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COMPUTER AGE - PROVIDERS FORESEE INCREASE IN INTERNET USE, BUT NOT TO 90%

IT goal too ambitious for low-penetration Slovakia?

THE EUROPEAN Union wants at least 90 percent of its inhabitants to be connected to the Internet by 2010, and is aiming to increase Internet use particularly among the older population, the handicapped, and the unemployed.

THE EUROPEAN Union wants at least 90 percent of its inhabitants to be connected to the Internet by 2010, and is aiming to increase Internet use particularly among the older population, the handicapped, and the unemployed.

While Slovak Internet providers predict that Internet use in this country will continue to rise, they consider the EU's goal unrealistic given current penetration levels.

According to a survey by the Slovak Academy of Sciences, about one-fifth of Slovak households are connected to the Internet. At the same time, around half of Slovakia's inhabitants do not own a computer. Bratislava is the leader in Internet penetration with about 35 percent of its inhabitants having a home connection to the Internet.

"We consider the EU's goal to be very ambitious, especially when it comes to the new EU10 states," said Ján Kondáš, communications director for Slovak Telekom, for The Slovak Spectator.

"According to a TNS SK survey published in April 2006, the Internet is actively used by only around 40 percent of Slovaks above the age of 15. The rate of broadband Internet penetration is even lower than that, at 10 percent. Compared to the EU15, Slovakia has a much higher rate of users who connect to the Internet from work or on public computers."

Slovak Telekom expects a significant increase in broadband Internet penetration in households during the coming years, and predicts that by 2010 it will reach 30 percent.

However, the greatest barrier to greater Internet penetration remains the scarcity of home computers, due partly to low domestic purchasing power. Prejudices against new technology, expressed in opinions recorded in surveys such as "I don't need the Internet, I can't use the Internet, the Internet is too expensive" also prevent the technology from being used more widely.

"It's mainly up to the state to educate people and break down these barriers to allow the Internet to penetrate segments that have so far refused it for various reasons," Kondáš said.

Ivica Hricová, PR manager for the Slovanet provider, agrees that a many people remain sceptical of home computers and the Internet. "They don't consider it necessary, and they think they don't need it at all," she said, especially given their perception that the prices of home computers and the Internet are too high.

"This opinion will probably stay with us for several more years."

Slovanet estimates that the number of people in Slovakia who do not work with computers and the Internet will fall by about 50 percent by 2010. Similarly, the number of Slovak households not connected to the Internet could drop by about 50 percent during the next four years.

Internet providers say that every part of society has a role to play in increasing Internet penetration.

According to Hricová, the state should create healthy conditions on the Internet and telecoms market, which is still not fully liberalised. "The state should try to increase the use of computers and the Internet in state and public administration. It should also improve the quality of IT and Internet education in schools."

Slovak Telekom's Kondáš said the state's role was mainly to create conditions for the widespread introduction of the Internet in the state and public sectors through e-government. "The Internet is currently full of content, but the public is still unable to use the Internet for communication with state administrative bodies," he said.

Internet providers say that subsidising household Internet connections is one of the most effective measures to support Internet penetration that has been used in Slovakia so far. These subsidies were part of "Minerva", a state project to build a knowledge-based society. It enabled about 40,000 households to connect to the Internet that otherwise might not have been able to.

The private sector should provide a natural incentive for IT use and digital literacy, experts say. "If computers and the Internet are necessary to find a job, people will develop their IT skills," Hricová said.

Competition in the IT sector and among Internet providers also tends to increase the quality of services, reduce prices, and encourage special offers making the Internet accessible to more users.

Finally, say IT professionals, people themselves must realize that the Internet and computer literacy is a more efficient way of accessing information, communicating, and improving one's education, qualifications, and career.

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