25 per capita in ICT in 1999 (compared to Greece's $567 and the EU's average of $1215). There were only 2.5 Internet users per 1000 inhabitants in Romania and Bulgaria - compared to 56.4 in Westward-looking Slovenia.

New technologies are used mostly by the elites in CEE (as pointed out by Zassourski and Vartanova in "Transformation in the Context of Transition") - and perhaps advertently so. Still, Baltac fingers the managerial class as the main obstacle to leapfrogging (i.e., the rapid dissemination and assimilation of advanced technologies). They pay lip service to modernization but feel threatened and repelled by it. On the positive side, Baltac notes the annual yield of qualified professionals (who mostly find work in the West) and the emergence of telework and e-commerce. The technological vacuum makes the CEE countries receptive to state of the art technologies. GSM penetration in Romania surpassed the level of fixed line coverage in 1989. The number of cable TV subscribers in the region is projected to double (to 20 million) by 2005.

But the true picture is often obscured by anecdotal evidence, wishful thinking, phobias (e.g., the West European fear of mass migration from East Europe), lack of reliable statistics, and absence of qualified analysts and investment bankers. Factors like hostile terrain and climate, cross-subsidies, lack of real competition, corruption, red tape, moribund financial systems, archaic legal ones, dearth of credit card holders, urban-rural gaps, and English language illiteracy - rarely appear in neat, colorful, presentations.

Pyramid Research is bearish on broadband. "Internet access is and will remain for the foreseeable future a predominantly narrowband, dial-up affair, even in the most advanced countries (in Central Europe)". This despite plans by regional operators to offer DSL, FWA (Fixed Wireless Access), cable TV and leased-line broadband access (already offered in the Czech Republic by cable networks) and despite a regulatory welcome in all three CE candidates (Hungary, Poland, and the Czech Republic).

Luckily, mobile telephony - the other pillar of the leapfrogging theory - is getting increasingly concentrated in the hands of fewer operators (though at least 3 per every major market). Pyramid projects that by 2006, 94 percent of Russia's cellular phone market will be in the hands of the five leading providers (compared to 85 percent at the end of 2001). Mobile penetration will increase (to c. 10 percent) and prepaid customers will account for the vast majority of users.

Revenues from cellular networks exceed revenues from fixed line networks in certain markets. SMS is booming. Second and third mobile operator licenses are tendered by all cash strapped governments in the region (though a Polish attempt to sell an UMTS license ended in a fiasco). Poland introduced a wireless local loop service. Macedonia just handed a second mobile operator license to the Greek OTE.

"By the end of 2005, the total number of mobile subscribers in CEE will exceed 50 million (compared to 30 million by end-2001) and mobile Internet accounts will constitute approximately 21 percent of total mobile accounts", projects Pyramid. The Czech Republic will have 78 mobile users per 100 population - and Hungary 66. In a second tier of countries - the likes of Bulgaria, Romania, Ukraine, and Russia - a mobile phone will remain a luxury and a status symbol.

Hitherto domestic operators - from the Greek OTE to the Russian MTS - are becoming regional. Multinationals, such as the British Vodafone and the French Orange - have entered the regional fray. Some CEE markets are as saturated (and customers as savvy and demanding) as many advanced Western European ones.  A host of value added services (VAS) is thrust upon the - sometimes reluctant - users, leading naturally to WAP (recently introduced throughout much of CEE), 2.5G, and 3G (wi-fi or wireless Internet) services.

Moreover, Pyramid sees an intriguing opportunity in VoIP (Voice over IP) telephony. It says:

"As the incumbents in the CEE markets continue to dominate long-distance circuit-switched telephony, VoIP offers a unique opportunity for new operators to gain a foothold in this traditional monopolistic stronghold."

Internet Telephony Service Providers (ITSP's) have sprung up all over the region (an Israeli firm is now planning to offer VoIP services in Macedonia, Kosovo, and Albania). Even incumbents have been offering VoIP - as early as 1998 in the Czech Republic. In his keynote address to The Economist CEE Telecommunications Conference, in December 2001, Ofer Gneezy, President and CEO of iBasis (a global ITSP), cited industry analysts projecting VoIP average annual growth rates in CEE of 80 percent through 2006.

This, coupled with a growing number of Internet users and access providers (spurred on by telecoms liberalization and growing incomes), may revolutionize the landscape in the next 5-10 years. Pyramid expects annual Internet adoption growth rates of 40 percent through 2005 (that's 30,000 new users a day!). Internet related revenues will reach $10 billion by 2005 (five times today's $1.8 billion - but only one seventh the Internet market in Western Europe).

Internet penetration in Central Europe will reach 15 percent in 2005 (from 4 percent today and 3 percent in Russia) - and 40 percent in Western Europe (compared to 18 percent today). Mobile Internet accounts will constitute one third of the total in CEE - c. 20 million users. Harald Gruber of the European Investment Bank is even more optimistic, saying ("Competition and Innovation: The Diffusion of Telecommunications in CEE", March 2000): "About 20 percent of the population will adopt mobile telecommunications".

II. The Future

Leapfrogging is not a linear function of the ubiquity of hardware and software. Though not a homogeneous lot, some lessons common to all countries in transition are already evident.

Technology is a social phenomenon with social implications. It fosters entrepreneurship and social mobility. By allowing the countries in transition to skip massive investments in outdated technologies - the cellular phone, the Internet, cable TV, and the satellite came to be perceived as shortcuts to prosperity, the generators of the dual ethoses of "rags to riches", and "creative destruction" (dizzying, constant, and disruptive innovation). They are the future, a youthful promise, and a landscape of opportunities.

Software developers in CEE countries tried to establish local versions of "Silicon Valley", or the flourishing software industry in India. Russian entrepreneurs developed anti virus software, Yugoslavs offered web design services, electronic media flourished in the Czech Republic and so on. But, as hard reality set in, most of these talents left for Western Europe, the USA, Canada, and Australia - where technology firms snatched them eagerly. Central and Eastern Europe is a major net exporter of engineers, programmers, systems analysts, Web designers, and concepts analysts.

Internet penetration in these countries  - even in the most wired - is still very low by European standards, let alone American ones. The trauma of communism left them with decrepit and rarefied infrastructure, a prohibitive, extortionist, and skewed cost structure, computer illiteracy, inefficient competition, insufficient investment capital, and entrenched luddism (e.g., computer phobia). Foreign operators often exacerbate the situation. ArmenTel, the Greek owned monopoly in Armenia, keeps Internet access costs prohibitively high, ignoring court actions by the government and loud complaints by disgruntled customers.

The Center for Democracy and Technology (in its report "Bridging the Digital Divide: Internet Access in Central and Eastern Europe") says that, as contrasted with India (or Malaysia), the countries of the CEE did not invest in computerizing their schools, public libraries, and higher education institutions, or in subsidizing private computer-training colleges.

More crucially and less reversibly, decades of central (mis-)planning rendered the societies of Central and Eastern Europe inert and dependent, apart from their traditional conservatism. Many - especially older mid- and high-level managers and engineers - feel threatened by technology. Technology makes people redundant.

To a few open minded (i.e., foreign owned) firms, computer networking stands for decentralized channels of distribution and marketing as well as potential global penetration. But even there, only a minuscule number of businesses took advantage of e-commerce (though the countries of Central Europe and the Baltic may be the global pioneers of m-commerce due to their wireless networks).

E-commerce is leapfrogging's litmus test because it represents the culmination and confluence of hardware, software, and process engineering. To have e-commerce, a country needs rich computer infrastructure, a functioning telecommunications network, and cheap access to the Internet. Its citizens need to be reasonably computer literate, possess both a consumerist mentality (e.g., inability to postpone gratification), and a modicum of trust between the players in the economy - and hold credit cards.

Alas, the countries in transition lack all of the above to varying degrees. The Economist Intelligence Unit ranked Russia 42nd (out of 60 countries) in its year 2000 "e-readiness survey". Other CEE countries fared little better.

Penetration and coverage rates (the number of computers and phone lines per household), network reliability, and the absolute number of Internet users - are all dismally low. Access fees are prohibitively high. Budding Internet enterprises in the countries in transition are happy exceptions that prove the depressing rule. They usually respond to erratic local demand. Few have expanded internationally. Even fewer engage in research and development.

Technology was supposed to be the great equalizer (with the rich, developed countries). It did not deliver on this promise. Unable to catch up with Western affluence and prosperity, the denizens of CEE are frustrated. They feel inferior, neglected, looked down upon, dictated to, and, in general, put down. New, ever-cheaper, technologies, thought the locals, would surely restore the rightful balance between impoverished East and filthy rich West. But the Internet - and even technologies such as cellular telephony - belong to those who can effectively deploy them (i.e., consumers in developed, infrastructure-rich, countries).

The news get worse.

The Internet is gradually permeated by commercial interests and going wireless. This convergence of content and business interests - means less access to the underprivileged.  The digital divide is growing by the day.  New technologies have done little to bridge this gap - on the contrary: they enhanced the productivity and economic growth (this is known as "The New Economy") of rich countries (mainly the United States) and left the have-nots in the dust.

The countries in transition also lack the proper legislative and law enforcement infrastructure (backed by the right cultural background). Property rights, contracts, intellectual property - are all new, often indigestible, concepts, emblems of Western hegemony and monopolistic practices. Widespread copyright violation, software piracy, and hacking are both status symbols and political declarations of sorts. Admittedly, the dissemination of illicit intellectual products may have served to level the playing field. But now it is hindering entrepreneurship and holding back development.

After Asia, the countries in transition are the second largest centre of piracy. Software, films, even books - are copied and distributed quite freely and openly. There are street vendors who deal in the counterfeit products - but most of it is sold through stores and OEMs. This despite massive efforts (e.g., in Russia, Bulgaria, Ukraine, and, lately, in Macedonia) by software developers, licensed film libraries, and distributors - to fight these phenomena.

Intellectual property may go the way the pharmaceutical industry has. Content owners and distributors may team up with sponsors (multilateral institutions, private charities and donors). The latter will subsidize intellectual property and, thus, make it affordable to the denizens of poor countries. This is already happening in scholarly publishing.

This is very promising. But it far from leapfrogging development. In hindsight, leapfrogging may have been nothing but another of those intellectual fads whose time has gone before it ever came.

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